Respecting the Balance

Brussels, 23 January 2018

Like most collectors flocking to BRAFA, Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke likes the month of January. President of the fair for the sixth consecutive year, he reveals to Artkhade with AMA the key points of the strategy for the Brussels-based fair. Verbatim.

With nearly 25,000 artifacts and works of art, presented by 135 exhibitors, BRAFA is an event not to be missed. Considered one of the top five global art fairs, it takes place in January and is also the fair which sets the pace for the art market. Following the Paris biennale in September, Frieze Masters in October in London and shortly before the Maastricht TEFAF in March, BRAFA is a key date in the diary for all lovers of fine art. A major European event held at the stylish brick and wrought iron Tour & Taxis site, BRAFA signals the return to trading for the year. It is important to keep in mind that on this international stage whilst 30% of traders are Belgian, the bulk of those in attendance come from the other 15 countries represented, from Canada to Japan. The key characteristic of BRAFA is its atmosphere; it has the ambiance of a general, rather classic fair, which has managed to combine a certain old-fashioned spirit with a moment of timely relaxation. With more than 60,000 visitors expected, the fair covers four millennia of art history, spanning 20 different segments, from pre-Hispanic art and design, Golden Age furniture and comic strips, not to mention a trendy tribal art segment, driven by serious experts in the field. Here is the best kind of eclecticism, combined with a median position and consolidated by the amplitude of the price range. The heavily carpeted aisles are lined with the (mainly European) collectors which constitute the fair’s regular clientele, all with smiles on their faces and high expectations for the fair. There are art lovers present from Belgium, Holland, Germany, not forgetting those visiting from Switzerland, France, England and even a few Americans. In short, as the 2018 edition of the fair kicks off, Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke has every reason to be confident.

-We know that you’re passionate about fly fishing… As with fly fishing, would you say that patience is the secret to the success of a fair?

H. de R.: You know, in fly fishing, it’s not so much about patience, but about endurance. You’re not just waiting for a fish – you’re constantly seeking one. It’s about the pursuit, the tenacity, in the same way that art dealers are constantly fishing for new pieces. You might have an idea of where you hope to find it – but you have to keep on throwing in the rod. That’s the idea. In the art market, we’re always casting around- that’s how it works. With galleries however, it’s all in the presentation- in the beauty of the space and the piece, and how is positioned. So yes, I would say that endurance is the key to the success of this fair. It took six years directing BRAFA, consisting of two three year terms, to reap the benefits of our strategy, which was centred on putting proper procedures in place in order to make the fair more professional and more international. The results speak for themselves; in six years BRAFA went from 42,000 to 62,000 visitors. The results are also reflected in our press coverage: in 2011, there were 242 articles published covering the fair – today we’re looking at close to 700.

-Give us three words to describe this 63rd edition of the fair…

H. de R.: The two words that I like are ‘quality’ and friendliness, which are one and the same in this case. This is not a fair that can be visited in the same way as a museum, walking in and saying “Oh, it’s inaccessible”. Take my own stand, for example; last May last I put on an exhibition of the work of one of the members of the historic CoBrA group at my gallery, the Jacques Calonne. It was lovely, in a somewhat abstract “musicaliste” fashion. I presented 48 pieces of work… and sold 48 pieces- at prices ranging from €800 to €1,500. So I would say my third word is ‘attractiveness ‘. All art lovers will enjoy BRAFA, even though some pieces are obviously more expensive than others. I like the idea that you can come here and feel good, at all levels – in terms of both budget and the work on display. I’d say it’s a generous fair – slightly offbeat in a very Belgian way – playing to our genetic advantage! You know how the Belgians are about Surrealism… we serve fries at the opening! You can be a great professional and still include these cheeky little details that make the public feel welcome here.

-In the current climate, how do you make a fair more commercially successful?

H. de R.: One of the more abstract mechanisms that we have implemented is an internal ambassador service, seeking to engage with art lovers wherever they are. Each day collectors, friends of museums or groups of professionals involved in the art world are invited on guided tours of the fair. Unlike other major European fairs, we don’t want to welcome the world in at any cost- on some days, we are almost at saturation point already. The enthusiasm created in Europe around BRAFA has in some ways forced us to redefine our target audience in order to attract true art lovers to the fair, who are above all attracted to the works of art. Traders here are sensitive; the number of stands at the fair only increases by 10% year after year, which translates to 15 new exhibitors at this year’s edition of the fair.

-What do you think is linked to the return of major international players- both dealers and collectors?

H. de R.: I was recently asked a question on the sale of a Leonardo da Vinci piece: ‘Is it really worth it?’ (Editor’s Note: last auctioned on 15 November at Christie’s New York for $450,3m). It is ultimately difficult to put a price on an object which is entirely unique piece- it’s like a five legged sheep. If it is the last Da Vinci in private hands, powerful people – and not necessarily collectors – who have the means and the necessary desire to invest in an iconic piece of art will want to have the opportunity to acquire the piece. The art market has become a world of communication; art is now considered to be a way of communicating by many. These days, a great lover of art is often also a great communicator, who values their business or their own image through this vector. For us, this genre of buyers is not a target in itself. This is a niche in the market where the sale of unique pieces remains closely linked to the effects of advertising. At BRAFA, we tend to work with more discrete art lovers.

-The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) has launched two New York sessions; is an international edition of BRAFA on the cards?

H. de R.: We have thought about it, of course. It’s actually something that we’ve debated a lot without ever arriving at a consensus. Personally, I’m not against the idea; though I would always opt to do one fair really well rather than two to a lesser standard. But it’s always a temptation- though there’s always an element of risk in trying to duplicate the event on an international level whilst maintaining quality. Consequently, when it comes to our strategy, a second BRAFA isn’t in the picture.

-The Paris Tableau fair, previously held France, has moved over to Brussels. Have you tried to integrate it with BRAFA, like the Biennale des Antiquaries?

H. de R.: This is also something that was discussed, albeit quite discreetly. I remain relatively open and favourable to this type of approach, provided that the exchange benefits everyone. In terms of trading, I remain confident that the only good deal is one where everybody is a winner. So actually it’s not out of the question – why not?

-BRAFA is known for having built up a solid stage for archaeology and primitive art. We have noticed significant growth in the contemporary art sector over the past few years, which is something new for the fair…

H. de R.: I wouldn’t say a rise necessarily. There has never really been a contemporary art sector within BRAFA. Actually, you would more typically find second market galleries there, specialising – like me – in 20th century paintings, but with the exception of Gallery Jablonka, the first market has generally been absent from the fair. In keeping with what defines BRAFA, which as we know, covers more than four millennia of history of art and archaeology until present day, we are open to engaging with the contemporary arts scene and currently have a dozen contemporary art galleries on board. This is not a fair for scouting talent. That is not our role. Art Brussels is a great fair for that- at BRAFA, on the other hand, we prefer to focus on what I would call established artists. This choice allows our regular clients, who tend to have more classic tastes, to see some more contemporary pieces without straying too far from their natural preferences.

-Is that the key to your strategy? The balance of specialties, but also this very median positioning as to rates, with museum works alongside more accessible pieces?

H. de R.: Managing a fair isn’t a case of indiscriminately welcoming everything that takes place. I believe it’s a question of respecting a balance, putting in place an objective filtering system so that the right clients end up at the fair. BRAFA covers 20 specialities, from pre-Columbian art and original comic book sketches to Golden Age sculpture and design, tribal art, ceramics and antique books. The vision for a fair is typically a vision that will look forward three, five or ten years. Creating a strategy therefore primarily consists of creating guidelines and establishing a logical approach, despite being subject to Darwinian laws: sometimes galleries do disappear because demand in certain segments has evolved and new trends replace that segment – such 20th century decorative arts.

-The word vetting has been thrown around a lot recently in relation to art fairs. How does BRAFA go about it?

H. de R.: It is a difficult exercise. As you know, I deal with 135 ‘divas’ at BRAFA – but they are all good sorts! I think that any large fair today must offer a high level of expertise and an impeccable selection. Our own offering improves year upon year thanks to collaboration with international experts who verify pieces and also as a result of the rigorous services of the science and radiography lab at the centre of fair. This is a compulsory procedure, which is also reassuring for traders. I would say 99% of the time the exercise is well controlled and objective. Vetting can also sometimes reveal some wonderful surprises. We’ve also seen some pieces upgraded’ as a result of the procedure. A panel of experts can say ‘it’s not what you think, it’s older and it’s probably by such and such artist’. With vetting, there’s not only a reliable confirmation of authenticity, there is also the possibility of requalification.

-The new quality standards established by the Paris Biennale don’t yet entirely correspond to yours…

H. de R.: They are right in principle; transparency and independence are ideally desirable but in practice, rather illusory because dealers themselves often have the highest level of expert knowledge on the issue. Of course, if we had no recourse to any exhibitor or trader, that would be ideal. I love the people from the museum world, but they are often specialists with a very academic knowledge of the work. The advantage of a trader is that they work physically with the piece and really get a feeling for it, so the appreciation comes from a different place. Regardless of its nature, BRAFA always makes decisions with the support of one of our fifteen committees.

-What’s your favourite piece at the moment?

H. de R.: I’ve just acquired a very nice Sam Francis, who is an artist that I like a lot. So much in fact, that it’s a piece that I would hesitate to sell, although it does feature in the fair’s catalogue. There is a subject – a flicker of colours! Dated 1975, it’s not a particularly old piece; formally, it’s very close to the Tokyo period, and so stylistically, even though it was painted in the mid-1970s, it has a very “50”s’ style. It’s really dazzling and at 60 x 80, it’s a size that everybody can hang. It is presented below €100,000. I tend to go for paintings that we would have at home. Otherwise, as a collector, I am completely eclectic. I go for a mix that spans Chinese contemporary art to archaeology, with the only common thread being that there is not one. My collection is a series of pieces that I have fallen in love with, from African, Turkish, Iranian artists, all from the 20th century, sculptures -some archaeological objects. Obviously, I like Sam Francis, I have three, and also Vasarely, Dubuffet and of course some work by Belgian artists. I have a little sketch by Magritte and a self-portrait on an engraved plate by James Ensor – the last in private hands! I also have his painting palette. It’s not of great value, but it is a unique object!

Verbatim “To be honest, the Christo project was a crazy dream. It was the culmination of a long-standing piece of work. We knew that the preparation for a major retrospective in Brussels was underway [Editor’s note: “Urban Projects”, at the ING, until 25 February]. We used all our resources and imagination to get a meeting with the artist in order to convince him. Christo was seduced by our proposal and a interview was arranged for his next trip to Brussels. Everything fell into place very quickly! Christo had a very specific idea of ​​which of his work he wanted us to present, he was very enthusiastic and lovely to work with – a real gentleman of the art world! A funny little anecdote; we met at a well-known restaurant in Sablon, and it was actually on the back of a placemat that he explained to his project to us by drawing it. I took a photo of it to capture the moment forever. Having demonstrated his plans, he finished the drawing by signing it and giving it to us – and it’s been on display in BRAFA offices ever since! It’s a wonderful memory and a wonderful gift. Rather than ‘filling the fair to the brim’, the event will be ‘well-attended’ but it’s more about inviting us into his universe and his way of thinking. His previous work is also particularly interesting, with pieces from his youth dating from 1965-66. During the period in which Christo was focusing on work including Show Cases, Show Windows and Store Fronts, his art was often created from elements recovered from demolished buildings. One piece that we will be exhibiting was made for a museum and has not been exhibited since 2001. There is generally fairly little known about Christo’s work packaging monuments such as the Pont Neuf (Paris), the Reichstag (Berlin) or his gigantic landscape integration pieces such as The Gates at Central Park (New York) or Floating Piers on Italy’s Lake Iseo last year.”

Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, President of BRAFA