MAASTRICHT, the Netherlands — “He’ll sort coronavirus for us. He conquers epidemics,” said the antiques dealer Paul Moss, gesturing toward a monumental gilded statue of the Medicine Master Buddha that his gallery was exhibiting at a subdued preview of the TEFAF Maastricht art and antiques fair on Thursday, overshadowed by the Covid-19 crisis.
Mr. Moss, a consultant for the London-based Asian art specialists Sydney L. Moss Ltd., pointed out that there were no comparable examples of such a large-scale Japanese sculpture from the 11th or 12th century in Western museums. Carved with the Buddha’s right hand raised in the characteristic “Fear Not” gesture and his left holding a medicine jar, the serene figure was priced at 1.2 million pounds, or about $1.5 million.
Before the fair, three museums in the United States had been “actively enthusiastic,” about the statue, he said, but none of them came to Maastricht to see it, Mr. Moss said. Though, in this particular case, it had more to do with the clash of TEFAF Maastricht with Asia Week in New York than coronavirus, Mr. Moss added.
The 33rd annual edition of Europe’s most prestigious fair for traditional art and antiques has gone ahead, despite the cancellation or postponement of other high-profile events, such Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Dubai.
As of Thursday, 82 cases of the Covid-19 virus had been recorded in the Netherlands, and virus-wary collectors were greeting exhibitors with waves and elbow-bumps, rather than handshakes. TEFAF said the official attendance at Thursday’s first day preview was 4,000, down 29 percent from last year.
This year’s TEFAF Maastricht, a dealer-organized event which now has two sister fairs in New York, was the biggest ever with 282 exhibitors, despite three major galleries dropping out: Fergus McCaffrey and Wildenstein and Co. from New York, and Galerie Monbrison from Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington confirmed by email that they were among the American museums who advised their curators not to attend.
Other American institutions, such as the Dallas Museum of Art, let staff decide for themselves. “As there are no travel restrictions to Maastricht, the decision was up to us,” said Nicole R. Myers, a senior curator of European art, who attended TEFAF with two museum patrons. “We’re acquiring currently,” Ms. Myers added.
The Dallas curator, like other participants, said she was impressed by the large and powerful Hendrick ter Brugghen painting, “The Crucifixion,” dating from the 1620s and related to a similar canvas by the artist (“The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John”) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is priced at $5.9 million on the booth of the New York dealer Adam Williams.
For many dealers in the niche collecting fields of old master paintings and decorative arts, TEFAF Maastricht represents one of the few opportunities to connect in person with international curators and collectors. Creating an eye-catching booth can involve considerable expense.
Christophe de Quenetain, for example, a private dealer based in Paris and London who specializes in top-of-the-range French furniture, said he spent about 300,000 euros, or $330,000, lining his booth with 8.5 tonnes of exotic marble in a design inspired the floor of the chapel at the Château of Versailles.
An undisclosed American museum felt confident enough to reserve, on the basis of digital photographs, a sumptuously veneered late 17th-century bureau by Pierre Gole, cabinetmaker of Louis XIV, priced at €300,000 in Mr. de Quenetain’s maximalist presentation, the dealer said.
The international dealership Galleria Continua, based in San Gimignano in Italy, was one of four debut exhibitors bolstering the contemporary art section of this year’s fair. Continua opted to show a pared-down display of life-size metal sculptures of the human body by Antony Gormley, mostly dating from 2011-12, all priced at £400,000, about $520,000. One sold at the first-day preview.
Maurizio Rigillo, the gallery’s founder and partner, who has been a regular visitor to TEFAF Maastricht, said he was committed to exhibiting at future editions of the fair. But this year, particularly for a dealer from Italy, where more than 100 people have died after testing positive for the coronavirus, participation has been a challenge, he said. “Normally I’m on a plane with 10 collectors from Milan,” said Mr. Rigillo. “This year I was on my own.”
The coronavirus outbreak is the most recent of a series of setbacks for the international art trade. The latest annual Art Basel & UBS Art Market report, published Thursday, estimated global sales of art and antiques in 2019 at $64.1 billion, a decline of 5 percent on the previous year. The report cited President Trump’s trade war with China, Brexit and civil unrest in Hong Kong among the contributing factors.
“Everyone is braced for a tough fair,” said the London-based TEFAF exhibitor Stephen Ongpin, who is showing 39 museum-quality drawings by the 19th-century German artist Adolph Menzel. “The figures are going to be down, but I don’t know anyone who isn’t pleased to be here.”