If you’re milling about the TEFAF New York art fair on a weekday afternoon and don’t have at least a few million to your name, chances are you’re a journalist, a curator, or the guy shucking oysters—either way, you’re in the minority. While the city’s big contemporary art fairs have mass appeal and draw seas of onlookers that drown out the actual buyers, antiquities fairs like TEFAF are a whole other scene, one that caters strictly to an older, very Upper East Side crowd. Everyone looks like they’re here to shop, and even if you don’t catch them cutting a check, you get the feeling they most definitely could be.
But I didn’t come to ogle the aristocrats—I came to ogle their beautiful, expensive toys. There are some truly amazing things on view, and a fair like this gives us a chance to see objects up close, before they disappear forever in a private collection, or get tucked away behind glass in a museum. There are Dutch vanitas still life paintings, Tiffany lamps, pages from medieval Books of Hours, and Impressionist canvases. There is Art Nouveau furniture and gorgeous vintage jewelry.
And then there are things that you can’t forget because they are both incredible and exceedingly strange. Here’s a shortlist, for your viewing pleasure:
Vanitas works are a reminder of the certainty of death. You can say it with the ephemeral beauty of flowers, or, more to the point, you can say it with a huge marble bust of a corpse in 18th-century wig and armor.
If you don’t have space for the bust, you can always go with this oil on wood painting that’s half-skeleton, half-woman, and wholly creepy.
Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel is known for his still lifes, making this surrealist natural history study—in which he contorted snakes, spiders, and caterpillars to spell out his name—totally out of character. “It’s one of a kind,” comments the exhibitor.
In religious imagery, Onuphrius, a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 4th or 5th century, is depicted as a wild man covered in hair. This rendition from 15th-century Catalonia is particularly literal.
The three sides of this candlestick design by Henry Dee depict the stages of sleep: the closing of the eyes, the contented smile, and finally, the deep slumber, with mouth gaping. “Dee is well-known in our little world of silver for his wacky designs,” the exhibitor tells me while demonstrating how the nightcap is used as a snuffer.
According to exhibitor Elle Shushan, miniature wax portraits like these can date back to the Renaissance, and continued to be made until the early 20th century.
Today, bits for horses (metal tacks placed in the animal’s mouth) are simply said to help riders communicate with them, but in 15th-century Catalonia, specific bit shapes were believed to cure all kinds of horse ailments, from the physical to the temperamental. Yet this was more theory than practice, according to the exhibitor, who tells me that actual antique bits don’t reflect the variety shown in this book of 80 prescriptive designs.
This wooden trunk, which folds out into scenes from the Passion of the Christ, was carried around by Jesuit priests from village to village to evangelize the indigenous populations of Ecuador. Since most of these elaborate dioramas were destroyed once the priests’ mission was accomplished, only three survive—one is in a museum in Peru, the other in Bolivia, and this one will likely land somewhere in New York. Three of the city’s museums are competing for it, according to the exhibitor.
We’ll end this tour where we started: with morbid anatomy. This is a first edition, life-size collection of 18th-century anatomical drawings by Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, which brings together his studies of muscles, the head, and general anatomy. The most famous of these is the above study of a woman, which was printed on three separate pages that were meant to be cut out and pasted together. Save for her face, crotch, and right arm and breast, her entire body is dissected. The volume is priced at $120,000, and a potential buyer, leafing through it next to me, seems to be mulling it over. “It’s expensive, but I think I’m going to have to do it,” he tells me.
TEFAF New York Fall is on view at the Park Avenue Armory through October 26. Its modern and contemporary counterpart, TEFAF New York Spring, is slated for early May 2017.