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    Old Master Muscle
by Brook S. Mason
Anthonie de Lorme
Interior of the Grote Kerk, Rotterdam
at Johnny van Haeften
Hendrik Maertensz Sorgh
A Beach Scene with Fisherfolk
at Haboldt & Co., sold.
Lucas Cranach
at Bernheimer
Giuseppe Archimboldo
A Reversible Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of Fruit
ca. 1580
$7.5 million
at French & Co.
Frans Hals
Portrait of a Gentleman
$3.5 million
at Otto Naumann
Master of the Death of St. Nicholas of Münster
15th century
$5.5 million
at Otto Naumann
Kees van Dongen
at Leslie Waddington
Sold for about $1 million
Max Ernst
The Endless Night
at Cazeau & Beraudiere
Sold for $1.3 million
John Singer Sargent
Two Heads from the Banquet of the Officers (after Frans Hals)
at Agnew's
John Singer Sargent
Miss Eleanor Brooks
$5.5 million
at Berry-Hill
Master of Etienne Sauderat
Miroir de humaine salvation
ca. 1450-60
at Heribert Tenschert, sold for $900,000.
Marble relief of two winged Nikes
1st century AD
at Weber Kunst Handel
TEFAF Maastricht 2000, Mar. 18-Mar. 26, 2000, at the MECC fairgrounds, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Hyperbole is common when talking about art fairs. Only the best and most successful dealers are invited to participate, and they invariably trot out their most thoroughbred wares. In this regard, none beats the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in the demure southern Holland town of Maastricht. It's a showstopper. For one thing, it's the finest and largest in the world with a stunning 198 dealers from 13 countries. The attendance, an expected 70,000 plus, speaks further of its magnitude. Admission is $30, and includes a 528-page catalogue.

Even the number of journalists covering TEFAF Maastrict conveys the stature. The press corps numbers a staggering 450 people, including 10 film crews as well as reporters from Figaro in Paris and the São Paulo Journal in Brazil.

Opening night drew 8,300 visitors -- 1,000 more than last year. And the recent expansion of the parking facility to 3,000 cars already seems insufficient. Americans turned out in droves -- and the feverish Dow with its historic 499-point surge the day before the fair could just be what is driving them.

Interestingly, many are led by the hand by museum curators. George Shackelford, head of European painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was shepherding prominent collectors and donors. First-time fair participant, Patrick Matthiesen of the New York-based Stair Sainty Matthiesen, said he counted five institutions bringing groups through his stand to view a rare Chardin still life, including the Detroit Institute of Art and National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Long considered the premiere event for 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting, the fair boasts countless van Ruysdael landscapes and van de Velde seascapes this year. In fact, says London dealer Johnny van Haeften, who specializes in that period, approximately 70 percent of the world's supply is available here.

Demand for the Golden Age of Netherlandish painting is now fierce. "Even with prices going up 10 to 15 percent, we're seeing an increased demand," proclaims van Haeften. A growing number of collectors of Impressionist paintings are now buying Old Masters, he says. "Comparatively speaking, an Old Master at $1 million is affordable," says van Haeften. This weekend, he sold a Willem Claesz Heda still life along with a Pieter Brueghel the Younger and ten other paintings. Buyers were English, German, Dutch and American.

Remaining on his stand is a sublime church interior complete with the portrait of the artist Anthonie de Lorme (1610-1673) for $874,500. "It's the artist staring out at the viewer along with the handling of the shadow that captures attention immediately," says van Haeften. He should know; last year, he sold 30 paintings totaling $5 million in sales receipts.

New York dealer Bob Haboldt wrote up more than 20 paintings and drawings with prices from $5,000 up to $500,000 for a Jan Jansz de Heem still life with flowers this past weekend. Half of those works, including a placid beachscape by Hendrick Maertensz Sorgh (1609-1670) went to Americans. "It's the reputation of this fair that is the draw, more than the obviously healthy economy," says Haboldt. He strongly believes that Maastricht is a rightful challenge to the auction houses, especially in light of the current illegal price-fixing charges that Sotheby's is facing.

Apparently anticipating strong sales, dealers have come well prepared, bringing more pictures than ever before. Munich dealer Konrad Bernheimer counts 60 paintings in his booth. That's up from 45 last year. "Business has never been so good," says Bernheimer. He already has a major Cranach on reserve. It's one of his last large figure paintings and the 1532 Rennaissance subject is a peculiar one -- a droll Hercules as a slave surrounded by sneering women.

Unlike the auction houses, where sales often contain "retreads," works that continually recycle through the market, Maastricht usually delivers the ultimate art works -- those locked away in family vaults for centuries. Yet by contrast, this year, a surprising number of paintings on view had clearly been purchased at the January Old Master auctions in New York, underlining the diminishing supply of works fresh to the market.

Over at French & Co., director Martin Zimet is hawking a coy Archimboldo, A Reversible Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of Fruit, which he snapped up at Sotheby's in January for a cool $1,432,500. The 500 percent markup here, to $7.5 million, says just how brazen some dealers can be these days. Considering the fact that this novelty painting sold at Bukowskis in Stockholm when merely attributed to Archimboldo last year for $133,000, art market analysts will be carefully watching the progress of Zimet's sale of it.

With a dwindling art supply and an increasing number of collectors, what matters now is quality. New York dealer Otto Naumann is touting a massive Frans Hals portrait. While it did go under the hammer at Sotheby's London in 1988, the picture is perhaps the best of its kind on view at the fair. Back then it went for $1.3 million, so the current price of $3.5 million seems reasonable. "Remember a Hals sold at the Rothschild sale for more than $12 million," points out Naumann. A professor of art history at Yale, Naumann also served as consultant to the Las Vegas hotelier and collector Steve Wynn.

Naumann also has a spectacular gold field Calvary by the Master of the Death of St. Nicholas of Münster, which he bought at Christie's New York Old Masters sale. The 15th-century German panel with life sized figures is a pivotal work in the history of northern Renaissance painting and one that any major museum would be proud to own. The price is $5.5 million.

This year there appears to be a broader range in the paintings offered. More Italian paintings and more Spanish ones, too. London dealer Derek Johns is offering modest examples by Alcazar and the Zuburan workshop.

The fair is in its 26th year, and the organizers are trying to bolster participation by contemporary and modern dealers, with 30 signed up now. The catalogue cover painting, a robust 1911 portrait by Kees van Dongen of a Mediterranean girl, demonstrates how coveted such offerings are. This picture, titled Fatma, sold for close to $1 million within the first 60 minutes of opening night, reports London dealer Leslie Waddington. That night he also wrote up one of Agnes Martin's spare but elegant renderings of stripes, in acrylic and gesso no less, for about $200,000.

Surrealism also proved popular, with the Parisian dealers Philippe Cazeau and Jacques de la Beraudiére selling a Max Ernst work called The Endless Night. Done in acid turquoise and muddy magenta tones, the painting of a mythological beast went for $1.3 million.

What's particularly striking this year is the increasing presence of American paintings. Four works by John Singer Sargent were counted on the floor, with three at London dealer Julian Agnew. The most distinctive is the Bostonian painter's copy of a Frans Hals, the Standard Bearer from the Banquet of Officers. This oil is $275,000, while a portrait of Mrs. Edward Goetz is priced at $850,000.

The fourth Sargent is at Berry-Hill Galleries, a classic work that pictures a towering American beauty bedecked in a pink shirtwaist. Titled Miss Elizabeth Brooks (1880), it's priced at $5.5 million. What makes this painting special? "Sargent's lavish use of white and the size -- more than five feet high," says New York dealer Fred Hill. Plus, the painting has a solid provenance; it has been in the Boston Saltonstall family since it was completed in 1890.

Hill, who is only in his second year at Maastricht, has already snared a reserve by an American on a serene Winslow Homer oil of a young girl.

Illuminated manuscripts penned in nunneries and monasteries are also selling briskly. German dealer Heribert Tenschert sold one on vellum for $900,000 to a European collector. It has an impressive 190 miniatures by the Master of Etienne Sauderat. "The sale had nothing to do with the economy; it was because of the love of the manuscript from 1455," explains Tenschert of the piece, which is filled with illuminations of hovering angels, praying knights and docile animals. Titled Miroir de humaine salvation, the costly tome had once been owned by the Getty Trust.

Antiquities are also prominent. At the stand of Cologne dealer Weber Kunst Handel is a monumental marble relief of two winged Nikes in flowing drapery with the requisite halos of olive branches. Dating from Roman Imperial times, (the 1st century AD), this relief portion of a temple frieze shows the goddesses of victory each riding a chariot pulled by pairs of horses. "It's the only one of its kind and the condition is exceptional," says Gordian Weber. It's priced at $325,000.

But rampant sales aside, TEFAF organizers are deeply concerned about the state of the art market. "While the U.S. art market soared 81 percent between 1994 and 1998, the European Union market had only a 26 percent gain," says TEFAF president Baron Van Dedem. He led the preparation of a comprehensive art-market report detailing the size and scope of the business. The 121-page report states that the European art market directly employs 75,000 and last year reaped $7 billion in sales.

"The report predicts that by 2001, the U.S. will overtake that of Europe," says the Baron, who hopes the report will lead to the repeal of new European rules involving the VAT and resale royalties.

But with TEFAF leading the charge for market share, one thing is certain -- the Maastricht fair will never falter.

BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.