Florence’s art and antiques fair returns to its roots

As historic art and antique fairs struggle to adapt to the market realities of the 21st century, BIAF – the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze (21–29 September) – seems to have found a solution. Instead of producing an anodyne version of the standard encyclopaedic fair, offering a little of everything from everywhere, it has moved forward by returning to its roots.

This rebranding has positioned the fair as a marketplace for predominantly Italian works of art of the highest quality, raising its game by bringing in the world’s leading dealers in the field. While the dateline has already been extended to 1989 in a bid to incorporate (a little) more contemporary art, it is, crucially, the presentation of the exhibits – a clean, modern installation by the Venetian interior and event designer Matteo Corvino, introduced two years ago – that signals this fair as fresh, relevant and contemporary. There is no crisis of confidence here.

‘Our aim is to present the Old Master world as elegant, sophisticated and trustable,’ says Fabrizio Moretti, the fair’s outward-looking secretary general. Certainly, there is no grander or more elegant fair venue than the stately 17th-century Palazzo Corsini, presiding over the Arno. And the fair’s vetting committee is now as international as its exhibitors.

What is new for this 60th year – apart from the 16 (of 77) galleries that are making their fair debut – is the creation of a Florence Art Week. ‘We wanted to do something to involve the city of Florence and its visitors,’ Moretti explains. Including some of the city’s museums as well as its antique shops and commercial art galleries, the event also embraces artisanal workshops and talks in the big-brand boutiques of Via Tornabuoni. And on Sunday 29 September, from 1pm, the fair will be free to residents.

One of these collateral shows sees Antichità Bacarelli, in collaboration with new fair exhibitor Galleria Continua of San Gimignano, staging a gallery exhibition combining Renaissance and neoclassical works of art with post-war and contemporary pieces by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Anish Kapoor and Daniel Buren. Around 90 highlights from the Roberto Casamonti Collection, ranging from the 1960s to the new millennium, are on display at the dealer-collector’s 16th-century Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni. This is not the only historic palazzo to throw open its doors. The exhibition ‘La Firenze di Giovanni e Telemaco Signorini’ will allow rare access to the piano nobile of the 15th-century Palazzo Antinori.

In addition to opening its arms to the city, it seems that BIAF is aiming to remind Americans of their long love affair with Italy in general and Florence in particular. An association with The Frick Collection in New York will bring over senior staff and trustees. Moreover, a new €25,000 prize for decorative arts and design within the fair, which will fund the restoration of decorative arts belonging to the national patrimony, is to be judged (as well as sponsored) by businessman and art collector Ronald S. Lauder. International collectors, institutional and private, will be made very welcome here. Given the bureaucracy of Italian export laws, it has never been easy to lure them to this biennale. It should be pointed out, however, that many works will arrive at the fair with export licenses at the ready – and not only those brought into the country on temporary import.