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AXA Art director Thomas Wessel

Salomon van Ruysdael
A Wijdschip and Other Small Vessels on the River Waal
Robert Noortman, Maastricht

Jacob van Ruisdael
A Distant View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields
ca. 1668

Luca Cambiaso
The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist
ca. 1548
Galerie Canesso, Paris

Francesco Guardi
The interior of the basilica of St. Marks, Venice
Derek Johns Ltd, London

Albrecht Drer
The Nativity
David Tunick, Inc., New York

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
The Three Trees
Artemis Fine Arts, London

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
A Seated Young Man with Long Hair, Probably Reading a Book
Haboldt & Co., Paris

Frans Hals
A Portrait of a Man
ca. 1643
Johnny Van Haeften, London

Franois Joseph Kinson
Comtesse de MacMahon and Her Grandson Jules de Bessequier
Munich and London

Packed Supermarket Cart
Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Philip Guston
Calm Sea
Timothy Taylor, London

Louise Bourgeois
Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels

Hubert Martinet
George III Ormolu and Marble Automaton Clock
in the form of a calf elephant
Pelham Galleries, London

Ivory Indian Howdah with yellow silk bolsters and cushions
ca. 1820
Mallett & Son, London
Fairest of the Fair
by Brook S. Mason

MAASTRICHT -- Two days ago, when the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) opened in this small Dutch border town for a nine-day run (Mar. 5-14, 2004), it seemed fitting to turn to Thomas Wessel of AXA Art for his appraisals of the wares on view. After all, with 203 dealers from 13 countries, TEFAF is the Olympics of the world art fair circuit, and Wessel commands a distinctive view of the fair.

AXA Art is the leader in art insurance worldwide, and Wessel serves as director of art expertise management, heading up a team of 50 art experts. His staff is called on for appraisals, provenance documentation and market strength. In a word, they qualify art investibles.

Based in Cologne, AXA Art's worldwide headquarters, Wessel holds a doctorate in the economic development of the Venetian Baroque. When he first joined AXA more than two decades ago, it had but two art experts on staff.

Today, Wessel counts a stunning 23,000 clients on his Rolodex. "Of them, 2,300 are very active on the art market," says Wessel. At TEFAF, a flurry of his well-heeled clientele packed the AXA stand, where scores of bottles of champagne were served opening night. Collectors hail from Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and the U.S. of A., of course.

With the dollar still appallingly low against the mighty euro, some market seers believe sales at TEFAF may be down, down, down this year. Not at all, says Wessell. "Our clients diversify their wealth and have multiple accounts in different currencies around the world," he says. Besides, top quality art is a mighty asset and hardly susceptible to minor currency devaluations, according to Wessel.

Proof of Wessel's view can be found in the impressive sales and attendance in a scant four days since the fair's glittering vernissage on Mar. 4, 2004. A total of 28,000 visitors filled the convention hall. That's an impressive 11.5 percent jump in attendance over 2003.

Maastricht dealer Robert Noortman says he racked up 18 sales in the first two days -- and a third of the purchases went to Americans. Plucked up from Noortman's stand was Salomon van Ruysdael's 1650 A Wijdschip and Other Small Vessels on the River Waal. It is not only signed with the artist's monogram but also dated, further adding to its value.

"It went to an American collector," says Noortman, who noted that the price was $4.2 million. "In January, I thought it would be tough selling but it's not at all." Noortman, who is the son of a policeman and grandson of a fisherman, also sold a Balthasar van der Ast still life to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H.

Also in Noortman's booth is a grand Jacob van Ruisdael that had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Dutch collector snapped up that sublime landscape for a hefty $6 million. The art market really is roaring back at high speed.

Despite the unfavorable exchange rate, it seems that more Americans than ever are trolling the aisles. Curators were spotted from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art and even Arizona's Phoenix Art Museum.

"Last year, only a trickle came," says Manhattan dealer Jack Kilgore. This time, they're out in full force with trustees, patrons and just plain collectors in tow. Then the fact that even the regional museums are taking in Maastricht demonstrates the increasing allure of this fair.

Proof of museum buying prowess could be spotted at Galerie Canesso from Paris. There, a Texas museum curator snapped up a Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585) Virgin and Child, ca. 1548. The Paris dealer Maurizio Canesso had packed his entire stand with works by the Genovese artist. Prices ran from $500,000-$2.2 million. While hardly a household name, Cambiaso rendered this candle-lit nocturnal scene 60 years before George de la Tour. His work rarely appears at auction.

Some critics had foolishly lamented that TEFAF boasted fewer real rarities this season, but that is hardly so. A major Giovanni Bellini Mother and Child is on view at Dickinson, an impressive Agnolo Gaddi Virgin and Child at Fabrizio Moretti, four Guardis at Derek Johns, Fragonard drawings and Drer prints at David Tunick, a slew of Rembrandt etchings at Artemis, and a recently discovered Rembrandt drawing at Haboldt & Co. that borders on the sublime, to name just a few. "There isn't a fair that can match this one in terms of masterpieces," says Wessel. He believes the Guardis are of rock-solid value. In all, an estimated $1 billion worth of art is on view at TEFAF.

To match those museum worthy masterpieces, Johnny van Haaften is spotlighting an iconic Frans Hals portrait of a gentleman. He sold it immediately -- further proof that dollar fluctuations and international terrorism do not dint major collectors in the slightest.

There are even great paintings to be had at Maastricht for very reasonable prices. Power dealer Konrad Bernheimer of the Bernheimer Colnaghi gallery is featuring such a picture. It is a grand portrait, Comtesse de MacMahon and Her Grandson Jules de Bessequier by the neoclassical Belgian artist Franois Joseph Kinson. The painting is exquisitely rendered with every lavish texture from fine lace and luscious velvets to sumptuous furs and is in its original frame. If it were a David or an Ingres, the price would be a stunning $3 million. However, this painting costs a modest 435,000 euros. "It's as good as Winterhalter," says Wessel, who thinks the price is quite reasonable for the quality.

Old masters aside, who's front and center in the modern and contempory section? Picasso, Picasso, Picasso. Montreal dealer Robert Landau is touting16 works by the artist. Then there are enough Warhols to relaunch the Factory.

The Manhattan gallery Sperone Westwater has a bevy of Giorgio di Chiricos and Francois Picabias, works that were on view in the New York gallery this fall. Wessel says he sees a collecting revival in this area. "With their depth of meaning, metaphysical riddles and importance in art history, prime works will fetch even higher prices in the marketplace," he notes.

At the booth of Cologne dealer Rafael Jablonka, a Richard Prince car hood is the latest wall sculpture. "It's possibly good for investors," says Wessel. But he thinks such examples are more typically included in corporate collections.

Wessel says that a fantastic pick just might be the Christo wrapped shopping cart at Annely Juda Fine Art. Right now, AXA Art is backing research at the Swiss Vitra Museum on the conservation of plastics. "The shopping cart is really a case study," says Wessel.

London dealer Timothy Taylor is featuring a rarity of sorts. Philip Guston's 1977 Calm Sea, priced at $1.4 million. "The artist's estate controls all of his paintings and has given 50 to museums," says Taylor. At this stage of the market, his duties include preventing the painting from falling into the hands of speculators.

Guston is on a high these days following a traveling retrospective. In 1970, the second generation Abstract Expressionist, a contemporary of Pollock, took the surprising step of adopting a cartoonish, figurative style. In the last ten years of the artist's life, he sold nothing. "Now, they all want it," says Taylor.

While Guston is under-collected right now in Germany, Wessel finds the painting appealing. "It's eccentric and enigmatic," he says.

As for cutting edge, enthusiasts might favor the work of Brit pack artist Martin Maloney at the Brussels gallery Xavier Hufkens. This Saatchi artist, who writes for Artforum and Flash Art, was in the controversial "Sensation" show at the Royal Academy. Here, he has cutouts of domestic scenes with a plethora of rickrack paper, signs of a new pop art at 7,100 euros each.

Hufkens is also presenting a creepy sewn red fabric hand in a custom-built industrial display case by 93-year-old Louise Bourgeois. This eerie sculpture could just be the contemporary collector's version of a treasured work of art. Cost? $220,000.

In the decorative arts, examples range from museum pieces like the Owen Jones cabinet in the Moresque-Greek taste at the booth of London dealer Harris Lindsay to outright kitsch ostentation. Take the 1778 mechanical clock at Pelham Gallery. In gleaming ormolu and marble, this timepiece sports an elephant -- its tusk, ears, eyes and tail shaking and wagging with the clock face and works on its back. The cost is a regal $612,000. No less than Lord Rothschild of Waddeston Manor owns one.

Wessel's opinion? Possibly not for every European connoisseur but perhaps suitable for a certain lavish taste.

The howdah at Mallett might also qualify as a peculiar sample of consumer culture. To the non-cognoscenti, a howdah is a seating arrangement especially designed for perching upon an elephant. Mallet's version is in ivory, can seat a Maharajah and his attendant and costs $560,000. The 139-year-old London gallery has refitted the howdah with a brilliant yellow silk upholstery and canopy.

Scientific instruments and works of art and antiquities are more apparent than ever. Wessel says that only the old style European collector continues to daub in these specialties. "Some are still adding to their kunstkammers," says Wessel. By that he means collectors whose families began focusing on art centuries ago. Wessel says half of his clients focus on this area.

Still, whether or not one is such a seasoned collector hardly matters at TEFAF 2004. There is something magnificent for collectors at every level this season.

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