Art Market: Theft, nationalism and drugs at fair

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The Independent Online
THE NIGHT before three British security companies were to exhibit for the first time at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, an Old Master painting disappeared from a neighbouring stand.

The pocket-sized work by an anonymous hand was stolen from Raphael Valls, a British dealer. Its value was only a few thousand pounds, but the theft emphasised the importance of the computerised stolen art lists compiled by the nearby exhibitor, Art Loss Register and Trace.

The fair, which opened on Saturday, primarily draws collectors and curators from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United States. Representatives of the world's most prestigious museums attended this year's opening, among them Pierre Rosenberg, from the Louvre in Paris, and Boris Pietrovski from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. But, apart from Tim Clifford, of the National Galleries of Scotland, the cash-starved British museums were again conspicuous by their absence.

The city has become better known for its treaties than art, but some of the nationalism associated with the Maastricht treaty was also found at the fair. Some dealers mentioned the eclectic tastes of the Americans, but several described buyers as nationalistic, picking only works by their countrymen.

Adam Williams, of Newhouse Galleries in New York, said: 'We take Italian pictures to Italian fairs, French pictures to French fairs and Dutch pictures to Dutch fairs.' The London dealers, Partridge Fine Art, had in mind the large German contingent at the fair when it decided to bring a pounds 220,000 Meissen dinner service of the 1760s. David Koetser, of Zurich, offered a more subtle explanation: the Germans, Belgians and Dutch are attracted to northern art because of the different light in the pictures.

The treaty also crept into London dealer Johnny van Haeften's comments on the art trade grappling with the 'bureaucratic nightmare' of each country's VAT systems. He explained that, in the Netherlands, 6 per cent VAT was imposed on every work sold, whereas in Britain, VAT is paid on profit margins. 'We thought, with 1993, life would be easier,' he said. Instead, the regulations had become even more complex since 1 January.

If, as the fair is often described, Maastricht is a barometer of the art market, the business temperature was certainly high. Moatti, the Paris dealer, sold a recently discovered fragment of a 1605 Rubens altarpiece to a private European collector for about pounds 2.5m; Mr Van Haeften sold a pounds 200,000 peasant scene by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. While barely a handful of people were looking at major Brueghels in the fine local gallery, museum-quality Brueghels at the fair drew crowds. John Mitchell, the London dealer, showed a pounds 1.25m village scene by Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Among the most memorable works were vignettes by Van Ostade, the 17th-century Dutch master - particularly a scene of two hemp-smokers selling for pounds 71,000 at Salomon Lilian from Amsterdam.

Echoes of Van Ostade's painting were found outside the fair. Sitting at a table in a cafe drug-dealers were openly selling drugs, distributing 'menus' and prices on laminated cards, and weighing orders on electric machines.

(Photograph omitted)