Bernini's model for “The Fountain of the Moor.”

Maastricht, The Netherlands — Let the linguists decide why man first learned language. The reason he bothered to learn a second (or third) language is obvious: to make the sale. <br><br>At last Thursday’s opening of the European Fine Arts...

Maastricht, The Netherlands — Let the linguists decide why man first learned language. The reason he bothered to learn a second (or third) language is obvious: to make the sale.

At last Thursday’s opening of the European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht — generally regarded as the world’s top art and antiques clearinghouse — visitors could hear Americans speaking French, French speaking German, Germans speaking Italian, Italians speaking English — and the Dutch speaking seemingly anything that came their way, all in the name of selling the best antiques and art currently on the market.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Each fair has its own flavor,” said contemporary arts dealer Anthony Meyer, one of an increasing number of modern and contemporary dealers expanding the scope of this traditionally Old Masters heavy gathering. “Here is a treasure atmosphere. The works are eye candy.”

While more subdued than in recent years due to world events — with dealers gritting their teeth behind the smiles — this year’s TEFAF still proved to be a major draw for the world’s richest collectors. Fewer Americans than usual were active opening night, but by the next afternoon, dealers from almost every specialty agreed that Europeans have not abandoned the art market.

Lily Safra arrived from Paris on her private jet and quietly made the rounds in a modest black suit. (While inspecting an Egon Schiele drawing at Richard Nagy’s popular stand, she also snapped up his set of four Hoffman fauteuils.) Paris dealer Ariane Dandois and her daughter Ondine de Rothschild were also in the crowd, as were a scattering of decorators. And uncounted other buyers cautiously but surely picked their way through 200 stands dealing in Old Master paintings, antique furniture, objets de vertu, jewelry, clocks, silver, carpets, porcelain and wine.

“The mood of the fair can vary from stand to stand,” said Rachel Kaminsky, managing director of London’s Colnaghi gallery, who had several million-dollar 17th-century Dutch paintings — TEFAF’s traditional strength — among her offerings. “This is my sixth year and I thought the crowd last night was as good as I’ve seen. People were really looking and asking.”

But were they buying?

“At an auction, you have to make a decision in a second, when the hammer falls,” said Ole-Christian Koch of Marlborough gallery, which brought in a strong dose of blue-chip 20th-century work by Francis Bacon. “In a fair, you take your time. “

“Money is less at hand,” suggested Jean-David Cahn, an antiquities dealer from Basel. “But the interest is absolutely the same. The will to collect is very strong.”

A few dealers actually could report robust early sales.

“We were a bit afraid, and then we worked very, very well,” confided Luc Van Mulders of the Belgian Zen Gallery, specialists in Asian antiquities. “Against expectation, we sold our most important pieces — above $100,000.”

“We had a very good evening,” added François Graff, managing director of the jewelry house founded by his father. “The stock markets are nervous and the interest rates are so low you can’t leave your money in the bank.”

“There are not as many visitors, but they come to buy,” said Robert Lauwers, who manned the stand of TEFAF stalwart Axel Vervoordt. “We’re constantly on a treasure hunt — a real treasure hunt. Every dealer here has the best in his field.”

That precise claim — of TEFAF’s unmatched quality — was a topic of constant discussion. Last year, Otto Nauman wowed the fair with a $40 million Rembrandt mythological scene, “Minerva in her Study,” that was the last such work in private hands. This year, the Salander/O’Reilly Galleries nearly met the ante with a $10 million Bernini sculpture. But overall, the assessments of this year’s offerings ranged from pleasantly surprised — given the circumstances — to vaguely disappointed.

“Expectations were not high,” admitted John Leighton, director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a member of the notoriously tough vetting committee. “My impression of the painting section is there are interesting things, and the quality is there. That said, I haven’t seen many things to set the pulse racing.”

Perhaps that’s because collectors and dealers aren’t willing to test a delicate market with the real heavyweight works. Apart from the Bernini sculpture, the one indisputed superstar was Graff’s 100-carat D-flawless diamond, the Star of America, priced at $20 million. More modest rarities on the floor included a collection of 17th- and 18th-century coral from the charming young Georg Laue that sold like hotcakes. And though Laue’s early 18th-century amber cabinet — one of a handful extant that were given as diplomatic gifts among ruling princes — didn’t find any early takers, it won many admirers.

“The amber cabinet is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen,” said Paris art dealer Waring Hopkins. “This is what Maastricht is all about — you’re looking at things you didn’t even know you’d care about.”