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Fine art and antiques go Dutch. International fair in the Netherlands celebrates its third year

A THOUSAND years ago, Maastricht was close to being at the center of the world. Only a few miles away was the Emperor Charlemagne's capital of Aachen, accessible to the rest of Europe via the old Roman road system and the great rivers of the region. Artistic influences flowed freely in a period of intense cultural activity, moving away from the rigid Romanesque style to the fluid lines of the high Gothic. Art has always been international, and Maastricht is aiming to get back on the map with its third annual Antiquairs International & Pictura Fine Art Fair, which starts tomorrow. In a short space of time, the fair has acquired a reputation for the finest quality, especially in paintings. Located in the lee of the country's only hill, it attracts fine arts and antiques dealers not only from Holland, but also from Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States.

Art dealer Robert Noortman is the only exhibitor who has a gallery in Maastricht, but he can hardly be described as ``local.'' Mr. Noortman is one of the most international of fine art dealers, jetting between his galleries in Holland and London, and to just wherever his customers and his merchandise can be found.

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``The `picture' business is truly international,'' he says. ``A dealer can no longer sit in his gallery and simply wait for the customers to walk through the door - he has to go where they are.''

It is difficult to imagine Noortman sitting still anywhere. A client in London has only to express an interest in a painting for him to dash over the Channel and have the item there to show him the next morning. Noortman's highly mobile style of art dealing thrives on constant movement, picking up contacts and leads on the instant, and the Maastricht fair is the only one he attends. But in recent years fairs have been taking on greater significance for the fine art trade. Auction houses have pushed their way into a very dominant position in the art world, capturing the limelight and the customers. Antiques fairs are about the only way the dealers have to regain some of the public's attention.

To this end, the fairs now often include a loan exhibition of distinguished works of art from private or public collections. This year, the Maastricht fair has managed something of a coup. Four museums in three countries (Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands), all within a few minutes of each other, have agreed to lend 30 of their most important early Mosan wood sculptures, dating from the 10th to the 16th centuries.

The devotional sculptures made in this small area are of great artistic significance. One of the most important of the exhibits, ``The Virgin of Evignee,'' was carved in a village about 1060. She is clearly modeled on a real village matron, and is no longer an idealized figure. On loan from the Musee d'Art Religieux et d'Art Mosan of Li`ege, it's a source of great pride for Mr. Lemeunier, the curator, who discovered the treasure, still in use, in a local farmhouse, and persuaded the owner to sell it to the museum rather than take the option of making a fortune in the auction rooms.

Although the Mosan sculptures will help give the fair a distinctly local flavor, the innate style of the Dutch and Belgian dealers will undoubtedly predominate, as the golden age of 17th-century Dutch painting is a specialty of this annual event. Reminders of those great days can still be seen in modern Holland, where it isn't uncommon to find tables in houses and hotels covered with oriental carpets, just the way they appear in the interior scenes of that period, and the Dutch antiques dealers present their porcelain, glass, and silver as if they were setting up a still life painting.

But is all this opulence just for the rich? Noortman thinks not. True, he will be displaying a million-dollar Hobbema, but he will also have some drawings in a lower price range of a few hundred dollars each. These, he feels, are not out of place among the high flyers, and he is not alone in encouraging the more modest collector. But even that is not a prerequisite for attending such a fair. One can just look and dream for the price of a ticket!

The fair runs through March 15.

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