How Experts at TEFAF Vet Thousands of Works in 36 Hours

Vetting at TEFAF Maastricht 2014. Photo courtesy of TEFAF.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and under the Hirox 3D digital microscope of the vetting committee at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF).

TEFAF is well known for its unparalleled vetting system, through which nearly 200 experts in 29 different categories examine each and every work of art in the fair for quality, authenticity, and condition.

These experts include art historians, conservators, and scientists who work swiftly and uniformly to look beyond what one can see with the naked eye, and ultimately ensure the highest level of quality. As a result, collectors are able to acquire works with the greatest possible confidence.

“Vetting is the search for inconsistencies,” says Dr. Robert van Langh, Head of Conservation and Restoration at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, ahead of the 2017 Maastricht fair (March 10-19).

Experts examine a work at TEFAF 2017. Photo © Harry Heuts.

van Langh is a world-renowned expert in the field of technical research. He has led the vetting process at TEFAF for 8 years, during which time it has become the most rigorous in the world. As a result, exhibiting at TEFAF has become a seal of approval for dealers.

Vetting at TEFAF begins with the experts, who work in categories that can be as specific as 18th century Dutch painting, examining works based on their knowledge of the subject area. When inconsistencies are spotted, works are put forward to the technical research teams for in-depth analysis using state-of-the-art technologies.

“The vetting period is intense. You have experts from varying fields, all working together in a short space of time. It doesn’t matter if an object is worth $1,000, $10,000 or $10 million, it needs to be vetted.”

“We use techniques like microscopy and elemental analysis as part of the vetting process. For example, we determine if silver objects are in fact silver, made of the elements we think or know they should be made of.”

For bronze works of art, committee members know in which era they were made, and that bronzes should also contain certain trace elements. If a bronze does not contain these specific elements, adds van Langh, the committee can determine that it is, in fact, from a later period.

While often handling items of ancient history, the vetting committee uses advanced modern technology like UV and infrared reflectography and X-radiography. The newest tool, an X-ray fluorescence portable spectrometer uses pulse beams to enable a quick result (approximately 1 X-ray per 30 seconds). The fair has been using the XRF spectrometer for two years, and this year’s comes on temporary loan, lifted and carried directly from an oil rig by helicopter.

Five years ago, this level of analysis would not have been possible. van Langh notes that the team would have had to take an X-ray and get the film printed and reviewed, which would have been a prohibitively long process.

Vetting process at TEFAF Maastricht, March 2015. Photo courtesy @TEFAF via Twitter.

“We have to work very fast because there are a lot of works of art that have to be vetted. We therefore need tools that can deliver quick results. With the direct radiography (DR) system, we can see a result in a split second,” says van Langh.

As he points out in the above video, one prime example of an object encountered by the committee was a marvelous bronze sculpture, unusual for its red patina.

“This red patina could mean two things: either there was once a green patina, and that green patina was taken off, leaving a layer of red oxide residue,” explains van Langh. “Or, it could be an original layer of red lacquer. With our bare eyes, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two,” he adds.

Vetting at TEFAF Maastricht 2015. Photo courtesy of TEFAF.

“With the Hirox microscope, we were able to clearly see that it was an organic lacquer on top of the bronze. As a result, we now know for certain that this is not something that has been over-cleaned and then re-patinated. It’s been pristinely preserved in the way that it should have been preserved. This is really something you rarely see.”

Thanks to revolutionary machines that enhance the human eye and a team of experienced art experts ready to make the final call on every item, objects at TEFAF are of “pristine quality,” says Van Langh.

“I’ll put it shortly – what you buy here is good.”