This little piggy went to Maastricht

The suits of the art world are in Holland, cheque books in hand, for the year's biggest international fair. Geraldine Norman reports
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Chinese carpet, circa 1700

Drapery reminiscent of summer pavilions billows over the European Fine Art Fair this year, creating a spurious architectural unity. Below, the dealers have created sparkling boutiques which convey, to the best of each individual's ability, his or her own exquisite taste. The champagne buffet that opened the fair ran from 6 to 10pm, and the jet-set munched salmon, rabbit stew, Dutch cheese and sorbets as they drifted from Rubens to Picasso, from Renaissance enamels to early Chinese textiles.

The first sales took place before the opening, as dealers hunted each others' stands for underrated treasures. Then on went the perfectly tailored suit and the salesman's charm. Dealers had invited their best clients to the party and welcomed them, with much cheek-kissing and screams of pleasure, to little tours of the exhibits, then on to dinner in one of Maastricht's elegant restaurants. Cheques from £5,000 to were changing hands last weekend. Seriously expensive items take longer to sell; an expression of interest at the fair may be followed by several weeks or months of negotiations before a multi-million dollar item changes hands.

The fair is now the biggest international event in the art dealers' calendar, leaving aside the quite distinct contemporary art fair circuit. It has grown out of all recognition in the 1990s, from 105 exhibitors in 1989, to 159 this year, including 114 foreigners. The number of visitors has tripled, from 20,000 to just over 60,000 last year. With 18,000 square metres of exhibition space, the fair is nearly as exhausting as the Louvre - and almost as impressive.

This year, for example, for a modest £6.5m, you can have a large painting of Orpheus Charming the Animals by Aelbert Cuyp, the 17th-century Dutch master, complete with two cuddly leopards painted in by his teacher and father, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp. This immensely appealing picture turned up in a Sotheby's auction last July after spending a couple of centuries tucked away in a Spanish collection with the wrong artist's name attached to it. This, in other words, is only the second occasion the painting has been on view to the public.

It's a fascinating trade gamble as well as a fascinating picture. It can be found on the stand of Johnny van Haeften, a specialist in Dutch pictures from Duke St, St James's. But he's only the front-man. A consortium of four dealers clubbed together to buy the painting for £4.18m at Sotheby's - betting that there were museums and private collectors around who would pay a good deal more but hadn't the time to get their act and money together before the auction. When one of the four corners a buyer, they'll split the profit between them.

The range of precious objects is dazzling. There's the tiger-shaped carpet, woven in China around 1700, and priced at on the stand of London-based dealer John Eskenazi; the Louis XVI secretaire by Roussel, inlaid with marquetry pictures of classical ruins, and yours for £180,000 courtesy of Patrique Perrin, who deals from the Faubourg St Honor, Paris; and, on the Spink's stand, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne's sexy white marble portrait bust of Princess Marie-Sophie de Rohan. One white marble breast has slipped out of her dress while a long kiss-curl caresses her shoulder. It used to adorn the Gatchina Palace outside St Petersburg and was sold off by the Soviets in 1928. Asking price: £400,000.

In the 1980s the success of the auction rooms, notably Sotheby's and Christie's, began to seriously undermine the business of private dealers. In earlier times auctions had represented the wholesale element in the art trade while the dealers did the retailing. But, led by Sotheby's new American management, the auction rooms made an all-out bid in the 1980s to snare private buyers and achieve retail prices - with considerable success.

The dealers' response has been to abandon their cosy galleries and mount spectacular exhibitions of their wares at art fairs all round the globe. Spur-of-the-moment, wrap-it-up-and-take-it-home sales are welcome, but the real aim is to attract the attention of, and develop long-term relationships with, curators and collectors. The concentration of rich collectors in from Germany's nearby Rheinland and the increasingly routine attendance of influential curators have conspired to make Maastricht the top international event of its kind.

Such is the concentration of expertise, according to Richard Knight (of London's Colnaghi's, and a co-chairman of the fair), that he even brings paintings to Maastricht whose authorship he has failed to identify in the hope that the visiting curators will help him. Buyers are protected at Maastricht by teams of experts, including museum curators, who vet the goods on every stand. Rob Smeets of Milan was cock-a-hoop last week that the vetting committee had accepted his attribution of a curly-haired youth with a £150,000 price tag to the great 16th-century Italian artist Lodovico Carracci; he had bought it for £18,400 last December at Phillips in London, where it was catalogued as the work of a minor 17th-century Roman, Giacinto Brandi. Another Old Master dealer had proved less lucky. He had come to the fair with elaborate hand-painted labels for his pictures; several now have biro amendments reading "attributed to" - implying that the attribution is an opinion, not a certainty.

The most noted feature of the fair is the section devoted to Old Master paintings, especially Dutch. It is also famous for having the only specialist textile section to be found in any fair world-wide. But the world's leading jewellers, from Harry Winston to Cartier, also attend, as do silver dealers, ceramics dealers, book dealers, and many others. This year is notable for the presence of a contingent of top Paris dealers.

The weakest section is modern pictures, which the organisers would dearly love to develop. It's not that they have ambitions to be on the aesthetic cutting edge, but they would like to lure in major 19th-century and early 20th-century works - the expensive Impressionists and major Picassos. Even here, however, three of London's leading dealers are showing - Waddington, Marlborough and the Mayor Gallery. Mayor has the largest Warhol painting in the world, a 4.5m "Mao", priced at £1.25m, while the Marlborough has cannily priced its 1986 Francis Bacon, Study from the Male Body, in Deutschmarks (DM2.5m) - in case sterling and the dollar go through the floor in the course of the week.

n The European Fine Art Fair runs at Maastricht's MECC until Sunday evening