Asian art dealer Ben Janssens, founder of London-based Ben Janssens Oriental Art, has been chairman of TEFAF’s executive committee since 2007. But his TEFAF connection stretches back to the late 1980s.
After having been diverted from his study of law by the siren call of art, in particular Chinese porcelain, Janssens moved from Utrecht to London, studying applied art at the Victoria and Albert Museum before going to work in the Chinese and Japanese departments of the venerable dealership Spink & Son where, after several years, young Janssens persuaded the board of directors to participate in a then little-known fair located in a barely known town. “In those pre-Treaty days [The Treaty of Maastricht or, more formally, the Treaty on European Union] people hardly knew where Maastricht was, and the fair itself was a relatively minor event on the international calendar, insignificant in comparison with such major fairs as the Biennale in Paris and the Grosvenor House Fair in London.”
Nevertheless, Janssens was “keen to do something in my home country, and I could feel the potential the fair had, even back then.” Attributes that he noted in particular included a purpose-built hall (the Maastricht Exhibition and Conference Centre, or MECC, built in 1988), and Maastricht’s location in a densely populated, extremely affluent corner of Europe, close to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France, with a highly educated and supportive public.
Leaving the auction house in 1992, Janssens co-founded The Oriental Art Gallery, a smaller- sized firm, before launching his own, current concern in 1997, its purview including Janssens’ first love, Chinese porcelain.
At TEFAF, Janssens has served as a member of the board of trustees since 1989 and as a member of the executive board since 2003, becoming chairman of the executive committee in 2007. Under his tenure, new initiatives such as TEFAF Showcase, a platform for young dealers; TEFAF Design, a section specializing in 20th century design; and TEFAF on Paper, a section encompassing prints, drawings, antiquarian books and manuscripts, and photography, have thrived.
He has also made great efforts to expand the number of dealers specializing in Asian Art. “We had 22 Asian art dealers at TEFAF this year, but this includes a number of more general dealers and also some of the specialists in our TEFAF on Paper section.” Nevertheless, Janssens no longer feels that Asian art is underrepresented, although there are “disciplines within the field I would like to see represented, such as Islamic art.”
Complementing his focus on Asian art and Asian art dealers, Janssens has made a concerted effort to attract Asian private and institutional collectors to the fair. As a result, their numbers reached a new high at the 2011 fair, and included the World Chinese Collectors Conference from Shanghai. This year, there will be two promotional events in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as one in Singapore.
Considering that in 2010 China emerged as the world’s second largest market for art and the largest in terms of auction sales— both watersheds documented in the TEFAF-commissioned art market report, The Global Art Market in 2010: Crisis and Recovery, released at the fair last March—these initiatives seem deft indeed, part of long series of smart decisions at the right time that have crowned TEFAF king of the fine and decorative arts fairs.