MAASTRICHT - The yearly art pilgrimage to Maastricht is on again. Museum curators and collectors of everything from Rembrandts to jewellery are converging on the small university town of Maastricht for The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), a ten-day gathering of 275 dealers

Among the happy pilgrims is Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Rogers can’t remember when he first journeyed to Maastricht – “it must have been sometime in the 1990s.” This year he expects to be looking at European decorative arts, but is always open to unexpected discoveries. “You can’t go to TEFAF with an agenda,” he says, “you know when you find it.”

View from the fair, courtesy of TEFAF.

Rogers is undeterred by the relative remoteness of Maastricht’s location in southern Holland. “You have to suffer a little to get to the real thing. I think it’s very exciting,” he says. And so do the art faithful he brings with him. “This year more than 20 people are coming, plus curators,” he explains of the MFA’s entourage. “There are one or two tourists or novice collectors, but fundamentally we have a group of major collectors from Boston, New York and Washington.

Other American museums will be there, even the financially embattled Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA’s director, Graham Beale, devotes part of his annual dedicated acquisition budget of some $4 million to TEFAF objects. “Last year, in our financial crisis, we temporarily diverted significant acquisition funds to operations, so our kitty was rather low, but we went,” Beale says.

Now, with those funds back in place, “we’ve been looking for a Max Ernst for quite a while. We don’t have a great earlier Leiden picture by Gerrit Dou or Gabriel Metsu,” says Beale. “I’m always looking for 16th century Northern European Mannerist art.”

Pieter Breughel the Younger, 
Spring, 1620s, from the London dealer Johnny van Haeften.

As always, the TEFAF mix foregrounds Dutch paintings. London gallery Johnny van Haeften Ltd. is offering a somber Winter Landscape with Travelers Passing through a Double Avenue of Trees by Joos de Momper the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder (£325,000) – landscape by de Momper, figures by Brueghel – and an uplifting Spring by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (£2.8 million). Both pictures are from the 1620s.“You’ve got spring and winter by the two brothers,” says van Haeften, a TEFAF veteran.

Joos de Momper the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, A Winter Landscape with travellers passing through a double Avenue of Trees, 1620s, at Johnny van Haeften.

A Dutch picture from 1663 at the stand asks a much higher price. Jakob van Ochtervel’s  Child and Nurse in the Foyer of an Elegant Townhouse, the Parents Beyond shows a little girl in white on a diamond-patterned floor handing charity to a mother and her children, who are portrayed in colors and light of Italian painting. This scene of largesse passed from one generation to another is priced at £5 million.

At TEFAF, van Haeften says, “there are always discoveries, sometimes minor sometimes major. People keep back their very best things for the fair. Probably a third to a quarter of our annual turnover is generated at Maastricht, because 70 to 80 percent of the world’s available supply of Old Master paintings is there.”  Museum curators looking for the work of a particular artist, “can compare four or five examples of an artist in one building,” he adds.

Van Haeften expects his range of buyers to broaden, with Russian collectors drawn to Dutch paintings with Russian owners in their provenances and Chinese buyers recently acquiring Old Masters at major auctions.

The single new territory figuring heavily in TEFAF’s past few years, and in its future, is China. Chinese buyers are regular visitors at TEFAF (which shelved an idea of holding an annual fair in China) and Chinese objects – paintings, ceramics, and bronze and stone antiquities – are spread throughout the fair.

For sheer scale, a huge sculpture at Ben Janssens Oriental Art Ltd. stands out. The sandstone standing Buddha from China’s Northern Wei dynasty (late 5th to early 6th century) is 6 ½ feet high. “It marks the introduction of a Chinese style,” explains the London-based dealer. “Before that, most Buddhist sculpture was very Indian in feel and execution. This is much more Chinese, with fitted robes, layering and a life-like style,” adds Janssens, who stepped down this year after seven years as chairman of the fair.

London dealer Ben Janssens has a sandstone standing Buddha, Northern Wei dynasty, dating from late 5th to early 6th century.

The asking price for the standing Buddha is €1.4 million. A daunting figure? Janssens stresses affordability. “What keeps going through my mind is that it’s about one-tenth the price of a sculpture by Jeff Koons,” he says. Old Master dealers heading to TEFAF also note that Koons himself is a passionate collector of Old Masters.

Amid the paintings and antiquities at TEFAF is an abundance of jewellery. Among the returning exhibitors – with Graff and Chopard et Cie SA – is Hemmerle of Munich, back for the firm’s 18th year in Maastricht. Hemmerle’s centerpieces are 16 new creations –  brooches, earrings, and a ring inspired by the theme of nature, in the forms of leaves, branches, even an chestnut brooch.

Chestnut brooch, in bronze, silver, gold, obsidian and diamonds, at Munich’s Hemmerle Jewellers.

Is Maastricht fertile ground for these curios? Hemmerle’s jeweled objects on the theme of vegetables sold out three years ago at TEFAF, says Christian Hemmerle, who is in the fourth generation of the family business. When collectors have made the journey to Maastricht, he says, “they really want to see something beautiful.