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by Brook S. Mason
Lord David Linley, cabinetmaker extraordinaire and retailer all rolled into one, who also holds sway as Christie’s director. Manhattan über-architect Robert Couturier. Hipster designer Ron Arad, who sells single chairs for $250,000 a pop. German megacollector Mick Flick. These eminent tastemakers plus slews of European aristocrats, clutches of collectors and tiptop museum honchos like the Louvre’s Pierre Rosenberg stormed the vernissage for the 21st annual super-king of fairs, Maastricht 08, the European Fine Art Fair, currently on view at the Dutch town’s cavernous exposition hall, Mar. 7-16, 2008. A stunning 9,500 people -- 10 percent more than in 2007 -- showed up for the invitation-only preview of the sprawling, 227-dealer show.

Towards the end of the first day, sales were sizzling despite the now-withering U.S. economy, the subprime mortgage mess and sinking financial markets globally. Maastricht beats every traditional art and antiques fair in the world, hands down, when it comes to quality, breadth, depth and rarity. In comparison, quite frankly, U.S. fairs are just ho-hum. And just when the antiques trade is in a decline what with the monotonous minimalist decor prevailing among the Pottery Barn-bred hedge-fund set, TEFAF delivers a record 97 dealers in antiques, 61 in paintings, 44 in modern art, nine in antiquities, with others hawking illuminated manuscripts and haute jewelry from 15 countries.

TEFAF Maastricht has long been predominantly an Old Masters show -- after all, the Golden Age of 17th-century Flemish and Dutch paintings blossomed here like tulips four centuries ago. Now, however, with a diminishing supply of top-tier Rembrandts, Ruysdaels and van Goyens, antiques, including the millennium’s rendition of the decorative arts, are sparking the brightest dazzle on the fair floor.

Overall, the antiques on view are richer and rarer, far more compelling than ever, and what’s selling reveals new kinds of demanding taste falling into three very distinct style categories: kunstkammer cache; mogul glitz and glitter; and "millennium startle," or as one London tastemaker declared, "This is statement stuff." One could brand this round of shopping the latest chic in collecting and home furnishings. Among the shoppers were legions of Chinese billionaires, entire squadrons of Russians and, not to be slighted, hedge-funders from Greenwich, Conn. No less than TEFAF board member Michel Witmer was guiding a number of them.

The ticket price for the fair is a measure of both its exclusivity and the fervor of its audience. Single tickets go for €55, and with the euro pegged to an all time high of $1.53, the admission price makes it the world’s most costly fair for viewers. But then the art and antiques on display are valued at over €1.5 billion, a figure that does not include the contemporary jewelry section.

Kunstkammer caché
The kunstkammer dates back centuries, of course, to the time when European ruling princes formed rich personal treasuries (in some ways the predecessors of museums) holding objects of both natural and manmade beauty, from small Renaissance bronzes and miniature ivory skulls to chunks of raw amber and coral trees. And in the 21st century, it seems that these small objects are in greater play than ever.

Munich dealer Georg Laue devoted his entire stand to kunstkammer kabinets, that ingenious type of furniture produced in Augsburg in Germany in the 16th century. On his stand are elaborate ebony 12 drawer-cabinets inlaid with engraved ivory, with others made of marquetry boxwood, each with secret drawers.

"They were intended to surprise the viewer," says Laue. And this type of artistry conceived, as catalysts for astonishment, literally mesmerize viewers. After only a few days Laue had sold 15 examples, for prices up to €300,000.

Further along, the most breathtaking piece of furniture belongs to Senger Bamberg Kunsthandel of Bamberg, Germany. It is a lavish two-drawer chest of drawers covered with leaves of engraved silver framing opalescent mother of pearl chips with an effect that can easily be described as scintillating splendor. Kitted out with ornate gilt ormolu, the chest was made by Franz Zeller (1697-1780), court cabinet marker to Karl Philipp, for that royal’s Mannheim castle. Today, the price is €1.3 million and already a European collector has reserved the commode. Only one other known "Peacock Feather" chest is in existence and it happens to be in dreadful condition.

Mogul Glitz and Glitter
Scoot back to the turn of the 20th century, Russian tsars as well as American robber barons then opted for the showy -- super gilt palace furniture, mammoth ceramic vases the size of bodyguards, Renaissance silver gilt platters. By the 1930s, that kind of taste was dubbed a tad pushy, a bit pretentious and later just too va-va-Vegas for discreet WASPs. Well, the pendulum swings one way, then it swings the other. With the newly rich Russians now on the field, that kind of style is suddenly in roaringly loud favor, and a few exceedingly clever dealers here are clearly catering to oligarchs.

Take Alan Rubin and his Pelham Galleries from Paris. He’s trimmed up his booth with a pair of Genovese 1690 life-sized maidens in gilt, balancing later blue and white porcelain vessels, gold framed 18th-century French barometers and other gleaming examples to lure Russian shoppers. Rubin’s particularly prescient tack worked to perfection. By the first day of the public opening of the fair, at precisely 4 o’clock, the dealer had concluded 14 sales, including a number to Ruskies. Red-dotted were a pair of huge 1700 Rouen Faience jardinières and a Neapolitan 1680 mother of pearl and tortoise shell table top, among other items.

Nearby, Paris-based gallery, J. Kugel was playing the same suit -- enormous scale, super gilt but spiced up with the kind of provenance the newly rich flip for. Nicholas Kugel cleverly set the stage for shoppers by installing Louis XIV gilded oak paneling made by Robert de Cotte, a bagatelle priced at a whopping €3 million. Front and center in the booth is a recently reunited clock case and two towering vases made for Charles IV of Spain in 1806. The vases were made by the Parisian firm Dihl et Guerhard. The clock has got to be the ultimate timepiece, towering over 10 feet in height with three gilt Graces bearing a terrestrial globe incorporating the clock face on their heads. Talk about tabletop items. Kugel is pushing a 1610 silver gilt platter and ewer made in Danzig and modeled with multiple heads, dragons and angels, priced in excess of €2 million. But then, they’ve got the right panache -- no less than J.P. Morgan once owned them.

Apparently, the newly wealthy also crave large cloisonné animals, which up until recently were deemed rather too Atlantic City. To appeal to this taste, the Fifth Avenue-based Littleton & Hennessy are featuring a rare pair of Imperial Chinese dogs with carnelian eyes, marvelous pale green tails splayed like Palm trees and paws clutching brocade balls created in gilt. "They’re so Russian," drawls Littleton. As each dog has its paw on a brocade ball -- meaning "male" in Chinese symbolism -- the pair can also be labeled "gay." Now that is a real rarity in cloisonné. Littleton quickly racked up a number of sales to privates and museums expressed interest in some examples.

The Paris dix-huitième siècle furniture specialist Kraemer Antiquaire has joined the dealer list this year, and it’s their first fair foray ever. They’ve trimmed up their stand with furnishings packed with royal provenance, including a pair of folding gilt wood stools. These stools furnished Louis XVI’s bedroom at Saint Cloud. Later, the haughty emperor Napoleon adopted them for his own bedroom at the Palais des Tuileries. Five identical ones are now on display in Versailles. "I know of no other piece with a double royal connection on the market," says Laurent Kraemer, whose firm founded in 1875 counts the late Consuelo Vanderbilt among their clientele. He’s also showing furniture from Versailles and St. Petersburg. That’s another nod to the Ruskies.

"Millennium Startle"
Sticker shock prices apply to 20th-century design and the cache of the newest antiques -- deco arts created literally yesterday. Simply consider the offerings of first-time participant Galerie Yves Macaux. That Parisian dealer is sharing stand quarters with Egon Schiele expert Richard Nagy, and their partnership is perfection visually. Immediately sold was a Josef Hoffmann tea set in silver with its tray studded with cabochon cut chips of lapis. Remarkably spare in design, the nine-piece tea set had been made for Adolf and Suzanne Stoclet, whose art collection is acclaimed to this day. Chances are Ronald Lauder picked it up. After all, the price was in the region of €1 million. Who else could afford it? Another collector snatched up a Hoffman plant stand in painted white oak for €140,000, indicating the degree to which period accessories are hotly coveted.

Amsterdam dealership Leidelmeijer & Mourmans is showcasing the cutting-edge furniture of the Israeli-born, London-based Ron Arad. Gruff, terse and sometimes ill-mannered (he refuses to take off his hat), Arad has been deemed the Damien Hirst of the design set. But when it comes to designing chairs, Arad has hedge-fund risk-takers eating out of his hand. His latest creation is more sculpture than seating arrangement and is priced to reflect that. Made of polished airplane aluminum, the chair titled Afterthought costs €800,000 (that’s $1.2 million for Yanks). His perforated Body Guard chair is only €450,000, and a young Chinese couple was spotted discussing acquiring it.

But it’s Brussels dealer Philippe Denys who has the most sublime esthetic. His stand is filled with choice 20th century design and routinely sells out in a few days. His prices vary enormously. Some things, like Tapio Wirkkala’s hand-hammered silver bowls are a relative steal at only €3,000 to €4,000 each. An Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971) leather chair, however, costs a hefty €90,000, telling of how far Danish modern his risen in value.

Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret are on a roll these days as well, what with the supply of their colleague designer Jean Prouvé’s furnishings drying up. Just last week, Chateau Marmont hotelier Andre Balasz began touring the French designer’s Maison Tropicale (the first prefab house) by parking it at the Tate Modern in London. Still, Galerie Downtown is selling a piece de resistance for French mid-century modern fanciers: Commissioned by an early scientific nuclear researcher, the Perriand and Jeanneret ebonized oak and stainless steel desk, ca. 1946 is pure Blade Runner from a stylistic point of view, and poised to sit in a suitably scruffy loft. The table costs €600,000, and within one hour of the vernissage, a European collector had pounced on it.

TEFAF is going ever more contemporary, as well, and had some 80 younger dealers apply to participate as part of a new initiative. From this horde seven were chosen. Among them is the German jeweler Otto Jakob. He’s highly creative in directly referencing the kunstkammer tradition, but with a new interpretation and in new materials.

Jacob trained as an artist. Besides tourmaline crosses and others made of a carved nut, Jacob makes wunderkammer objects. On display are two such examples he made for Old Masters dealer Katrin Bellinger of London and Munich. One designed to mark her wedding anniversary is a real stunner. A massive 1,000-carat aquamarine nestling on a huge chunk of rock crystal sitting on ebony feet symbolizes eternity, says Jacob.

"My intent is not to make objects per se," he says. He points to the aquamarine wunderkammer object and a single tourmaline crystal cross dotted with 144 micro-pave-set diamonds which sold to a German client for a hefty €36,600, "These will survive because of their importance." That apt pronouncement applies to the sheer artistry of the antiques on view at Maastricht.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times, the New York Sun and other publications.