BRAFA, at the heart of the art market

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Brussels, 20 January 2017


In Brussels this January, over four thousand years of art will be making their way to BRAFA. From archaeology to contemporary creation, this is not only a major European event, but a place to sound out the art market as a new year begins.

In January, after getting back from New Year’s Eve at Saint-Barthélemy, when nothing else seems to quite make the grade, not even a little omelette dotted with Alba white truffles, a quick dash to Brussels is just the thing! Why favour a Flemish destination, you might well ask? A yearning for the Belgian touch in the heart of winter? The timeless charm of the Place de Brouckère? Let’s put it this way: at the start of the year, the chicest rendezvous — one month after Art Basel on the coast of Florida in December, and shortly before the Armory Show in New York in March — is obviously BRAFA. Also known as the Brussels Art Fair, one of the oldest art and antiques fairs in the world. So much to say, the most stunning Brussels invention… just after the Délirium Café and its 3,000 beers.

So let’s sum up: after its fine fare and brilliant beer, Brussels, from Saturday 21 to Sunday 29 January, can also offer you what is undoubtedly the very best in terms of antiques. Of course, some may well be inclined to say that nothing beats the Biennale des Antiquaires, that going shopping in Paris in September is the height of sophistication. Or that for fine-arts lovers, Frieze Masters in October in London is a genuine revelation, an aesthetic shock that will keep you hyped up and buzzing until Christmas… In short, for too long people have looked down at BRAFA — take the blasé collector who describes the Belgian fair as a “minor TEFAF”. No, Brussels has nothing to do with some “low-cost Maastricht”. And incidentally, all the old hands in the profession will tell you this: BRAFA is an open-air mine, one of these gold-bearing veins that, every year since the mid 1990s when Christian de Bruyn decided to open up the fair to dealers from abroad, has revealed nuggets as big as the Atomium. So forget Maastricht, that fair in the province of Limbourg, in some far-flung corner of the Netherlands, where humidity stands at 85 % — and turn your attention to the Belgian capital.


The first advantage: if you’re travelling from Paris, Amsterdam or Cologne, you’re only a sprout away from Brussels while direct links are also possible from London, barely two hours away by Eurostar. The second bonus: an entrance ticket to the event comes at an unbeatable €25 — what you’ll see at this price is an absolute gift. Finally, the third good reason for going to Brussels: the city is twinned with Kiev, so in the evening you’re likely to come across a few Ukrainian beauties with appealing aesthetics. You’re an art lover, remember! In any case, it would be a shame to overlook an event which a press attaché has not hesitated to classify as “one of Europe’s unmissable cultural events in January”. An enthusiasm that we are well inclined to share: BRAFA is worth much more than a mere detour… Of course, its list of 132 participants from the four corners of the Earth — from Canada to Japan, from Russia to Greece — may well be enough to persuade you. As well as the giddy presence of thousands of objects gathered in the one spot (between 10,000 and 15,000 at every new edition). But what is most attractive about BRAFA — before all this beauty, beyond the incredible works that jump for your attention every two metres — is the atmosphere. Is it the venue, the Tour & Taxis brick-and-cast iron buildings along the canal? Perhaps it’s this smidgen of old-fashioned elegance, and also a certain laidback attitude, so unusual in the world of art dealership. In any case, here, season after season, once you get past the blue-and-ochre facades of the Royal Warehouse, everything lights up. You fully penetrate a world of glossy paintings and marquetry-finished furniture items, a world of ideal proportions. A type of Ali Baba’s cavern where some twenty specialities cross paths, from pre-Columbian art and comic strips, to Haute Epoque sculpture and design, from tribal art and ceramics to old books…


The master of the premises, Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, president of BRAFA for the fifth year in a row, states his belief that it “must continue to be an attractive, open, generous fair”. Another way of reminding us that the event is amongst the top five art and antique fairs, and that out of its hundred or so participating galleries, while 40 % are Belgian, a vast majority of exhibitors come from abroad, with no less than sixteen countries represented. As for generosity, we should let visitors speak for themselves, while also noting that last year, over 58,000 of them crowded into the busy alleys of a high-flying edition, notching up record visitor numbers.

The key of the Brussels strategy

So what can be said about this 62nd edition itself? That thirteen exhibitors are appearing for the first time, or returning after a pause, making up a turnover of less only 10 % — which can be interpreted as an indication of the satisfaction of the remaining 90 %. That the fair covers 15,400 m². That representatives of modern and contemporary art are more numerous. “That’s true,” acknowledges Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke. “A fair like BRAFA reflects the market and its trends, but it doesn’t create them. We keep an eye on developments in this market, and analyse the applications and requests, while listening to what the public want. And we find that for every five modern or contemporary applications, we only receive one for the ancient arts. We were already very strong in tribal art and archaeology in particular, and we wanted to have the same strengths in modern and contemporary arts. This year, following galleries such as Albert Baronian, Meessen De Clercq and the Patinoire Royale last year, we are very pleased to be welcoming newcomers Galerie de la Béraudière, Bernier/Eliades, Patrick De Brock, Rodolphe Janssen, and Omer Tiroche. And we are equally pleased to be joined by Pierre Segoura, Galerie Sismann and Albert Vandervelden (La Mésangère), who will be making a great contribution to the ancient arts sector. It’s all a matter of balance!”


And while we’re on the subject of balance, this really is the key of the Brussels strategy. Good measure and eclecticism… for while a few big fairs in recent years have come across a few setbacks, BRAFA, so it seems, is putting up a good show of resistance. A solidness that it, without a doubt, owes to its median positioning. Indeed, the spread of its price range, matched with its variety of specialities, means that it can draw a public reputed to be connoisseurs, but whose buying behaviour remains under control — those who foot bills that don’t necessarily flirt with stratospheric heights. In a nutshell: a stable clientele made up of mainly European collectors who tend to be loyal and demanding. Germans, Belgians, and Dutch of course, but also British, Swiss, French, a few Americans as well, who sometimes show a little boldness by getting off the Maastricht track and exploring some less mainstream paths.

According to Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, “BRAFA is a real ephemeral museum — with the one difference that all the works are for sale! Alongside museum works, at naturally high price levels, it is vital to be able to offer more accessible pieces which are ideal for starting a collection or just succumbing to an impulse!”

It’s beautiful, it’s rare, it’s time to buy!

And impulses there will be, for there will be temptation galore over these nine days of aesthetic jubilation, presented to visitors’ eyes: from archaeology to contemporary creation, over four thousand years of art history. If we wanted to start at the beginning, we’d have to mention antiquity, a very lively segment here, featuring fifteen or so loyal dealers such as the David Ghezelbash Gallery, which is offering a ravishing little pharaoh’s head from the Ptolemaic period at its stand. From Ancient Egypt we can move onto Ancient Greece, with the gallery Gilgamesh, where Daniel Lebeurrier has scored a beige terracotta oenochoe dating from the Geometric Period. Meanwhile, at Jacques Barrère’s stand, a Buddha’s head from the 3rd or 4th century will awaken you to Greco-Buddhist Gandharan art. It’s beautiful, it’s rare, it’s time to buy!

Further along, you’ll find classical furniture of the “woodwork and gilding” variety at Steinitz, modern painting, a few objets de vertu at Porfirius Kunstkammer, 1950s furniture… And then, a section that we love on primitive and pre-Colombian arts. We’re well aware that for a generalist fair, BRAFA offers one of the sharpest “primitive” selections on the world scene, featuring thirteen galleries this year. Once again we find the very jovial Didier Claes, with a stand dominated by an Uli ancestor figure from Papua New Guinea. Another heavyweight in this domain is Bernard Dulon, offering a gorgeous harp from the Mangbetu people. And at the stand of Bernard de Grunne, a newcomer at this edition, lovers of African curiosities will discover a few Pende masks from Congo.


But of course, it’s obviously impossible to name every speciality and praise each dealer… So we’ll conclude by mentioning Axel Vervoordt, a protean antique dealer and joyfully polymorph collector, whose range in styles turns his gallery into an encyclopaedia of good taste. Contemporary art, archaeological pieces, design, medieval sculptures… And while Vervoordt casts his nets wide, he also exhibits exquisitely unique pieces: for example a Péqui wooden chair from the start of the 1970s, designed by Brazilian architect José Zanine Caldas who loved nature and the forest. A blond work of a brutal beauty… Yet another reason, as if any more were needed, to make a trip to Brussels in January!


When Congo was Belgian

Belgium’s colonial past explains its attachment to African art, with works often found in the homes of families who don’t practice collection. “And then, at the end of the 1960s, major dealers settled at the Place des Sablons in Brussels, and turned the city into the hub for African art that it still is today,” explains Didier Claes, a specialised gallerist. Bernard de Grunne, a dealer and son of one of the first collectors of tribal art, confirms this observation: “The market developed organically, growing from under 50 collectors in the 1960s to several hundred today.” Perfectly in line with Belgian eclecticism, tribal-art collectors combine their acquisitions with their modern and contemporary art purchases, or else they specialise heavily in a certain period, geographical region, or technique.

BRAFA Art Talks

Public/private partnerships, issues in archaeometry, or else sponsorship in the heritage domain… These are a few of the themes that will be tackled at BRAFA Art Talks. You’ll have gathered that the latter are a round of daily lectures organised by the fair. The overriding theme — conservation and promotion of heritage — will pull out no surprises, but its treatment will be far from bland. All the more as this year, the Talks have been entrusted to a partner expert, the King Baudouin Foundation, which is celebrating the 30th birthday of its Heritage Fund at BRAFA. So note the place and time: 4 p.m. every day at BRAFA Lounge. And if the generosity of philanthropists is something that whets your interest, don’t hesitate to visit the Foundation’s stand, which is presenting the latest pieces in its collection, including a portrait of Matthew the Apostle attributed to Anthony van Dyck, an Art Nouveau chryselephantine sculpture representing “La Fortune”, or the Tramerie Book of Hours, an example of the illuminated manuscripts produced in Tournai at the start of the 16th century…


“As organisers, and being dealers ourselves, we are extremely careful and uncompromising when it comes to the probity and professionalism of our exhibitors. Most of them, furthermore, take part in top international fairs, which in itself is a guarantee of reliability! The same goes for our vetting procedure, for which we call on more than a hundred independent experts, to whom we offer the state-of-the-art services of a specialist scientific laboratory during the pre-show inspection period. If a piece gives rise to doubts, the unanimity rule prevails within the admission committee in question. Everything is set up to protect both exhibitors and buyers from any possibility of error. At the world-wide level, the worst problems at the moment are theft and illegal excavations in war zones. In the case of stolen pieces, it’s absolutely impossible to infiltrate them onto the legal market, because these pieces are known, have been published, or appear in the records of international organisations such as the Art Loss Register. They are, therefore, very easy to trace and identify. Illegally excavated pieces are a different problem, however, because by definition, they are not known to the market. In both cases the buyers are as much to blame as the criminals, and we wholeheartedly condemn such actions.”

Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, president of BRAFA


BRAFA – Brussels Art Fair. From Saturday 21 to Sunday 29 January. Tour & Taxis, 88 Avenue du Port, Brussels, Belgium.

Tags: African Art, Asian Art, Oceanic Art, Pre-Columbian Art, Native American Art, Fairs & Shows