One painting that many are watching is the beguiling Spring, at Bernheimer-Colnaghi Fine Old Masters of Munich and London. The picture, priced at ?3 million (Dh15m), is a collaboration between Joos de Momper the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, who worked together frequently on small-scale pictures during their respective careers, with De Momper focusing on landscapes and Brueghel on figures. "Works of this scale are really quite rare. When you see it from a distance, it really hits you with the kind of wall power that these monumental paintings should have," says Tim Warner-Johnson, the director of Colnaghi in London.
TEFAF is the world's foremost fair for art from before 1900. It is also one of the most profitable - dealers tend not to heap praise on fairs at which they don't also make money. Almost 300 galleries come to Maastricht to exhibit everything from paintings to jewels and tapestries. Contemporary art has even crept in recently. Some 68,000 visitors trooped through TEFAF last year. The mood in the trade this year is upbeat, not least because Old Masters fetched high prices at the major auctions in December and January. Warner-Johnson's gallery will show David and Bathsheba, a 1534 work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, with a price tag of more than ?5 million.
The London gallery Dickinson is hoping that Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John by Sandro Botticelli, also known as The Rockefeller Madonna, will go for $15m (Dh55m). "Last year, people were a little more cautious, waiting to see what happened in the broader economy," says Warner-Johnson. "I think [this year] people feel much more reassured about the future." "There's a lot of money out there, and the problem is not demand, it's supply," says the New York dealer Richard Feigen, who will be in Maastricht with a Peter Paul Rubens oil sketch from around 1628, Two Captive Soldiers, priced at $7.5m. Feigen disputed the notion that the price might be too high, given its grim subject, for a family living room, but not for a museum. Two years ago the Getty Museum in Los Angeles spent $10m for an oil sketch by Rubens.
Currency volatility is also helping the market, Feigen believes. For buyers, "Old Masters are now a desirable asset class," he says. "They don't want euros - they're worried about Greece. They don't want sterling, which is tanking. They have been told that art is a good place to put money. They have also been told that Old Masters are cheap compared to 19th and 20th century art, and particularly compared to contemporary art."
Museums are also in the market to buy at the moment. "A lot of the building programmes are finished, so now they're looking to put something on the walls," Feigen observes, noting that several American museums were travelling to Maastricht. "All the expensive works from the Christie's December Old Masters sale in London went to the United States," Feigen notes. Even without strong American buying during the past year, Michael Goedhuis of Goedhuis Contemporary of London says that his business hasn't declined. Goedhuis is showing contemporary Chinese ink painting and Chinese antique furniture because, he explains, US museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, are planning exhibitions of work from the contemporary Chinese New Ink Painting Movement next year.
Along with the possibility that American museums might buy those contemporary works, Goedhuis predicts that Chinese buyers will be at TEFAF as never before. "Of all the shows in the world, TEFAF will pull in this huge new reservoir of big hitters from China and East Asia," he says. "Maastricht is unassailable. It has the quality and it has the range. "The European and American collectors who were driving up the Chinese contemporary market have been shouldered out by a much tougher and richer breed of Chinese who are dedicated to buying Chinese art."
Range is now the operative word: the fair also includes antiquities, furniture and photography. In antiquities, Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Galleries is showing Roman statues of Aphrodite and Eros, with a 30-centimetre head of Aphrodite in marble selling for $485,000. "People are looking for solid investments - objects, sculptures, gems, paintings. The euro is soft. People are finding that they're better off in solid objects," he notes.
At the stand of Rupert Wace Ancient Art of London, another Aphrodite - this one a Roman marble Aphrodite from the late first or early second century, is priced at ?420,000. Less classic beauty is on view with watercolours by Egon Schiele at the stand of Richard Nagy of London (Nagy paid almost $7m for a Schiele drawing at Sotheby's London last month) and at Galerie Krugier, which is showing Pablo Picasso's late cubist Composition, Door and Key (1919), priced at ?8-9 million.
Not everything on view is new to the fair. At Bernheimer-Colnaghi, a painting of the New Testament evangelist St Mark by Franz Hals is on view, in the same booth where it failed to sell for ?5.8m last year. The picture was originally part of a set of the four authors of the gospels, which were acquired by the Russian empress Catherine the Great and then dispersed to churches in Ukraine in 1812. Separated from the others, St Mark was repainted to conceal the lion, the saint's attribute, in the background, and to add a lace ruff and sleeves of the more typical Dutch 17th century burgher. Cleaning in the late 20th century revealed the picture's true subject, and unveiled a tender tone of brushstrokes and palette that differentiated the work from those depicting Hals's signature ruddy Dutchmen.
Back at TEFAF for a second try? "If it's a great painting, it's a great painting," says Tim Warner-Johnson. "Given that Maastricht is the premier fair, for us it would be a missed opportunity not to hang it again." The European Fine Art Festival 2010 is open 12-21 March in Maastricht, the Netherlands.