Monday, March 12, 2007

A man's castle is his home, at least in this case

The staff at Vervoordt's 's-Gravewezel, lay the buffet.
A man’s castle is his home. This past Friday night, Michel Witmer, the fine art consultant and lecturer, as well as the only American on the board of TEFAF, picked us up in a Volkswagen Phaeton (the official car of TEFAF) and we were driven to Antwerp in Belgium for a book party and dinner at the castle of Axel Vervoordt.

First of all, we should all have a Volkswagen Phaeton in our garages or at our disposal. And if it’s with your own driver, like Terry Allen Kramer and Nick Simunek, more power to you. If you’ve never ridden in one, trust me.

It’s about an hour and a half drive along the motorway, from Maastricht across the border to Antwerp. Peter Paul Rubens lived and painted there in the 17th century. He lived the big, good life; a giant in his community, and forevermore.

Ruben’s house is now a museum, containing his art collection, his library and his workshop where he and his apprentices (including the young Anthony van Dyke) created the majority of his works. In Ruben’s time Antwerp was the center of the world’s economy. For the past few centuries, through its large Hasidic Jewish community, it has been the world’s center for diamond trading. Its port is one of the world’s largest.

The city was taken in 1940 by Germany, and liberated by the British four years later. Hit by more V-2 rockets than any other city during the war, it sustained enormous damage to its ancient buildings as well as its port which the Nazis tried to destroy to prevent the Allies from bringing material ashore.
Looking across the Main Square passed the statue of Brabo to the 16th century Cathedral of our Lady. According to folklore, and as celebrated by the statue in front of the town hall, the city got its name from a legend involving a mythical giant called Antigoon who lived near the river Scheldt, exacting a toll from those crossing the river. On refusal, the giant severed one of their hands and threw them into the Scheldt. Eventually, the giant was slain by a young hero named Brabo, who cut off the giant's hand and threw it into the river. Hence the name Antwerpen from Dutch "hand werpen" (hand-throwing).
Michel Witmer was anxious to give us a glimpse of the city’s extraordinary Main Square with its 16th century guildhouses, city hall and the Cathedral of our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedral), which was begun in the 14th century and completed (as much as it would be) by the middle of the 16th. One of the tallest cathedrals in Europe, at its completion it was the tallest building in all of Europe. Its interior, which we did not see, has several works by Rubens.

The highway’s approach to the city in early evening is gritty and racked with industrial and commercial edifices and detritus, as if color had been washed from wear, leaving dank yellowish monochrome. I wondered aloud why Michel was bothering, what all the fuss was about. However, we finally came upon it. As it was in Maastricht and may perhaps be in other European cities, we had to leave the car about a block from the square where no cars are allowed (what a good idea).

Well, Michel Witmer was right. In this case actually anybody who knew would be: it was, even in the raw dampness after the rain, transformational. We stood in its center next to the monumental bronze of Brabo, the young hero who saved the citizens of the city from the giant who menaced them. Surrounding on the square are the cathedral, the guildhouses, the city hall and law courts and some cafes. Looking at relics of life six and seven centuries ago sets the imagination afire with what it must have been like, what life must have been like, and where it/they went and whence we came. Magnificent.
The City Hall of Antwerp and the 16th Century Guildhouses also on the Main Square.
Alex Vervoordt, if you didn’t know, is one of the most admired, indeed, even revered interior decorator/designers in the world. I remember hearing about him years ago when Tony Hail, the late great San Francisco decorator had just come back from visiting Vervoordt’s castle outside of Antwerp.

Axel Vervoordt
Hail was always a gentleman in his praise of his colleagues, at least in polite company, but Vervoordt; he raved about Axel Vervoordt. “Greatest house I’ve ever seen. In the world. As least as castles go.” When I hear that kind of superlative, I always wonder…not being an expert in the field myself…what that means. And, frankly, I often end up thinking that I wouldn’t recognize “great” anyway, even after being told. Not to sound jaded (although some may think so), I’ve seen enough in my life to know that there is an abundance of the spectacular, the clever, the gawdy, the regal and the renegade in the world of design of private residences (and palaces) across the planet. Artists at work; civilization’s historians.

And so, after a very nondescript ride out of Antwerp into (from what I could see at night) a countryside populated with sundry industrial clusters, nondescript (although sometimes interesting looking to this American eye) architecture, I really couldn’t imagine what Tony Hail had been talking about.

The entrance to the property is simple in layout, if distinguished in presence. A dirt and gravel driveway perfectly bordered by what looked at night like poplar trees led in a straight line to a large brick arch gate where you suddenly become aware of moving through time and history. From now to then. An 18th century gate, through which we passed until coming up to a small bridge over a moat.  It was 8:30 pm.

The driver parked the car on the grass before the bridge. We got out. And there she was, across the moat. The castle. Thick and commanding, fortress-like. Lighted and glowing, inside and out; waiting. One hundred were expected for dinner, coming up from Maastricht. We were among the first to arrive.

Inside, the rooms were warm and inviting, yet tall, grand and aristocratic. You were in both the then and the now. Small fires in the fireplaces evaporate all possible dampness. Mr. Vervoordt likes subdued colors, but hues with impact. Flowers everywhere, unobtruding like a brush stroke – red tulips in masses, small and large; flowering plants, also red; but never too many, balancing the canvas. And candles. And lighted chandeliers giving off, in memory, a silver yellow glow that lit the rooms like a set in a film about 18th century aristocratic life. For the 21st century sensibility and eye.

There were paintings and photographs and sculptures and family photos and books and books and books. It all looked so effortless, this wonderful wonderful house, as if it had always been there, yet it is so intriguing and yet so contemporary and therefore comforting. You know this can’t possibly be an accidental accumulation. Perhaps that is what my friend Mr. Hail raved about.

Vervoordt has a wife, May, and two sons, Boris and Dick, all of whom work actively in the business. The entire family was there greeting guests. You got the feeling they have had a lot of practice.
Photographs of his castle, 's-Gravewezel, and the pool from a Vervoordt-designed residence near Antwerp, from Axel Vervoordt's Timeless Interiors.
Madame Vervoordt introduced herself almost immediately.  A very elegant European woman with a rare demeanor that reminded us of the Countess D’Ornano in Paris (see NYSD Travel): she could have been an ambassador’s wife, so gracious and comfortable in her public role. This house has been visited by at least thousands of interested visitors including the international media, during the over 22 years that they’ve lived there.

Click to order
Vervoordt, who manufactures furniture of his design, and is also a dealer in antiquities, paintings (and exhibits in many of the world’s top shows, including Maastricht TEFAF and The Winter Antiques Show in New York), is a commanding figure in the world of interior design.. The castle isn’t just some decorator’s crazy notion; it says it all. Tenfold. He must be in his late sixties. Not tall, wearing an perfectly tailored light gray suit, shirt and diamond-blue silk tie, he could easiliy pass for your idea of prosperous European banker, or even the highly successful decorator/antiquaire that he is.

And businessman. That he is. We were given permission to walk around the house and to photograph what we liked. Which we did of course. We were there, after all, to take note of his latest book (AXEL VERVOORDT; Timeless Interiors) which is published this month in Europe and later in the year here in the US by Rizzoli.

By the time everyone arrived (about 9:30) there were 103 guests.Yet because of the nature of the space (and the abundance), the guests spread to dine out all over the ground floor of the castle, in a very naturally casual way. A most laidback dinner in a most laidback house, actually an aristocrat’s castle.
The living room.
Another view of the living room and the fireplace in the library.
Guests start to fill the living room for dinner.
Dinner in full effect.
The Work room.
The staircase leading to the first floor.
The Porcelain room; Looking into the Work room from the Office.
The buffet table.
Pascale Lucq
Our friend from Buenes Aires
The Porcelain room during dinner.
The Office.
Boris, May, and Dick Vervoordt
Wendy Moonan, Irma Jansen, Barbara Tapp, and Anne-Sophie Dusselier
A reading room on the first floor.
Michel Witmer in the Oriental Drawing room.
The Oriental Drawing room.
The Billiard room.
Another view of the Billiard room.
Looking into the Billiard room.
A guest bedroom.
Another view of the guest bedroom.
And another ...
The guest bathroom.
The temporary bar, back on the ground floor.
Back in the Work room.
Looking into the office.
The front exterior of 's-Gravewezel.
Departing 's-Gravewezel.
Meanwhile back in Maastricht: The world’s largest art and antiques fair is almost possibly its most prestigious for a number of reasons.  There’s the vetting process which is very very strict and nothing without the most reliable documents is allowed to be exhibited. It has the world's largest and toughest vetting committee, with 142 members, each the leading expert in their area of specialty.

Furthermore dealers who don’t comply, those who have accidentally or otherwise mistaken the authenticity of something, run the risk of not being invited back.

TEFAF is the only one of two world fairs that is a non-profit. All of the profits (millions annually) go to cancer research at the University of Maastricht. 

Rental space per square meter if also the lowest of all the international fairs. It was also the first fair to invite the Art Loss Register, the clearinghouse and database of stolen and Nazi confiscated art which protects buyers and returns art to its rightful owners.

That said, we went back on the day after the preview, to get more photographs of the stalls. Again the place, this vast convention space, was packed with visitors. (Someone told me there were more than 200 jets that landed at the nearby airport for the show).

We stopped by the Sperone-Westwater stall where Angela Westwater where we learned that one of their paintings had been sold (six figures) in the first hour and many of the works on exhibit had already been sold.

As I was standing, talking to Westwater’s associate, asking him about the Evan Penny re-creation of Chuck Close’s portrait of Philip Glass ($150,000), a man in a pullover sweater, listening to our conversation asked the associate the price. Told, he then said he was interested in buying. All very casual, like “how much is that doggy in the window?” When told that it was already sold (this is the second day of the fair remember), the man asked if there any others by the artist, whose work he had never seen before. Another was pointed to him. Asked the price, ($80,000) he then said he was interested. Too late; already sold. From there the two went on to look at others in the S-W inventory of the same artist, and I departed. In another stall, piece was sold (seven figures) when a couple came along wanting to buy it. Sorry, sold; the couple offered “double” for it. Sorry; sold. The couple was not pleased. But they’ll be back.
Salomon Stodel Antiquités.
Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art.
Galerie Berès.
Perrin Antiquaires.
Galerie Neuse.
Galerie Hopkins Custot.
More than 100,000 tulips were used to decorate the exhibition hall at Beursplattegrond.
Waddington Galleries.
Salis & Vertes.
The Mayor Gallery.
Jean-David Cahn AG.
Philippe Denys.
Axel Vervoordt.
Royal-Athena Galleries.
Rupert Wace Ancient Art.
Galerie Meyer-Oceanic Art.
Mieke Zilverberg.
Michael Werner.
Annely Juda Fine Art.
Landau Fine Art.
Richard Gray.
Galerie Karsten Greve AG.
Leonard Hutton.
Gallery Delaive.
Galerie Mia Joosten b.v.
Studio 2000 Art Gallery Blaricum.
Sperone Westwater.
Sperone Westwater.
Galerie Jan Krugier & Cie.
Galerie Odermatt-Vedovi.
Kunsthandel Rueb.
Keitelman Gallery.
Cesare Lampronti srl.
Haboldt & Company.
Galerie Sanct Lucas.
Blumka Galerry.
Marlborough Galerie GMBH.
TEFAF modifies the decor of the Beursplattegrond every two years.
Flore de Brantes.
Dr. Jörn Gunther-Antiquariat.
Les Enluminures.
The night before our last night in Maastricht, we dined at a small Italian restaurant on the harborside.
DPC luxuriating over the mega-buffet breakfast at the Kruisheren on the last morning in Maastricht.
The last breakfast. Enough already.
Saying our goodbye to the Kruisherenhotel.
Bjorn Brachlow, who drove us to the airport, is a professional driver, a born and bred Berliner; The screw came out of the temples of my reading glasses so we stopped at a sunglasses shop in the airport, hoping someone could repair it. Petra Bolenius was very accommodating and soon it was repaired (at no charge!). And we were on our way back to New York ...

Comments? Contact DPC