The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), the highly selective–and lucrative–organization that holds a 10-day marketing fest annually in Maastricht, the Netherlands, is the latest Western art enterprise to dream of cashing in big in China. Yesterday it announced plans to undertake a joint venture with the international auction house Sotheby’s and its Chinese partner, the state-affiliated GeHua Cultural Development Group. If all goes well, the first TEFAF Beijing would take place in 2014.
That’s a big “if,” as the language of TEFAF’s official press statement seems to hint. Two years ago, the company issued a detailed report touting the Chinese art market as the world’s second-largest and fasting growing. (The French data firm Artprice subsequently designated it number one.) Now the fair is breaking precedent to partner with Sotheby’s, ordinarily viewed as a competitor, the first Western auction house to establish a foothold in China. All others are currently excluded by PRC fiat.
Accordingly, the release issued by TEFAF is worthy of geopolitical diplomacy in the Nixon-Kissinger era. It states wistfully that TEFAF has “entered into exclusive discussions with Sotheby’s to explore the possibilities of developing” a high-end art fair in Beijing.
Unmentioned in this “I wish I may, I wish I might” communiqué are some harsh business realities: the dismal performance of two existing fairs in Beijing and one in Shanghai, fierce competition from Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Stage Singapore, and the palm-greasing, price manipulation and lack of transparency endemic to art dealing in the PRC.