Shops in New York are desperate and the streets of Palm Beach are empty, but European life at the top rolls on. Last week I attended the opening of the 22nd European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Holland, followed by a wedding in St. Moritz. You would never have guessed there was a financial crisis going on.
The TEFAF organizers reported 70,000 visitors to this small Dutch town, almost 7,000 showed up for the opening alone. Champagne flowed freely, and freshly grilled tournedos and endless canapés and kebobs were served for hours. A record number of dealers, 240 in total, showcased all that is beautiful. On offer were Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Japanese antiques from family collections, some dating back 500 years. Intricate works of silver and gold from the greatest French, Italian, and German craftsmen glowed in their protective cases, along with jewels large, small, and simply huge. And the paintings! They were all there, from Byzantine icons to the latest contemporary works. Great masterpieces from golden age of Dutch painting were shown side by side with beautiful works of the Italian Renaissance. The European galleries specializing in 20th century art made a particularly strong showing. Museum-quality works by Picasso, Soutine, Nolde, Magritte, Ernst, and de St. Phalle were on view. And people were buying. Red dots appeared like a case of measles as the day wore on.
The crowd that came to look learn and buy at TEFAF was widely international. The great majority were beautifully tailored men and women speaking German or Dutch. Elegant French, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, and South American couples strolled the broad aisles. British buyers were few and far between. Almost entirely absent: Americans and American galleries.
The doom and gloom announced daily on U.S. television, radio and in print also seems to have passed over St. Moritz. During my visit, the sun sparkled on slopes heavy from record snowfalls. Beautiful young women, decked out in diamonds, swaddled in Ocelot, turned heads in town. The jewelry shops, open late into the night, were full. Restaurants were packed with people speaking German, French, Italian, Arabic, Greek, and Russian. Absent here, too, were the British and Americans.
What are the lessons to be learned? It is clear that great wealth remains in this world, wealth that its owners are willing to spend on the finer things in life. It may be that continental Europeans have been wiser in their investments than their British and American counterparts. After centuries of war, pillage, and economic hardship, many Europeans may be more conservative, keeping their assets in real estate, gold, and Swiss bank accounts. Or it may simply be that European wealth runs very deep, accumulated over centuries and passed from generation to generation. Europeans do save more than Americans--even, evidently, the very wealthy. Perhaps these economic hard times will instill better investment habits in our own fellow citizens.