ART MARKET / A bystander at Maastricht: Absolutely everybody in the art world heads for this little Dutch town for the annual European Art Fair. Geraldine Norman joins the distinguished throng

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PRAWNS, lobsters, rare beef, chocolate mousses, exotic fruits and mountains of Dutch cheeses compete for attention with Rubens, Rembrandt, Boucher, Picasso, French 18th-century furniture, rare jewels and ancient sculptures from Europe and Asia. It is the opening party of the European Fine Art Fair, held every March in Maastricht; an event which attracts museum curators, art collectors and dealers the world over to the little Dutch town of Maastricht on the borders of Belgium and Germany - a town whose name is now inextricably linked with a treaty that attempts to standardise European practices.

Europe's art dealers demonstrate their individuality by setting up their stands in styles typical of French, Italian, German, British, Dutch or Belgian taste. It's a tremendous happening for the art world. The very best dealers in Europe gather there - 157 of them have stands this year - and they bring treasures of the kind one normally comes across in museums; mixed, naturally enough, with the charming second-rate aimed at private buyers. Champagne glasses in hand, the international crowd, which has been privileged to be invited to the opening, mills in and out of the temporary boutiques.

The first glass of champagne was handed to Dr Michael Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, at 4.20pm on 11 March - the party had another six hours to run. He had just formally opened the fair, a duty that fell to him on account of the loan exhibition, 'Treasures from the Hermitage', that is being staged this year. He and his curators had selected 60 pieces from the three million or so the museum owns: a fifth-century BC gold griffon attacking a goat from Peter the Great's collection of Siberian treasures; a felt swan of the sixth century BC unearthed in perfect condition from a frozen burial mound in Siberia in 1949; a Van Dyck self-portrait; a portrait of Catherine the Great by Nattier; and vases and tables made of Russian malachite - to name a few of the highlights.

Piotrovsky is at home in a cosmopolitan world. Small, with pebble spectacles, fluent English and a specialisation in Middle Eastern archaeology, he has a burning desire to further the interests of his great museum. His curators, however, looked more like stage Russian bureaucrats, uncomfortably out of place amid the Western luxury that surrounded them. 'We came because it's fun to meet so many people and see so many objects,' Piotrovsky explained. He forecast that the Hermitage would be buying abroad in two years' time - they needed to start making contacts and understanding the European market, he said. Where better to begin than Maastricht?

On the stand of Johnny Eskenazi of Milan they could find the best Gandhara plaster statue in the world - outclassing museum exhibits, Eskenazi claims, and other experts appear to agree. Around the fourth century AD Roman sculptors worked side by side with local craftsmen in the north Indian province of Gandhara to create sculptures that combine Hellenistic and Indian styles to extraordinary effect; this 4ft Bodhisattva - a Buddhist saint on the brink of enlightenment - must have decorated a shrine at an important temple. Perhaps its lack of known history, which suggests that it may have been smuggled from India, explains why no museum has yet offered Eskenazi the modest dollars 500,000 (pounds 350,000) he's asking for it.

By comparison the dollars 3m (pounds 2m) that the Marlborough Gallery wants for one of Francis Bacon's last portraits seems steep. The 6ft canvas, worked in oil and pastel, depicts the artist's lover, John Edwards, with typically Baconian distortion and is dated 1986. Gilbert Lloyd, son of the Marlborough Gallery's founder and a wily international operator, now in his fifties, told me the painting was 'reserved' for a customer and the price could not be revealed; I found it out by asking a potential buyer.

Dealers know that their clients don't like the prices they pay to be revealed, and even at Maastricht, where everything's for sale, dealers tend to be reticent. Gisele Croes from Brussels had brought along a group of Chinese archaic bronzes that she had recently bought from the American collector Ronald Lauder - the son of Estee Lauder of cosmetics fame - and she wasn't commenting on what she paid for them. Croes had sold one of the bronzes, an elaborately patterned wine vessel of the 12th century BC, to the Hong Kong millionaire T T Tsui, who has a private museum, but wouldn't reveal what she got for it. I found her, a plump, ebullient little figure, sitting under a huge pottery horse of the Eastern Han period (first to second century AD) for which she was prepared to admit an asking price of dollars 195,000 ( pounds 135,000).

Among the other spectacular sculptures on offer was a 3 1/2 ft sandstone deity from the ninth or 10th century which must have come from one of the Khmer temples in Cambodia; Spink's, the London dealer, is asking pounds 600,000 for it. While Grafin von Wallwitz, also from London, has the most important porcelain sculpture seen on the market for 20 years: a 2ft Meissen figure of a mythical beast commissioned by Augustus the Strong of Poland and made by J G Kirchner, the factory's most famous modeller. She has priced it at dollars 580,000 (pounds 400,000).

The biggest concentration of expensive art, however, appears on the stands of the Old Master picture dealers. On no other occasion, and nowhere else in the world, are so many Dutch paintings of the Golden Age simultaneously up for sale. Agnew's want 'over dollars 2m' (pounds 1.4m) for a huge baroque painting of The Death of Patroclus by Dirck van Barburen, which they bought in Paris in December 1987 for pounds 1m: at the time, it was the highest price ever paid for an Old Master at a Paris auction. Jack Kilgor of New York sold an Adam Pynacker landscape for dollars 1m (pounds 690,000) at the party.

My favourite, however, was the painting of A Barber Surgeon Tending a Peasant's Foot by Isaack Koedijk on Johnny van Haeften's stand. The wall behind the figures is hung with all the horrid instruments of a surgeon's trade while a dead cock with which the peasant intends paying the surgeon has fallen out of a basket in the foreground. Koedijk travelled to the Orient intending to become a court painter to the Mogul emperor but got stuck in Batavia and ended up working for the Dutch East India Company instead. As a result, his paintings are extremely rare. This one turned up at Christie's last December when van Haeften bought it for pounds 287,500; he's had it expertly cleaned and is asking pounds 500,000. -

1 Gisele Croes (left), a Brussels dealer, in the shadow of her Han pottery horse, with Amy Page (centre), editor of Art and Auction, and Isabelle de Wavrin (right) of the magazine Beaux Arts in Paris

2 Admiring a De Kooning on Waddington's stand

3 The London dealers Mr and Mrs Leslie Waddington with a bronze hare by Barry Flannagan

4 Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky (right), director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, who opened the fair, with a bronze eagle dated 796-97 from the museum's extensive collection. It is the earliest dated Islamic work of art in the world. Behind the case is Jerome Eisenberg, US dealer in antiquities; Souren Melikian of the International Herald Tribune on the right

5 'A Barber Surgeon Tending a Peasant's Foot', a rare Isaack Koedijk painting, which is on offer at pounds 500,000. The London dealer Johnny van Haeften bought it at Christie's last year for pounds 287,500

6 Left to right: Martin Royalton Kisch, specialist in Old Master drawings at the British Museum, George Keyes, curator of paintings at Minneapolis Museum, and Walter Liedtke a curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

7 Ambassador Bill Middendorf (left), an American collector of Old Master pictures, with the London dealer Johnny van Haeften

8 Dr Gennady Leonov (left), Spink & Son's Tibetan art expert, and Victor Pavlov, chief designer at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, with a Khmer sandstone deity of the ninth to 10th century

9 Chinese bronze vessel of the Shang Dynasty (12th-11th century BC), sold by Gisele Croes to T T Tsui of Hong Kong

10 The magnificent Gandhara plaster figure of a Bodhisattva with, left to right, Isidor Kahane, a dealer in Indian art, Johnny Eskenazi of Milan and his cousin, Daniel Eskenazi of London

11 Magda Ceruti from Cremona resting on Johnny van Haeften's stand

12 Gilbert Lloyd of the Marlborough Gallery and Shaunagh Heneage, the proprietor of the Atrium bookshop in Cork Street, studying a Francis Bacon portrait of John Edwards, Bacon's lover

13 Axel Vervoordt, a Belgian dealer, holding one of his Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 221) bronze vases

14 Peter Schatborn (right), the curator of drawings at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the museum's press officer, Frans van der Avert, examine a Matisse drawing on Leslie Waddington's stand

(Photographs omitted)