11 Art Historical Treasures at TEFAF New York

Julia Fiore
Oct 29, 2018 8:40PM

Those with a taste for the classics and money to burn would do well to stop by The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in New York this week. At the Park Avenue Armory November 2nd through 6th, 93 exhibitors from around the world will present art historical wares ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Old Master paintings to Art Deco jewelry, and everything in between. Even if you don’t have intent to buy, the fair also provides an opportunity for the public to view treasures rarely seen in museums or in the news. Below, we take a look at 11 gems on offer, hailing from the ancient world to the present.

K’Iché Two-Part Urn, Guatemala (ca. 650–850)

Colnaghi, Stand 208

K’Iché Two-Part Urn, Guatemala, ca. 650–850 C.E. Courtesy of Colnaghi.

One of the more fearsome treasures at the fair is a grimacing urn from the ancient Mayan kingdom in Guatemala. Usually found in sacred caves where ancestral offerings would be made, urns like this are rich in mythological iconography. The lower portion of the impressive antique clay container features the sneering face of the sun god K’inich Ajaw, whose divine status is communicated by the ear spools and fanned headdress he wears. The fish barbels curling up from the corners of his mouth allude to the story of the Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, who were reborn as catfish after their deaths. The jaguar figure perched on top of the vessel reaches toward the twins’ human heads with his taloned hands; in K’iché folklore, the jaguar was believed to be the protective sun god who prowls the underworld at night.

A Winged, Sandaled Foot of Mercury (1st–2nd century)

Tomasso Brothers Fine Art, Stand 207

A Winged, Sandaled Foot of Mercury, 1st–2nd century C.E. Courtesy of Tomasso Brothers Fine Art.


The Roman god Mercury (known as Hermes to the Greeks) performed his duty as messenger by traveling to-and-fro with the help of his winged sandals. In ancient sculpture, the flighty deity was usually portrayed with one foot off the ground, either landing or in the midst of taking flight. This delicately carved appendage has survived, with all five of Mercury’s toes intact, since the early imperial period. While the remainder of the body is undocumented, the foot’s ever-fashionable gladiator sandals, the gallery notes, closely resemble those worn by the Seated Mercury found at Herculaneum, which Henry James once (somewhat erotically) described as “the young, resting, slightly-panting Mercury.”

Jean Pichore and the Master of Martainville, Book of Hours, most likely made for Queen Catherine of Aragon (ca. 1503–07)

Heribert Tenschert — Antiquariat Bibermühle, Stand 203

Jean Pichore and the Master of Martainville, Book of Hours, most likely made for Queen Catherine of Aragon , c. 1503–07. Courtesy of Antiquariat Bibermühle.

This small, gilded tome may very well be Queen Catherine of Aragon’s long-lost Book of Hours. One of the first illuminations shows a lady—presumed to be the queen—accompanied by Saint Catherine, kneeling in prayer. She has beside her a royal crown, “as if to suggest,” the gallery offers, “that the crown is rightly hers, but that she has not yet attained the status to wear it.” Poor Catherine found herself widowed only a year into her strategic marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales. She was essentially stranded in the English court during seven years of negotiations about a subsequent marriage to Arthur’s brother, the tempestuous Henry VIII. This lavish manuscript was illuminated by the inventive royal Parisian artist called the Master of Martainville, and was likely a diplomatic gift from Louis XII of France to comfort Catherine during those years of isolation.

Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie (1644)

French & Company LLC, Stand 312

Willem Claesz Heda is considered a high master of the still life during the Dutch Golden Age. He helped to pioneer a genre known as banketjes (“banquet pieces”), meticulously detailed renderings of extravagant feasts. This example is museum-quality; its large size denotes the great expense paid for it, and the sumptuous, nearly life-sized foods and objects featured confirms its value. As previously explored on Artsy, the complex symbolism of still life paintings from this time connoted the patron’s wealth, as well as the Netherlands’s international dominance through trade. The star of this banquet is the mince pie, a delicacy made with expensive imported spices from India and the Middle East. Yet these trappings of wealth also served as a reminder of mortality; the meal is over, the tablecloth rumpled, silver tray toppled, the pie left unfinished.

Large Sacred Mountain, China, early Kangxi Period (1662–1722)

Vanderven Oriental Art, Stand 342

Not all sculptures tell a story as complex as this unusually large enamel mountain, masterfully crafted in China in the early Kangxi Period, a “perfection-driven” time of great technical progress in the ceramic arts. A small robed monkey perches near the top of the almost 2-foot-tall peak. Below him, flowering prunus and pine trees wend through the craggy mountainside, which is studded with pagodas populated by other minute figures and animals. The scene refers to the popular 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, in which the “Monkey King,” Sun Wukong, steals peaches of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West’s mountain paradise.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, Portrait of Mária Franzcisca Palffy (1793)

Galerie Eric Coatalem, Stand 303

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Maria Franzcisca Palffy, 1793. Courtesy Galerie Eric Coatalem.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun enjoyed almost unprecedented success during her own lifetime as the favorite painter of the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette, and her many portraits have recently been the subject of major traveling retrospectives. Living in exile in the prosperous Habsburg capital of Vienna in the wake of the French Revolution, Vigée-Le Brun painted this spritely portrait of the 21-year-old Countess Mária Franzcisca Palffy as a classical wood nymph. In accordance with emergent Enlightenment values, “Vigée-Le Brun meant to reimagine royalty in accordance with modern, individualist aspirations toward authenticity, transparency, and natural virtue,” as previously discussed on Artsy. Here, the lovely countess holds an unfurling sheet of music: a composition by the prodigy Mozart, whose work was patronized by the sitter’s family.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Bearded Man (1895)

Jaime Eguiguren – Arte y Antigüedades, Stand 362

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Bearded Man, 1895. Courtesy of Jaime Eguiguren – Arte y Antigüedades.

“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist,” Pablo Picasso famously once said. The iconoclastic Spanish modernist practiced what he preached: He painted this incredibly mature portrait of a red-robed clergyman when he was only 14 years old (a nice perk: it’s signed with his pre-fame name, P. Ruiz). Feel bad about your own accomplishments yet? Early Velázquez-inflected works like these are hard to come by, and hint at the immensely innovative, avant-garde force young Picasso would soon become.

Peter Carl Fabergé, Silver and stone match-striker (before 1896)

Wartski, Stand 311

Peter Carl Fabergé
Silver and stone match-striker, Before 1896

Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé is famous for his exquisitely crafted, opulently adorned boxes: fanciful and expensive trinkets gifted between the elites, as well as members of European royal families. The Romanovs were prominent clients, amassing a collection of custom-made, Easter egg–shaped ornaments that feature intricate delights inside. So it’s surprising and amusing to discover this match-striker in the shape of a petulant silver frog, which offers up matches from his rotund backside.

Charles Burchfield, Forest Fire with Moonlight (1920)

Bernard Goldberg, Stand 202

Charles Burchfield, Forest Fire with Moonlight, 1920. Courtesy of Bernard Goldberg.

The eminent American landscape painter Charles Burchfield configured dramatic vistas and humble genre scenes in his prolific body of watercolors. The dark, brooding composition here was created during a highly productive period of Burchfield’s life, several years before he began publicly exhibiting his work. The element of fire features in only a few pieces made over his entire career. In this work, the blaze overtakes the quickly blackening landscape, illuminated by the glowing moon. A naturalist like Burchfield would have known that forest fires aren’t a purely destructive force, but are also necessary and regenerative.

Reginald Marsh, Merry-Go Round (1930)

Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Stand 370

Reginald Marsh
Merry-Go-Round, 1930
Hirschl & Adler Galleries

There’s often a seedy undercurrent to Reginald Marsh’s Social Realist style. The American artist turned his attention to New York’s city streets in the interwar period, capturing popular centers of entertainment such as vaudeville and burlesque shows and beachgoers at Coney Island in almost lurid, full-blooded paintings. This colorful merry-go-round scene suggests both an innocence and depravity. From an up-skirt vantage point, the viewer sees three pretty, somewhat vacant female riders in an almost warlike scene. Their faux black stallions snarl as they charge forward; between their bridles, a cigarette-smoking man leers toward a woman who provocatively—or fearfully—sucks on her thumb.

Fulco, Duke of Verdura, The Cole Porter Necklace (ca. 1935)

Siegelson, Stand 360

Fulco, Duke of Verdura, The Cole Porter Necklace, ca. 1935. Courtesy of Siegelson.

For many, a visit to TEFAF is largely aspirational. Personally, I’ve hitched my dreams to this blindingly glittery aquamarine-and-ruby belt-buckle necklace, an Art Deco statement piece that feels startlingly in tune with contemporary street fashion. The necklace was designed by Italian jeweler Fulco di Verdura for Paul Flato’s celebrity-beloved New York jewelry house in 1935. The necklace was prominently featured in a glamorous 1944 Vogue editorial (reproduced at Siegelson’s booth), but it’s provenance reveals its most stylish bona fides: Linda Lee Thomas Porter (aka Mrs. Cole Porter) and Ava Astaire were both previous owners.

Julia Fiore