Cultural pilgrims who trek to the Dutch city of Maastricht for the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) every March can find many things. Throughout the mammoth art Mecca, where curators and collectors shop for everything from Greco-Roman antiquities to hometown-favorite Rembrandts to contemporary sculptures and installations, more than 100,000 tulips and roses adorn the MECC conference center.
About 265 booths, representing dealers from 20 countries, hawk their wares, which range in price from hundreds to millions of euros each.
But although Buddhist and Hindu art aficionados can find stunning sculptures at dealers like Marcel Nies Oriental Art (booth 146) and Rossi and Rossi (stand 166); Christian art enthusiasts can salivate over the holdings of Jan Morsink Ikonen (stand 156), Les Enluminures (booth 274) and Moretti (stand 352); and even Jewish art lovers can examine medallions with Hebrew inscriptions at Tradart (booth 431) -- Islamic art is much more difficult to find.
Sam Fogg, a London dealer who specializes in Christian and Islamic art had left his Islamic wares at home last March, and the same was true this TEFAF. "The truth is, it's several years since I've shown Islamic art here," he says. "For me it never worked very well -- Islamic art."
London-based medieval, Indian and Islamic art dealer Sam Fogg. Credit: Menachem Wecker.
Fogg, who has been coming to the fair for more than 20 years and is a former chairman of the TEFAF vetting committee for manuscripts, claims not to have a typical kind of client. "We might sell Christian art to the Gulf; we do sell Islamic art to the Midwest," he says, of the works he sells from his gallery.
Twenty years ago, many dealers in Indian and Islamic art, as well as carpets and textiles, exhibited at the fair. "All of that either shrunk or disappeared altogether. The fair has become narrower," he says. "The fair gets larger and more professional ... but I don't think that it's getting wider in the range of what it sells."
The buyers have also evolved, particularly when it comes to Islamic works. "The buyers of Islamic art, in my opinion, are not coming to Maastricht. Perhaps that will change," says Fogg. "There were some Middle Eastern buyers. I don't think many. But they were buying for their London houses or their New York houses."
London-based Indian and Islamic art dealer, Amir Mohtashemi. Credit: Menachem Wecker
With the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York's January announcement that its new Islamic art galleries had attracted 1 million visitors and the Louvre's Islamic art galleries opening to the public in September 2012, it's easy to imagine the dawn of an Islamic art renaissance of sorts.
"Islamic art in the West is a more and more important subject," says Fogg, who notes steady and growing American and British interest in art from the Islamic world. That interest may be reflected in two first-time exhibitors at TEFAF -- the Paris-based Galerie Kevorkian (stand 244) and Amir Mohtashemi in London (stand 235) -- both of whom specialize in Islamic art.
"The organizers have been conscious for at least a couple of years, maybe more, that there was really a lack in this field, in Islamic art, and that it was important to have exhibitors specialize in that field," says Corinne Kevorkian, co-manager of Galerie Kevorkian.
Although the TEFAF waiting list is typically very long, Kevorkian thinks her gallery's focus put her in a good position. "Maybe it was a little bit shorter for us," she says.
Kevorkian balked at the suggestion that it means something for Islamic art to be shown in Holland in particular. "There are many concerns about Islam in many countries, so I don't think it's more relevant in Holland than in France, for instance," she says, although she does allow that pieces like the ones she is hoping to sell at TEFAF can educate the public about the Muslim faith. "People are used to hearing many, many things about Islam which are not always very positive usually," she says.
Amir Mohtashemi has a different perspective. "I don't want to drum up the political aspect of what I'm doing," he says. "It's just purely trying to bring something new to the fair."
Mohtashemi, who has shown at Asia Week in New York -- a fair that overlaps with TEFAF, and often forces dealers to choose one over the other -- for the past 15 years, says the Maastricht event is the "best fair in the world, basically," because it puts "serious art consumers" in front of his work. "In an ideal world, I would like to participate in both," he says of the fairs. "If I have a choice, I want to be here [at TEFAF]."
Like Kevorkian, Mohtashemi believes that his application was fast-tracked to add more Islamic art to the fair. "The fact that I'm here is because they wanted to introduce a new facet to their collection of people," he says.
He dismisses the suggestions that representational Islamic art is controversial -- the naysayers are an orthodox minority, he says -- and that Islamic art buyers tend to be more private. Some wait to publicize their collections until they are ready, he says, but "There's no hidden agenda."
Kevorkian, whose booth features a 9th or 10th century page of the Quran in Kufic script, agrees that only the most extreme Muslims consider representational art to be idolatrous. But there's a prohibition against copying God's creation in certain contexts.
"We never have a depiction of an animal or a human being in a Quran, and never in a mosque or a madrasa," she says. "But otherwise, you can't deny its realities."
Fogg, the London dealer, is even blunter. "I'd ignore that," he says. "Peasants in Pakistan may not like idolatry, but the kind of people who buy art are used to it."
Asked if he may bring Islamic art to sell at TEFAF in future years, Fogg says he's keeping his eye on how well Kevorkian and Mohtashemi do this year. "I'll be interested to see how they get on," he says.
Full disclosure: The author's trip to Holland was partly supported by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, which had no oversight whatsoever on this article.