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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62
at Noortman, Maastricht

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet
at Noortman

Gerrit Berckheyde
Exterior of the Church of Saint Bavo in Haarlem
at Johnny Van Haeften, London

Osias Beert
A Still Life with Three Floral Bouquets
ca. 1610-15
at Johnny van Haeften, London

Osias Beert
Nature morte de fleurs dans un vase bleu et blanc
at De Jonckheere, Paris

Jan van de Cappelle
A Calm Sea with Ships Near the Shore
ca. 1650s
at Otto Naumann, New York

Master of Cologne/Lower Rhine
A Multifigured Calvary in front of a Lower Rhenish Townscape
ca. 1470-80
at Bernheimer, Munich and London

Aelbert Cuyp
A Panoramic View of Dordrecht and the Maas...
at Colnaghi Drawings, London

Paris Bordone
Rest on the Flight into Egypt, with St. Jerome
at Simon C. Dickinson, London

Amadeo Modigliani
Bride and Groom
at Landau Fine Art, Montreal

George Bellows
Two Women, October 1924
at Berry-Hill Galleries, New York
Maastricht Masters
by Brook S. Mason

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), Mar. 10-18, 2001, at the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center in Maastricht, Holland.

The new bear market on Wall Street, which took the NASDAQ below 2000, doesn't seem to make the slightest rustle in the aisles of the Old Master-packed European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Held in the small Dutch border town of Maastricht, the 14th annual show, which opened last Saturday, is packed with record-breaking crowds.

By Monday, Maastricht dealer and TEFAF founding member Robert Noortman had racked up 13 sales, ranging from a dazzling Gerrit Berckheyde (1638-1698) view of a round Lutheran church in Amsterdam for a seven-figure sum to four Adrian Coorte still lifes. Of those infinitely precise pictures of framboises and asparagus by the Dutch artist, a single one of gooseberries sold for $586,000. The still lifes went to a Dutch collector.

Noortman's stand shows precisely how collector taste is ratcheting up a level or two, and how dealers are responding by securing considerably more precious pictures. Of course, prices are soaring.

Simply consider Rembrandt's Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62 from 1632, on view at Noortman. It's one of the artist's first oval portraits, the only picture on the floor with its own personal bodyguard and one of a handful totally encased in glass. No wonder, the price is $36.5 million. A son of a policeman, Noortman plucked the Rembrandt up at Christie's London sale in December for $28.6 million. He has had the picture cleaned, since it had sat in the Rothschild collection for more than two centuries.

This dealer also picked up Rembrandt's Man with a Red Doublet at Christie's New York December sale for $12.6 million. That painting had been owned by Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn, who got it from dealer Otto Naumann. Naumann's associate, Dr. Alfred Bader, picked the portrait up for $8.25 million at Sotheby's New York only three years ago. It's now hanging in Noortman's Maastricht gallery with a price tag of $16 million. That's just one sign that prices are climbing steeply in this market today. And both Rembrandts have attracted substantial interest.

Are they high-risk purchases for the noted Dutch dealer? "Hardly," replies Noortman. "The market is still strong for Old Masters."

Then the shopping frenzy is also in full force right next door to Noortman at Johnny van Haeften's. This London dealer has sold more than a half dozen pictures, including a light-filled Philips Wouwermans of a man on horseback. Buyers ranged clear across the board from Europeans to Americans. Plus, Van Haeften, who makes a stunning 25 percent of his annual sales at this 10-day event, has two museums and three collectors seriously interested in a masterpiece, a Gerrit Berckheyde exterior of the Haarlem Church of Saint Bavo. In this picture, the exacting detail, down to the cobblestones on the street and tracery of the windows, is astonishing to this day. The price? A hefty $5.5 million.

Why the profusion of sales with our sluggish economy dominating the world? "Unlike your stock market, Old Master's don't go up and down in value like a yo-yo," says van Haeften. "They hold their value." Another reason such buyers can afford them is that their total wealth is not tied up in the securities markets, adds van Haeften. In other words, buyers like those have got major liquidity.

"As collectors are getting older and their spending power increases, they're accustomed to the new price levels," says van Haeften. For an example, he points to a luscious still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem for $1.1 million. That kind of painting with the requisite tazza, grapes and peaches by the Antwerp artist has doubled in price over the past five years.

Still lifes and botanicals are on a roll. Pioneering Antwerp flower painter Osias Beert appears to have hit a new streak of popularity with ten of his enamel-like oils on view at the fair. Van Haeften is featuring one of the best: a detailed botanical. Other examples by Beert can be found in the Louvre, the Prado and Oxford's Ashmoleon Museum. Or, shoppers can head to De Jonkheere, who has two. One botanical is $4.5 million and a still life with fruit and Chinese porcelain bowls is $2.8 million. Even Otto Naumann has a Beert.

With paintings like those in profusion, clearly Maastricht is no ordinary art fair. The exhibition space alone is more than three times the size of New York's Seventh Regiment Armory. Boasting 197 dealers from 13 countries, this fair draws close to 70,000 in its ten-day run, or five times the visitors of the Haughton's International Fine Art Fair held in May at the armory.

"It's mandatory for curators to see what is available," says Axel Ruger, of London's National Gallery, who consulted on the Metropolitan Museum's current Vermeer show. Checking out the wares at this predominantly Old Masters show to see were legions of his colleagues from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Chicago Art Institute, the Frick and the Fogg. Also spotted were such connoisseur consultants as Peter Sutton, who recently left the Wadsworth Atheneum to head up Citibank's Art Advisory Services.

What drives such art-world insiders and the flocks of crowds is the quality on display. While with each passing year, more and more great works are snapped up by institutions and collectors -- in many cases leaving the market permanently -- the thinner supply doesn't show here. On the stands are textbook treasures: the likes of Rembrandt and Parmigianino, the equivalent of a museum blockbuster show.

"In fact, 60 percent of the world's supply of Old Masters, the fine ones that are on the market, are right here," says Konrad Bernheimer, waving his hand toward the stands. This Munich dealer should know; he's sits on TEFAF's powerful board.

But why does the oldest town in Netherlands play host to this event? Obviously, it's location, location, location. "It's two hours or more by car from Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam and Antwerp," says Dave Aronson, a Dutch Delft dealer, who is also on the TEFAF board.

That explains why the aisles are filled with crowds. Many stop at the stand of Otto Nauman, who sold up a storm of Old Masters to Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn. This New York dealer has the best marine painting, bar none. It is a seascape by Jan van de Cappelle (1624-1679) and this atmospheric, almost luminous picture has not been exhibited in close to half a century.

A rich merchant and totally self-taught artist, van de Cappelle painted only ten pictures. The price is commensurate with his brilliant artistry conveying reflections in the waters; it's $6.7 million.

Perhaps the most outstanding gold ground painting can be found at Bernheimer. It's a rich Calvary by the Master of Cologne/Lower Rhine from 1470-80. Filled with figures from the grief-stricken Mary to a stalwart soldier in armor, the picture is both regal theater and religious treatise. Bernheimer won't disclose the exact price but it is far more than $2 million, he says.

Colnaghi has without doubt the show-stopping drawing on the floor: Aelbert Cuyp's rendition of his hometown Dordrecht. With the work promised to a major Cuyp show set to open in October at the Washington, D.C., National Gallery (and traveling to London's National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum), Colnaghi director Luca Baroni is counting on selling the quiet landscape by the Dutch Claude during the duration of the fair. He battled with Noortman and Bob Habold at Christie's New York sale in January and paid $2.6 million for quiet drawing. Now, the picture is $4 million.

Why the steep price? "The Cuyp is right behind Rembrandt in quality and importance," says Baroni, who sees collectors demanding finer and finer pictures. "Even new collectors know what they're talking about."

Baroni has one of the more moving pictures. It's Christ as Man of Sorrows by a 16th-century Franco-Flemish artist. The painting is perfection, with its delicately rendered veins through the skin, the thorns piercing the forehead, the shadow of a knot in the rope tying Christ's wrists. The picture is not priced yet.

Although Dutch and Flemish examples abound, there's more diversity this year. Viewers can see more Spanish and Italian paintings than ever. Dickinson-Roundell has got a jewel-like Parmigianino, believed to be a self-portrait. The meditative sitter is portrayed against an emerald background. There's also a severe Guercino and a masterful Paris Bordone (1500-1571) of the rest on the flight into Egypt. The colors, sapphire blues and apricot, owe a debt to Titian. It's museum-worthy for $3.6 million.

When it comes to 19th-century paintings, yes, there are the predictable Degas dancers. In fact, there are enough to stock an entire corps de ballet. Yet Richard Green has a remarkable Georges Seurat oil sketch, Femme Assises. While diminutive in size, it is the most finished of studies the pointillist completed for his La Grande Jatte. The price for the recent auction purchase is $2.5 million.

While the ranks of 20th-century and contemporary dealers have swelled, the quality in that specialty is no match for the Old Masters. First-time participant Aquavella has brought a Bonnard nude, a bold Picasso along with an iconic Giacometti drawing of Diego.

But Montreal dealer Robert Landau has a showstopper, a rare Modigiliani portrait from 1915. With a Cubist background and a heavily textured surface, the picture is museum quality, but then it had hung at the Museum of Modern Art for more than four decades. At $11.5 million, it's the second most expensive picture on the floor. "It's one of only three double portraits by the artist," says Landau whose booth contains $100 million in paintings and sculpture.

New York dealer Berry-Hill has taken on a formidable and distinctive mission. "We are the only gallery showing American paintings," says Fred Hill. Yes, there is the ubiquitous Hudson River landscape but the standout is picture by George Bellows of two women, one clothed, the other nude (and tinted a lurid lime green). It has already attracted substantial museum interest. The price is $10 million.

"This is why we come to Maastricht," says Fred Hill, while proudly surveying the crowds packing his stand.

BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.