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by Brook Mason
Just when Manhattan was bloated with edgy contemporary art fairs (four alone over the first weekend of March), along came the European Fine Art Fair, the Dutch granddaddy of all Old Master shows, suddenly newly stocked with the crème de la crème of -- you guessed it! -- contemporary dealers, including powerhouses Larry Gagosian, Richard Gray and Achim Moeller. Even trendy design was represented, with Galerie Downtown showcasing Ron Arad’s space-age, cone-shaped lighting.

In all, more than 20 contemporary-art dealers spiked the 221-participant fair’s landscape, alongside stalwarts of 17th-century painting like London’s Johnny van Haeften and the Maastricht-based Robert Noortman. Also on hand was the oh-so-European taste of decorative arts masters such as Aardewerk, featuring Dutch silver dating from the time of Rembrandt, and Georg Laue, with 17th-century German amber.

The new dealer mix worked wonders in terms of drawing crowds. A staggering 8,492 people packed the aisles opening night on Mar. 9, 2006. That’s up 15 percent from 2005, when a snowstorm shuttered airports. Champagne flowed as never before. Even the hors d’oeuvres set a new stylish standard: dainty gravlax sandwiches served in loaves of bread two feet across and oysters shucked by waiters wearing the latest in cuisine couture -- tray-like belts for holdings the crustaceans, decorated with seaweed.

More Americans cruised the aisles than ever before. There was billionaire collector Eli Broad; L.A. designer Rose Tarlow, who ministers to David Geffen; Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers, with four trustees in tow; and art consultant to the stars Michel Witmer (he claims to have Mick Jagger on his client list), sauntering down the aisles, taking in a botanical picture at Noortman, peeking in at the Impressionist paintings at Wildenstein and glaring at the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at Gagosian (his stand had no labels, so visitors were often seen squinting fiercely at the pictures). A group from the St. Louis Art Museum was sighted trundling through as well.

The mood? Jubilant. Vernissage sales took off immediately, just after 12 noon. A European collector pounced on a set of 12 Ole Wanscher chairs at the booth of Brussels dealer Philippe Denys.

While the Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet, priced at a jaw-dropping $32.4 million at Noortman’s booth, was still for sale, within a few hours the dealer had sold another star picture, an Adriaen van Ostade interior decked out with a peasant family complete with a spinning wheel and toddler cavorting with a dog. "It went to an American," says Noortman, a TEFAF founder. The price was a hefty €4 million. By the following Wednesday, he had scored 20 sales.

The new shopping trend in Maastricht should be spelled out in gilt-edged capital letters: bigger, better, more important.

Thus, London and Munich dealer Konrad Bernheimer sold off his Lucas Cranach the Elder Christ Blessing the Children for €2.2 million on Saturday. By the fourth day of the fair, Bernheimer was beaming like the Chesire Cat as he rang up the following sales: a view of the Doge’s palace by Friedrich Nerly (1807-1878) -- who was a pal of Turner’s -- and an Abraham Mignon still-life depicting woodland creatures and insects dating from the 1660s. One of the buyers was a contemporary art collector.

"With collectors becoming more knowledgeable, they’re more demanding," opines Bernheimer. Meaning, text book names are now de rigueur. Oddly enough, Bernheimer believes "old fashioned connoisseurship" is taught in the States.

Antiquities seem to be the new must-have collectible. London dealer Rupert Wace wrote up more than 40 sales over the weekend, ranging from an Egyptian faience wedjat eye for €900 to "the most significant Roman marble to have appeared on the market in some years." The latter -- The Lansdowne Altar, a rare and important marble altar dating to the Augustan period (1st century BC to 1st century AD) -- was acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Talk about a potent provenance -- it comes from the collection of the Marquess of Lansdowne, who served as Prime Minister in 1782. No less than the Scottish painter, dealer and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton encouraged him to build an antiquities collection. The altar sold for a mere 24 guineas at Christie’s in 1930. Now, the price was of the six-figure kind.

Without question, the pulse of the market seems more rapid. "Prices have risen enormously," says Thomas Wessel, art insurance giant AXA’s art expert. "Simply look at the scarcity issues," adds Wessel while pointing to Tino Sarpaneva glassware and ceramics with Denys. Not so long ago, such wares were considered high-end bohemian house goods, like from the old Bonniers and Design Research. Now, Wessel estimates all the art as well as antiques and jewelry on offer here are worth as much as €2 billion in toto.

Still, what’s the new attraction of Old Masters to contemporary art holders? Simple. "They’re cheaper than a Polke, or a Rauschenberg," says Wessel.

Maastricht has always delivered a masterpiece show, but this time, the quality was elevated beyond belief in practically every area. The paintings alone rivaled those of a mid-sized regional museum. Consider Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 Houses with Sunflowers, with its stippled brushstrokes, at Acquavella, or the two outstanding Bellotto vedute at Dickinson Roundell. One of the Grand Canal was priced at $12.5 million. A Hans Memling was tagged at $2.7 million. A spectacular Vlaminck, the artist’s 1907 Nature Morte, cost $2.9 million.

Another new trend is dealers packing their stands with works by a single artist. No less than eight Boudin landscapes marked one wall of Noortman’s stand. Jan Krugier mounted a veritable Giacometti exhibition: seven sculptures, two paintings and one vessel. The bronzes went from $850,000 to $10 million for the largest, harrowingly thin figure.

The award for quixoticism must be bestowed on Sperone Westwater for an art object that could be categorized as, shall we say, one-upsmanship of Chris Ofili. The Swiss contemporary artist Not Vital (who lives part time in Niger) created a silver sculpture of two cigarette box-sized chambers, filled with sun-dried camel dung, especially for TEFAF.

A treasure trove of amber objects was at Georg Laue’s booth, items that could hands down grace any museum in the world, even London’s V&A. He had snared 60 objects, from delicate cutlery to candlesticks and tankards dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Included were miniature chests, one with minute ivory flowers decking its finials. Prices ran from €5,000 to €600,000 -- the prize piece was a medallion made for Frederick the Great’s celebrated but destroyed "Amber Room" in St. Petersburg.

"Now, some contemporary art collectors are fascinated by the notion of installing kunstkammers in their homes," says Laue, who sold steadily. Amber, believed to have mystical properties, was considered essential to the most demanding kunstkammer collector.

Even the antique jewelry was a stunner. The London jeweler S.J. Phillips was hawking Catherine the Great’s rocks. Her glistening sapphire-and-diamond brooch was pegged at £240,000; her diamond tassel earrings, right in sync with today’s trendy fashions, were £400,000.

Porcelain also reached for new price plateaus. For a pair of Meissen birds, new dealer Michele Beiny of New York was asking €5 million. They had originally been ordered up by Augustus the Strong, perhaps the greatest porcelain collector in the world, for his Japanese Palace in Dresden, way back in 1735.

TEFAF administration expects 80,000 plus to tour the show. That attendance dwarfs any fair in the U.S., and quite frankly makes Americans appear awfully uninterested in culture. By the middle of the weekend, hordes had descended on the fair and the dealers were rubbing their hands with glee.

BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.