Masterpieces at Maastricht

Collectors and connoisseurs descending on TEFAF next month will not be disappointed, with objects of every time and place, from a Han bronze lamp to Gangnam Style.

From March 15 to 24, Maastricht will once again be the centre of the art market, with 265 dealers from 20 countries offering works of all periods and cultures. Long past are the days when TEFAF ( catered principally for the traditions of cultured Northern Europe, and it was rare to find and Old Master painting that was not Dutch or Flemish. The much-expanded modern section is no longer something of an embarrassment, although quality does vary from year to year. This is not a place for preening celebrities; unless they are also knowledgeable about art, they will be unnoticed in the crowd of serious connoisseurs and collectors, including many of the world’s richest people.

Not everything is outrageously expensive here, and, as in every shop, fair or auction, in relative terms, there will be bargains to be truffled up. After all, a €50 million Picasso priced at €20 million is as much a bargain as a €1,500 Meissen bowl with a €150 ticket. If every art and antique dealer knew exactly what everything was, and priced it accordingly, the market would fade away from boredom.

Boredom is certainly not to be expected at the preview. Last year, it attracted 10,314 prospective buyers, and, after 10 hours among them, for the most part on one’s feet, if not the run, one was weary and aching, but not quite so drained as to be untemptable by just one more stand. Of course, not everyone needs to look at everything. Collectors can concentrate on their own fields, but those of us who have to see as much as possible develop little strategies to keep the concentration sharp.

Often, when doing the rounds with a good friend, we find a theme and compete to collect it, cats, perhaps, or a physical quirk in paintings. At one fair – not Maastricht – we kept noticing an awkwardly rendered ear in a whole series of Madonnas, and began to wonder whether, rather than indicating the work of a particular artist’s studio, these had all visited the same restorer.

Another ploy is to find unexpected connections, either between things on different stands, or when a work reminds one of something else entirely. For instance, I am looking forward to seeing the 33in by 241⁄2in Nativity (Fig 14) by Liberale da Verona (1445-1526/9) to be shown by Moretti, not only because he is an interesting and rather quirky artist. The heaped cloud of angelic spirits behind the Virgin reminds me of the ghostly creatures urging Arthur to pull the sword from the stone in T. H. White’s wise book.

Incidentally, rabbits, rather unexpectedly, were included as symbols of chastity and purity in Nativity scenes. Liberale began as a miniature painter, and, although this is a larger work, there is a carefully compressed feel to the composition.

Where Moretti, of Florence, London and New York, concentrates on Italian Old Masters, Richard Green of Bond Street casts his net wide, from the Dutch 17th century to Picasso and Moore by way of 18th-century Italy and the Impressionists. This allows for felicitous comparisons between, say, Bernardo Bellotto’s view of the Grand Canal looking eastwards from the Rialto (Fig 12) with all the clarity of his uncle Canaletto, dating from about 1739 and giving mercantile Venice its full bustle, and a particularly beautiful view of the Salute and Dogana from San Giorgio Maggiore (fig 8) painted by Eugène Boudin in 1895. The artist’s happiness is evident, and explained by the inscription to Juliette Cabaud, with whom he fell in love and shared the last years of his life, his beloved wife having died in 1889.

Richard Green also has a particularly fine 437⁄8in by 56in painting by Melchior de Hondecoeter (1636-95) of waterfowl and a pigeon disturbed by a hawk (Fig 10). Among them are a shoveler, a Muscovy duck, pochards and mallards – no doubt, readers can identify others. This was in the collection of John Warde of Squerryes Court, Kent (1721-75), discussed by Francis Russell in Country Life, June 4, 1987.

Another interesting pair of compare and contrasts is with the Tomasso Brothers: a terracotta bust of Montaigne (Fig 3), the most civilised of 16th-century essayists, by Gilles-Lambert Godecharle (1750-1835), considered the finest Flemish neo-Classical sculptor of his day; and, in marble (Fig 2), a swaggering unidentified man in wig and armour by Giovacchino Fortini (1671-1739), one of the best Tuscan Rococo sculptors of his.

Another piece that is almost sculptural is a fall-front, urn-shaped chest of drawers (Fig 13) in walnut and burr walnut. It dates from the mid 18th century, and exhibitor Piva of Milan says that it combines traditional Milanese severity with a fanciful Venetian softening. It demonstrates that a chest of drawers need not be unassuming.

With Brimo de Laroussihle of Paris, always one of my favourite stands, is a Limoges copper champlevé enamelled and gilded figure of an Apostle from a mid-13th-century altar front (Fig 9). It is applied to a 117⁄8in-high panel that was previously sold by the firm in 1929. Is there any meaningful kinship between it and a 17th-century, late-Ming or early-Qing gilt-bronze and cloisonné enamel ewer of a form known as duomuhu (Fig 6), which is with Gisèle Croës, doyenne of Belgian Oriental dealers? I suspect that the mythical beast represented on this is a makara, variously described as a crocodile, an elephant-headed and fish-tailed creature, or even a dolphin. It comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

That tradition is the speciality of Rossi & Rossi, returning to the fair after a 17-year absence. Its star piece, a remarkable 11-headed figure of Avalokitèshvara (Fig4), which dates from about 1400 and is inlaid with silver, copper, semiprecious stones and polychrome, was recently in the spectacular Royal Academy ‘Bronze’ exhibition. It stands 4ft 11⁄2in and, despite the complexity of the multiple faces and arms, radiates calm and grace.

Another piece with Gisèle Croës that appeals to me, although it radiates the anxiety of a nervous servant, is a 67⁄8in high Western Han (206BC – AD9) bronze lamp base in the form of a kneeling attendant (Fig 1). The patina and crystallization is attractive – and the face has an unexpected resemblance to a young Bill Clinton.

The combination of quality and provenance should make a pair of 71⁄2in-diameter Qianlong spinach-green jade bowls (Fig 7) an early seller for Vanderven. They came from the great Dreesmann collection. Another fine thins on this stand, to which I may return later, is a Kangxi powder-blue ‘general’s helmet’ (Fig 11).

Daniel Crouch, the London map specialist, had brought the perfect thing 9 in fact, a collection) for Maastricht. ‘Leo Belgicus’ maps (Fig 5), symbolising the Netherland’s fight for independence, were an enduring trope from 1583 to the early 18th century. The most famous and impressive is from the Johannes Blaeu Atlas Major of 1665.

To counter fears that TEFAF dealers might become a closed oligarchy, the ‘Showcase’ scheme was initiated a few years ago. This encourages galleries that have been in business for at least three years, but less than 10, by selecting six to take a small stand for one year only. At least two have now risen to the main body. This year, three are Parisian – Eric Delalande, a generalist with a cabinet of curiosities, Lucas Ratton with African art and Laurence Souski with Chinese snuff bottles – and three British – Patrick Heide Contemporary, Sinai & Sons with 19th-and 20th-century decorative and Trinity House Paintings, which as colonised London and New York from its Broadway base in Worcestershire since 2005.