RECESSIONS affect art fairs in different ways. The most obvious is when buyers stay away, especially if a fair has fallen from fashion or if entry tickets are too expensive. Another is when dealers abandon ship, curtailing the fairs they attend to two a year, say, instead of three. Or they suddenly offer deep discounts to ensure a sale. Slashing prices is a sure sign of lack of confidence.


This year at the Maastricht fine art fair, Europe's premier decorative and fine art festival, there was a different problem: an abundance of ordinary offerings, not so much second-rate as indifferent. Dealers have clearly found it hard to source fresh, top-quality works during the recession. Much of the art was even quite stale: Antonio Guardi's beautiful 18th-century “View of the Villa Loredan at Paese”, presented by Simon Dickinson, a London dealer, was on its fourth Maastricht visit, after a winter with another dealer and no buyers in New York.更多信息请访问:


None of this was evident at first glance. The private view on the first day, March 12th, was anything but private. A record 10,500 people attended. Cashmere, fur, high heels and hairspray was the uniform of the day. Maastricht is a destination fair; people regard it as an outing. The number of personal jets that bore them there would have been higher had Munich airport not been closed by fog.


More than $3 billion worth of art work—covering every category and period, from ancient Egyptian statuary to post-Modern painting—was presented on 263 stands (24 more than last year). The exhibitors came from 17 countries; most were American, British or continental European, but some trekked from further afield, such as Uruguay and South Korea. A conservative estimate would put the fair's entire offering at over 25,000 pieces. Yet no more than a dozen were truly memorable.


Alan Rubin of Pelham Galleries, a British dealer based in Paris, is something of a maestro. His stand is always a theatrical show, and this year was no exception. The centrepiece was a magnificent canopied bed that once belonged to Talleyrand, the great 19th-century French diplomat. But the most intriguing item was an elaborate automaton clock that hadn't been seen in public for more than 100 years. Standing 130 centimetres high, it had feet shaped like dragons that spat out pearls at regular intervals.


Chinese specialists also like to put on a show. Ben Janssens, a London-based Dutchman and the chairman of the fair, had a small side room at his elegant stand displaying 20th-century Japanese bronzes. Beautiful late Japanese craftsmanship is beginning to gain ground among collectors, especially Westerners, who no longer want to compete with the Chinese in buying Chinese porcelain and metalware.


Lacquer, though, is still something in which Western collectors lead the way. Littleton and Hennesy, which has offices in London and New York, unveiled a spectacular lacquer piece at Maastricht: a 15th-century chest of drawers depicting a Taoist paradise. From the Manno collection in Japan, the chest was unusually large—more than 80 centimetres across and 64 centimetres high—and, despite its age, impressively well-preserved (lacquer is treated with special care in Japan). A Western collector bought it on the second day of the fair, happy to pay the full asking price of E3.1m ($4.2m).


Another eye-catching display was Bernard de Grunne's crowd of 27 Igbo monumental standing sculptures from Nigeria, many of them taller than their owners. Drawn in part from his father's collection and that of Jacques Kerchache, once a leading French dealer of tribal and contemporary art, this unusual show featured works that had not been seen in public for many years. Much sought after by French, Belgian and, increasingly, American buyers, these pieces are both fragile and rare, and they seldom travel. The demand for African art has grown over the past five years, and it is expected to expand yet further with the reopening of the Museum for African Art in Manhattan next year. Several buyers were keen on the most important statues—a male and a female carved by a sculptor known as the Awka Master—which ultimately went to a European collector for close to the asking price of E400,000.

伯纳德·布鲁恩的展位展出了27尊产自尼日利亚的站立式伊博纪念雕像,大部分比人还高。这些雕像迅速成为展会上又一焦点。展品一部分出自伯纳德父亲的藏品,另一部分则出自非洲部落艺术及当代艺术方面的顶级收藏家雅克·盖尔沙什。这次非同寻常的展览重现了在公众视线中消失多年的艺术,购买者大多为法国人和比利时人,越来越多的美国人也加入这个行列。稀有的雕像极易受损,从五年前开始,收藏家对于非洲艺术品的需求不断增长。到明年曼哈顿的非洲艺术博物馆开馆后, 需求会进一步增长。最贵重的雕像是由阿瓦卡大师雕刻的一尊男像和一尊女像,开价为40万欧元。数个竞买者都表现出强烈的兴趣,最后被一位欧洲收藏家以差不多的价钱竞走。

Maastricht is the sort of fair where clever dealers bring their discoveries. Often these are works acquired at auction for a bargain price, owing to an original misidentification. John Mitchell Fine Paintings, a family dealership in London, arrived with a Dutch winter landscape it had found in a French provincial sale last summer. The picture came from a chateau in central France and was so dirty as to be almost unrecognisable. Auctioneers described it as Dutch school (circa 1620) and estimated its value at  E910,000.


An even more impressive surprise came from Mr Rubin, again of Pelham Galleries. He brought a large French champ de bataille painting, a huge formal garden landscape featuring a grand chateau. Mr Rubin had bought the picture at an auction house that was unfamiliar with this kind of work and gave it an estimate of E50,000-70,000. Given the painting’s odd perspective—at once topographical and a bird's eye view—Mr Rubin identified it as a lost work by Pierre-Denis Martin, who painted some of the most important topographical landscapes in the Trianon palace at Versailles. The picture depicts the visit of Louis XIV to the Chateau of Juvisy, and is still available, priced at E2m. Its value lies mainly in its discovery, the product of experience, a good eye and meticulous archival research. At its best, that is what Maastricht is known for.


Despite the paucity of works with the wow factor, dealers at Maastricht reported considerable buying interest. Mr Janssens sold 30 pieces on the opening day, and 20 more over the first weekend. James Ede, a London-based antiquities dealer, has called this fair his best fair ever. During the worst months of the recession, collectors refused to sell unless they had to, drying up both the supply of and the demand for top-quality works. Sourcing first-class art may still be difficult, but the experience of the Maastricht dealers over the past few days is that there is no shortage of money to spend. The worst of the recession appears to be over, for both dealers and buyers.