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    Masterpiece Theater
by Brook S. Mason
The Master of the Karlsruhe Passion
The Scourging of Christ
ca. 1435-1600
at Colnaghi
Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Peasant Meal in the Open-air
at De Jonckheer
Lorenzo Lippi
The Guicciardini Children
at Clovis Whitfield
Vincent van Gogh
At the Plough
from the "Four Seasons" at James Farber
Edouard Vuillard
La maison de Mallarmé à Valvins
at Galene Berés
Edouard Vuillard
Les tasses noires
at Neffe-Degandt
Paul Cézanne
Les deux pommes
ca. 1900
at Philippe Cazeau-Jacques de la Béraudiére
Pablo Picasso
Homme et Femme, Bustes
at Daniel Malingue
Arturo Ricci
The Game of Cards
18th century
at MacConnal-Mason
Arturo Ricci
The Game of Cards
18th century
at MacConnal-Mason
Henri Daumier
at David and Constance Yates
Fine art fairs proliferate across the nation, but in terms of the sheer number of masterpiece paintings, none can match the International Fine Art Fair at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York. Organized by the British team of Brian and Anna Haughton, this year the six-year-old fair ran May 7-May 12, 1999 and featured participation by 68 dealers.

On view were truly great pictures by artists ranging from Pieter Brueghel the Younger to Pierre Bonnard and Pablo Picasso, available for sublime enjoyment and, of course, hefty prices. In fact, seven figure price tags are routine for many of the American, British, French and German dealers at the Park Avenue fair. This year, Old Masters predominate in panel paintings, works on canvas and drawings, indicating a growing interest in this collecting specialty.

If you thought religious paintings were passé, think again. The venerable London firm of Colnaghi, the oldest continuously operating picture dealer in the West, filled its booth with Biblical subjects. There is the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion's disturbing 15th-century flagellation scene, The Scourging of Christ, as well as a Guercino's St. Andrew Bearing the Cross.

But the standout was a magnificent house altar by Jacob Cornelisz Cobaert. Crafted in ebony with lapiz lazuli panels, this compact altar is peopled with gilt and silvered bronze figures of Moses, the four evangelists, Mary and Jesus, with a penitent Mary Magdalene crouched at his feet. At its center is a crucifix attributed to the workshop of the Baroque master who turned his hand to St. Peter's in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The work was unquestionably a papal commission, says Colnaghi director Jean Luc Baroni. "The sculpture is priceless," he said. More specifically, it's in the seven-figure range. The altarpiece will be featured in the Montreal Museum exhibition "The Triumph of the Baroque," opening this December.

De Jonckheer of Pairs had no less than two iconic paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Dutch artist's Peasant Meal in the Open-air is filled with droll vignettes of cavorting peasants, many sporting Brueghel's signature crimson and teal garb. By the third day of the fair, an American had bought one of the paintings for $1.2 million.

Jack Kilgore, who has galleries in Paris and New York, featured in his stand a snowy village landscape by Joos de Momper, long considered the most important landscape painter in Flanders. It was snapped up by a European client early in the fair's run.

New Bond Street Dealer Clovis Whitfield had a luscious rendering of a nobleman's children by the 17th-century Florentine painter Lorenzo Lippi. It sold in the seven figures. What attracts such feverish purchasing? "The fact that the Lippi had been tucked away in an Italian private collection for centuries makes it a premium piece," explained Whitfield, adding that "it's unusual to see children with no allegorical context in a 17th-century painting like this."

Central to this year's fair was a wealth of dealers in drawings. Their offerings ranged from a fluid Tiepolo Madonna and Child at Flavia Ormond to delicate Pre-Raphelite pencil sketches at the Maas Gallery. The costliest drawing could be found with first-time fair participant James Faber. He had four small drawings by van Gogh which are part of a series from 1884 titled "Four Seasons." These four works, done in pencil, pen and brown ink, are preparatory sketches for the artist's only painting commission.

Rather than representing the seasons through scenes of landscape and weather, van Gogh focused on the events of peasant life. His four drawings show a grim potato harvest, a farmer with a plough, a sedentary ox in the snow and a sower at work. The set is priced at $1 million plus. The works were included in "Millet, van Gogh" at the Musee d'Orsay.

"No fair like this exists in Britain," said Faber by way of noting his reason for bringing his wares to New York. He reported seeing dozens of museum curators leading clients by the hand down the aisles -- the perfect pairing.

As for 19th-century French paintings, there were enough Vuillards and Bonnards available to stock small retrospectives -- or at least to study the artists in depth.

For Vuillard, a visitor could first turn to Galerie Berès, which offered deft sketches as well a distinctive early painting in dusty taupes and slate blues, La Maison de Mallarmé à Valvins. It costs $590,000. Nearby, Neffe-Degandt mounted the artist's portrait of Misia Sert, who was celebrated in fiction by both Proust and Cocteau. Titled Les tasses noires, the painting shows the madam in her elegant apartment. Painted with Vuillard's characteristic soft brush strokes, Sert has a commanding presence and represents the height of 1920s style.

Competing with the Cézanne still life at Sotheby's -- which sold for $60 million on Monday -- was an impressive rendition of apples by the same artist at the booth of Paris dealer Phillipe Cazeau-Jacques de la Béraudière. The price? A mere $4 million. Still unsold, the painting is smaller than the one in the auction, but equally beautiful.

Also on view at Cazeau-de la Béraudière was Bonnard's portrait of his sister, Le Corsage à Carreaux, Portrait of Mme Claude Terrasse, priced at $1.8 million. "It's like a Soutine, but 40 years earlier," said the dealer, commenting on the unusually expressionistic quality of the work. Center stage in the booth was Modigliani's hauntingly attenuated portrait of Lunia Czechowska.

For this year's fair, the Haughtons extended the time period through the 1960s (previously it had been "through Impressionism"). Especially dazzling was the brutish Picasso, Homme et Femme, Bustes at the Paris-based Galerie Malingue. Exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 1984, this oil in ghoulish white and mordant black was priced at $1.8 million.

One of the more exquisite works could be found at Artemis, where dealer Sebastian Goetz had a sliver of a painting by Gustav Moreau. Ablaze with vermilion and gold, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist measures only 8 1/2 by 5 inches. This jewel-like creation had been owned by the same family for more than a century, according to Goetz. The price is $725,000.

The fair didn't neglect 19th-century academic painting, either. MacConnal-Mason, which made its name building Andrew Lloyd Weber's collection, featured Arturo Ricci's The Game of Cards. With a bevy of figures in 18th-century finery, it is a latter-day version of Rococo. The exquisite detail, from ruffled lace to velvet sheen, may explain the appeal of this work, which could be yours for $460,000. Even pricier is a striking winter landscape by Andreas Schelfhout, "the Dutch master of painting ice," for $610,000.

But it's not merely a mega-million-dollar fair. David and Constance Yates, who specialize in Rennaissance and 19th-century sculpture, had a satirical representation of a pro-Bonapartist by Honoré Daumier. Titled Ratapoil, the work was priced at $75,000. It was cast in 1925. It's interesting to note that an earlier cast of the work from the Whitney collection sold at Sotheby's on May 10 for $134,500, five times its presale high estimate of $35,000.

Inexpensive bronze plaques and medals from the Romantic period also abound. Right now those by the French romantic sculptor David d'Angers are particularly favored by museum curators for their own personal collections, said David Yates. Some cost as little as $1,500.

Even if you don't snare a bronze or a drawing, the fair was well worth a visit simply for the pleasure of the company of so many masterpieces.

BROOK S. MASON writes on art and antiques.