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Rembrandt van Rijn
at Otto Naumann

Lucas Cranach the Elder
Venus and Almor or the Honey Thief
at Bernheimer-Colnaghi

Gerrit Willemsz. Heda
A Still Life with Pewter Ewer...
at Habolt & Co.

Max Ernst
Arbres/Mineraux-Arbres Conjugaux
at Galerie Cazeau-Beraudíere

Vincent van Gogh
Wheatfield with Sheaves
at Kunsthandel Frans Jacobs

Giuseppe Archimboldo
A Reversible Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of Fruit
at French & Company

Paul Cézanne
Arbres et vanne d'ecluse
ca. 1885
at Michael Werner

Paul Dupre' Lafon
set of four rectangular side tables
Paris, 1930
at Phillippe Denys

Detail of 12-panel coromandel screen
at Pelham Galleries

Memento Mori head
ca. 1550
at Kunsthamer George Lane

Bernard Steinitz's stand
with bronze robed angel from Italy
Maastricht Report 2002
by Brook S. Mason

TEFAF Maastricht, International Art and Antiques Fair, Mar. 8-17, 2002, MECC Maastricht, the Netherlands.

It may sound like hyperbole, but the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), based in the small Dutch town of Maastricht, ranks in terms of sheer quality as the most significant art fair anywhere. And the 15th annual version, now open through Mar. 17, belies the notion that the art market's supply of rarities is fast dwindling. TEFAF experts say the fair showcases one billion guilders worth of art. Make that $312,706,021.

More masterpieces are on view than ever with the 201 dealers from 13 countries here, though of course there are many lesser examples featured. Five years ago, the dealer roster stood at only 167 and attendance was 55,000. But last year, a staggering total of 75,000 strolled the aisles, indicating this fair's hefty growth spurt. In accommodating the crowds, this year's event is one day longer and the vernissage on Thursday alone boasted more than 7,500 people.

By day one, Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers had led a group through the show, and curators from the Morgan Library, the Frick, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Getty and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts had checked in, many with patrons and trustees in tow.

For the highpoints here, consider New York dealer Otto Naumann's glorious Rembrandt. Said to be the only history painting by the Dutch master on the market, his Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war, positively glows, from the touches of glittering embroidery on her dress and cape to her golden tresses. There are only two other known Rembrandt history paintings; and both are smaller and in UK private collections. Neither would probably ever be granted export licenses (Naumann's came from Japan). Plus, Naumann's Minerva is monumental in scale: close to four feet high. All that justifies the mighty price: $40 million. The painting is already drawing crowds and the picture has even got its own bodyguard.

On the floor are a slew of works by such masters as Jacob Jordaens, Philip Wouwerman, Ruysdael, Antony van Dyck and every imaginable relative of Pieter Brueghel's.

What's the Old Masters market like now? Well, Rachel Kaminsky, who heads up Konrad Bernheimer's acquisition of the London dealer Colnaghi, says the old "wait and see" period is over. "I know of 40 really top paintings sold since January by our gallery, Richard Green, Johnny van Haeften and Otto Naumann all together," she says. "The market is as strong as it was back in January 2001." By day two of the fair, van Haeften had reserves on seven pictures, ranging from an Esias van de Velde at about $500,000 to a Jan van Kessel at under $100,000.

At the Bernheimer/Colnaghi stand is another ultimate textbook picture: Lucas Cranach the Elder's Venus and Amor or The Honey Thief, with a bejeweled Venus swathed in a diaphanous veil. It is signed and dated 1532.

New York dealer Bob Haboldt has a treasure, too. It's a still life by Gerrit Willemsz. Heda complete with the requisite lemon and its slivered skin, a massive salt cellar and fine ewer. The price is a modest $385,000 for this luminescent portrayal. That's because it's unsigned. If it bore the signature, the price would be in the $800,000 range or even higher.

Moving further along the art history time chart, another gem can be found with the Paris Galerie Cazeau-Beraudiere. Their Max Ernst oil of 1940, Arbres Mineraux-Arbres Conjugaux, is pure extra-terrestrial. Priced at $1.6 million, the painting has already attracted serious interest.

The London and New York firm of Dickinson Roundell is featuring Brancusi's Birds in Flight in tempera on stone. "It's a magical piece," crows James Roundell." This sublime work in a soft blue with touches of white for the birds' wingspans had been in a New York exhibition curated by Marcel Duchamp in 1933. From a London private collection, the painting costs $1 million.

But don't expect to see van Gogh's Wheatfield with Sheaves. Serious vetting questions forced Kunsthandel Frans Jacobs to pull the artist's 1888 landscape off its stand. Such scrutiny makes the vetting here literally the gold standard among fairs.

But while unquestionably more fine paintings are on view, interestingly there's a tiny portion of retreads, works that were here one, two and three years ago. Johnny van Haeften still has Berkheyde's detailed picture of a Haarlem cathedral and Martin Zimet of French & Co. is once again flogging Archimboldo's reversible anthropomorphic creature with a pear for nose along with an olive and a chestnut for eyes. The failure of that picture to sell could be the price. Zimet wants $4 million. Over at Axel Vervoordt's stand are two 18th century lead reliefs of Dido and Aeneas from the 1999 Rothschild sale in London. That Belgium dealer is also pushing Giovanni Battista Salvi's pair of fruit laden still lifes from the mid-17th century for $1.2 million from two years ago.

Surely such leftovers speak of demanding and sometimes fickle client taste as well as the comparatively small sliver of buyers at the top.

Even so, the fair glimmers with great work. London dealer Leslie Waddington, who heads up Maastricht's modern art section, has been making substantial efforts in that category. He's recruited dealer Michael Werner from New York. On Werner's stand are a flock of Cézanne studies, both watercolors and drawings, some of which are breathtaking. The prices seem slight for such artistry: $75,000-$225,000.

At Schönewald Fine Arts from the Rhine section of Germany are a number of paintings by Gerhard Richter, who is now enjoying a crowd-filled retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There's a portrait of Andy Warhol superstar Brigit Polk from 1971, painted as if photographed through mesh, priced at $1.2 million. The artist's 1965 Infant on a Table looks like a black-and-white snapshot taken while traveling at 50 mph. This modern take on grisaille is visually disturbing, but then that's the point. The picture costs $475,000. Already, close to a half dozen paintings are on reserve, according to Anthony Meier, who shares the stand.

As for the decorative arts, the later pieces here are getting better and better. Phillippe Denys has the ultimate drop-dead stand of mid-20th-century fare. Each piece is dazzling. Consider the eight mahogany Guigliemo Ulrich chairs made in Milan in 1935. Their lines are a sparse statement of fluidity.

Here's what this Brussels dealer sold at the vernissage: the Ulrich chairs, a superb Dupre-Lafon table for $165,000, a Gaetano Borsani chest of parchment and mahogany and a set of Puiforcat "Bayonne" pattern flatware along with four other major pieces. Those sales say just how hot this area is now. But then, Denys has got the best eye and the most superlative inventory. In other words, he has cornered the market on haute taste.

For an example of an earlier refined era, the Park Avenue kind, London's Pelham Galleries has just the right choice. It's a 12-panel Coromandel screen. One side is filled with a narrative text and accompanying court scenes, while the other is delicate watercolors of rural landscapes. This outstanding screen costs $308,000.

But speaking of decorator smalls, Kunstkammer Georg Laue of Munich has focused his entire stand on Momento Mori, no less. There are Papua, New Guinea, human skulls decorated with seeds from the early 1900s; ivory skulls and skeletons and boxwood corpses dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, too. By the first day of the fair, 12 examples had reserves. Perhaps that interest indicates the current concern with mortality. The early German works are termed "Todleins," or "little deaths," and originally designed for meditation.

But for pure theater, no one should miss Bernard Steinitz's stand with boiserie from a 1750 Belgian residence. Carved with arched pediments and fluted pilasters, the wood bears traces of blue and white paint. Did Steinitz distress the boiserie to create a rather time-honored striated effect? His reply is a coy smile. Anyway, it's splendid.

He also has a pair of bronze robed angels from Italy, towering nine feet tall. Dating from 1925, they're the height of haughty theatrics, priced at $350,000 and perfect for flanking a garden entrance.

As many of the cognoscenti know, there is something at TEFAF for practically every artful taste. Tickets are only 30 euros. A relative bargain for hours of the world's best treasure hunting.

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

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