Fifty years ago, there was just one art fair. Aimed at the trade instead of collectors, it took place in September 1967 in Cologne, Germany, and its founder-dealers hoped it would breathe life into the West German art market. It did much more than that. In fact, some people in the art world might accuse those dealers of creating a monster.
The 1967 fair continues under the name of Art Cologne, but it has a lot of competition now. More than 250 art fairs take place on every continent except Antarctica, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if someone was planning an art fair there, too.
You can’t see every art fair in the world. Even if you wanted to, it’d be physically impossible without a time machine. The suggestions below should help you pare your list down to a handful of must-sees.
March 10-18 | Maastricht, Netherlands
Every March, for the last three decades, a huge museum has winked into being in the Dutch city of Maastricht. Packed with 7,000 years’ worth of treasures, it is an institution like no other. It’s full of things that you never knew existed, and unlike a museum, everything in it is for sale.
The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) was created in 1988 with the merger of two smaller fairs. Since then, TEFAF has weathered many changes in the global market and kept its reputation as the biggest and most prestigious art and antiques fair in the world. Its Maastricht location grants it an advantage other fairs lack. It’s close enough to other European capitals to make it convenient, but not really close enough for day trips. When at TEFAF, you can shut everything out and focus on art and antiques.
The 30th edition, scheduled for March 2018, will welcome 275 exhibitors from 20 countries who will display more than 35,000 objects in the 100,000-square-foot convention space — a truly staggering number of things to see, people to meet and venue floor to walk. (Leave the Louboutins at home. Sensible shoes are the way to go.) TEFAF is still the best fair for old masters, but it has its share of younger masters, too, with a healthy section devoted to modern and contemporary art.
It also delivers jaw-dropping wonders year after year. In 2002, New York-based dealer Otto Naumann brought “Minerva in Her Study,” the last Rembrandt history painting in private hands, and asked $40 million for it. In 2007, Littleton & Hennessy, which then had galleries in New York and London, offered an ancient Chinese bronze wine vessel, shaped like a tapir (a mammal that looks like a pig) and priced at $12 million. And in 2015, dealers Simon Dickinson and James Roundell chose TEFAF as the venue to unveil a forgotten 1888 drawing by Van Gogh, valued at $10 million.
May 4-8, 2018 and October 27-31, 2018 | New York City
Good fairs earn worldwide renown. Great fairs — the best of the best — launch sibling fairs on other continents and see them flourish. TEFAF wasn’t the first to expand its global reach (see the write-ups below on Art Basel and Frieze), but it did so with unparalleled style and grace.
Its organizers set their sights on the Park Avenue Armory, the favorite Manhattan venue of well-heeled collectors. TEFAF can’t fit all its exhibitioners into the armory at one time, so it split the fair into two seasonal offerings. TEFAF New York Fall, which debuted in October 2016, features old masters, antiquities and pre-1900 material, and TEFAF New York Spring is given over to modern and contemporary art and design.
Like the Maastricht fair that spawned them, TEFAF fall and spring make the most of their venues. It fills the main floor of the armory, and select dealers and galleries claim rooms on the first and second floors that were rarely, if ever, opened to art fairs before. Exhibitors who merit the choice spaces include Georg Laue, a Munich-based dealer in kunstkammer objects who got TEFAF New York Fall 2016 off to a spectacular start by bringing an antique chess set with pieces made from amber, plus an amber-decorated chess board, all dating to about 1700. Di Donna Galleries of Manhattan appeared at TEFAF New York Spring 2017 with A Surrealist Banquet, a peerless show of Surrealist art that referenced food and was inspired by its wood-paneled second-floor space. Displayed on the same long table were a lobster telephone by Salvador Dalí, a Man Ray featuring a knife and fork, and a René Magritte gouache in which a wine bottle turns into a carrot.
June 14-17, 2018 | Basel, Switzerland
Three art dealers from Basel, Switzerland, took inspiration from that 1967 trade-only art fair in Cologne, Germany, and launched their own event back home in 1970. Within five years, Art Basel had swelled from 90 dealers to 300, and it’s still the number one must-see fair for modern and contemporary art.
Art Basel draws the world’s blue-chip contemporary art galleries: Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace — you name it. They go all-out for the fair, setting aside their best material and sparing no expense when kitting out their booths. A 2016 New York Times article that tracked dealer Dominique Lévy’s preparations for Art Basel revealed that she spent more than $300,000 on her booth, and it’s not clear if that sum included space rental costs.
Art Basel has also gained notoriety for placing the ultra-wealthy in situations they’re not accustomed to: making them stand in lines and hearing the word “no.” In the past, canny collectors angled for sneak peeks at the VIP-only preview by borrowing workers’ passes and viewing booths while the dealers were still setting them up. And though there are some exceptions, contemporary artists produce unique works, which means only one buyer can head home a winner. The fights to buy the hottest, most sought-after pieces finish well before Art Basel opens its doors to all comers, and it’s not uncommon for galleries to resupply their booths at least once before then. (The fair added a second VIP preview day in 2012 in hopes of easing the pressure.)
Sales remain strong. In 2009, Paris dealer Emmanuel Perrotin sold “The Simple Things,” a $2 million sculpture co-created by Japanese phenomenon Takashi Murakami and pop artist Pharrell Williams. In 2012, Pace Gallery sold a 1986 Gerhard Richter abstract for more than $20 million. The following year, Lévy found a buyer for a 1971 Picasso at $15 million. And in 2017, Acquavella Galleries sold a 1982 Basquiat, for $18 million. As long as the collectors keep coming and are willing to spend big, hundreds of art dealers will vie for the honor of spending six figures on an Art Basel booth.
December 6-9, 2018 | Miami, Florida
Even now it seems odd to think that a high-profile international contemporary art fair could not only take root but flourish near the beaches of Miami. Fate seemed to frown on the idea, too, at least initially. The first edition of Art Basel Miami Beach was planned for December 2001, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced its organizers to postpone. What helped the fair survive that setback and succeed was Miami’s community of contemporary art collectors, who embraced the concept of the fair and supported it wholeheartedly. Those local boosters countered the gloom of 2001 by inviting the public to see their collections, a practice that continues.
The faith and the encouragement of art-loving Miami residents helped Art Basel Miami Beach grow into a cultural happening that thoroughly envelops the city in early December. (Giving winter-weary New Yorkers an excuse to flee to sunny Florida during the shortest and darkest days of the year definitely helped the fair’s prospects.) While the June Art Basel fair does not confine itself within the walls of its Swiss venue, its American cousin sprawls across Greater Miami with an enthusiasm and an exuberance that no other art fair can match. Art Basel Miami Beach didn’t just spark the creation of more than a dozen smaller art fairs that ride on its slipstream, it tempted Miami’s design showrooms to jump in with events such as Design Miami, which launched in 2005.
Art Basel Miami Beach has lured A-list celebrities into its orbit. Sean Combs, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio have been spotted walking the floor, and Kim Kardashian made headlines when she appeared at one of the many after-hours parties held during the fair in the nightlife-loving city. While the revelry is a big part of the scene, Art Basel Miami Beach wouldn’t have lasted if collectors failed to buy. Competition for the best works can be as fast and fierce as it is in Switzerland. At the 2011 edition, Manhattan-based dealer Christophe Van de Weghe sold a Frank Stella for $1 million. In 2013, Michael Werner sold a piece by Sigmar Polke for $1.4 million. Dealer Paul Kasmin sold a $6 million Lee Krasner abstract in 2016. Lévy Gorvy sold an Ellsworth Kelly for a sum between $4 million and $5 million. The performance of Art Basel Miami Beach convinced the stewards of Art Basel to create another sibling fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, in 2013. It takes place in late March.
Both October 4-7, 2018 | London, England
The Frieze Art Fair, now known as Frieze London, debuted in October 2003 in a tent in Regent’s Park. It was timed to enjoy a boost from collectors who were already in the British capital for the fall contemporary art auctions. The fair was a hit from day one, and it welcomed a sibling, Frieze Masters, in 2012. Frieze London celebrates contemporary and living artists; Frieze Masters covers art and objects that predate the year 2000. The fairs take place on the same dates in tents that are within walking distance of each other. (Another sibling fair, Frieze New York, launched in 2012 and is held in Randall’s Island Park in early May, before the marquee spring contemporary art auctions.) In 2017, more than 160 galleries appeared at Frieze London, and more than 130 exhibited at Frieze Masters. Galleries that handle contemporary and modern art often rent booths at both.
Like most art fairs of their size and stature, Frieze London and Frieze Masters offer a slate of related events — lectures, site-specific art installations, a showcase for emerging galleries, film and music programs — but the overall winner is Frieze Sculpture, a free exhibit in Regent’s Park. Frieze Sculpture opened for the first time in early July 2017 and stayed up through the summer before closing when the fairs did. The works on display included pieces by John Chamberlain, Bernar Venet, Ugo Rondinone, Urs Fischer and the late Sir Anthony Caro.
The October fairs reliably attract deep-pocketed collectors who are prepared to spend six and seven figures on a choice work. In 2017, David Zwirner sold out his entire Frieze London booth, including a $2.75 million Jeff Koons, and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac sold two pieces by the late Robert Rauschenberg for more than $1 million each. Over at Frieze Masters, Johnny Van Haeften sold a Gerard Terborch painting for about $3.3 million, and Hauser & Wirth sold a Louise Bourgeois for $4.5 million.