Susan Moore

Exhausting but exhilarating

Susan Moore braves the Maastricht art fair and wonders about the future of other sales venues

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The art and antiques business is as unpredictable as an English summer. And it is not only the works of art that confound market rules and crystal balls. The fairs that serve as the dealers' collective showcase similarly defy expectations. Who would have thought, for instance, that fair entrepreneur David Lester could put up a tent on a forlorn intersection in West Palm Beach - not only on the wrong side of the tracks but just feet away from them - and find himself with one of the most glamorous and successful art fairs in America? Or that a charmless convention centre on the ring-road around Maastricht - a town no one had heard of until the eponymous treaty - could become the venue for quite simply the best art and antiques fair in the world?

This year's European Fine Art Fair - or TEFAF Maastricht as its organisers now insist on calling it - has just opened its oversized doors (they close on Sunday 23 March). Inside is a fair so large that visitors are handed maps with street names to find their way around it. If you want to find a New Bond Street dealer here, well, you first go to the Place de la Concorde, turn left along the Champs ElysZes and cross the Vrijthof. Over 200 exhibitors from 13 countries line this cosmopolitan A-Z, and to look at everything would take at least three days. Maastricht is an ordeal, Maastricht is exhausting, but it is exhilarating. No fair in Paris, London or even New York offers this depth and breadth, this concentration of pre-eminent dealers and profusion of high-quality goods. Maastricht is phenomenal - but one of the reasons it is a phenomenon is because so many of the other great international art and antiques fairs of the world seem to be floundering.

For years, the problem has been that there are far too many fairs - and barely a week goes by without talk of another new event. This month alone sees not only Maastricht but the leading specialist fairs for Asian art (The International Asian Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, 28 March to 2 April) and Old Master drawings (Le Salon du Dessin at the Salons Hoche in Paris, 26 to 31 March). Wendy Management, the oldest show producer in the US, also dipped its toes into the international antiques market in New York, and the Lesters unveiled the new ARTform - The International Fair for Dimensional Fine Art - in West Palm Beach. The reason for this proliferation is that art and antiques fairs have become big business.

Long gone are the days when collectors had the time or the inclination to saunter down Mount Street or the Faubourg St HonorZ. Ask any of the dealers who still occupy grand gallery premises and they will tell you that off season perhaps one or two clients a week might drop by. None can survive by sitting back and waiting for the door to open. The auction houses have brilliantly manoeuvred themselves into the retail art business and made it so easy for just about anyone with money to spare to buy in the salerooms. To some it has become an extension of mail-order shopping. For those who prefer to look before they buy, walking into Sotheby's or Christie's is infinitely less terrifying - and less pressured - to an inexperienced would-be purchaser than ringing the bell of a grand dealer's showroom. Against this kind of competition, the beleaguered dealers had no choice but to join forces and stage a series of counter-offensives.

Once it was enough to show at a national fair - Grosvenor House or the Biennale des Antiquaires. Now the international fair circuit has become a travelling circus - little wonder entrepreneur David Lester bought himself a big top. Few of today's big rollers feel the compulsion to buy works of art in the obsessive, passionate way a real collector does, so dealers are obliged to trail around the world in their wake in the hope of catching their eye - or now, given the American reluctance to travel, to set up their stall in their backyard. And anyone who can facilitate them is on to a potential winner. When the Lesters sold their art and antiques fair business to dmg world media last year, the deal was believed to have been worth around $18 million.

But there are signs that the market can no longer sustain this profusion of high-end fairs. There is just not the supply of high-quality goods fresh to the market to support them all. Even the best of fairs have their proportion of works of art that, pass-the-parcel like, always seem to be in some dealer's hands when the music stops. But today's super-rich demand novelty, expect to be wowed, dazzled, entertained. At each fair, the dealers are expected to don a magician's cloak and pull ever more extraordinary objects out of a hat that everyone agrees is shrinking. If they do not, the punters just stop coming. The reality of the market is that there are few dealers who can pull out the goods more than twice a year. Collectors are becoming fair-weary, and many of the once great traditional fairs - and even some of the newer specialist events - are beginning to look as tired as some of their exhibits.

Some believe that the big international art and antiques fair has had its day as a desirable and effective marketplace. For dealers, certainly, the travelling is punishing, the costs horrendous, and the EU VAT system a bureaucratic nightmare (TEFAF has just published a report on this anti-competitive menace). More and more alternatives are being explored. It is striking to see, for instance, that the satellite shows installed in borrowed galleries around the International Asian Art Fair in New York are beginning to out-dazzle the central event itself. And how in London, Brussels, Paris and New York prohibitive costs - coupled with sluggish sales - are driving more dealers out of the fairs and into collaborative 'open house' initiatives in their own galleries. For the art and antiques fair business, as for the art market itself, the chasm is widening between the best and the rest - and only those that work at maintaining the curiosity of their visitors will survive.