LONDON It is probably not the world's biggest art fair, and certainly not the flashiest, but Maastricht's annual shindig for well-heeled collectors of mainly traditional works believes it has what it takes to survive shifts in artistic tastes and fortunes.
TEFAF -- the European Fine Art Fair -- celebrates its 25th year in 2012, and organizers put its longevity and status as the world's leading art and antiques fair down to some distinctly old-fashioned values.
Around one billion euros' ($1.3 billion) worth of artifacts, ranging from paintings to clocks, old manuscripts and furniture and spanning 6,000 years of art history, will be displayed by some 260 dealers in the southern Dutch city.
More than 70,000 visitors are expected at the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center between Friday and March 25, most arriving by car or train but also on private jets parked at the nearby Maastricht-Aachen airport.
As with most fairs, the volume of trade done each year is not published, but dealers estimate it runs comfortably into tens of millions of dollars.
The figure may then rise into the hundreds of millions if transactions which are initiated in Maastricht but concluded elsewhere are added -- the pace of buying and selling is less frenetic at TEFAF than many contemporary art fairs.
Ben Janssens, chairman of TEFAF and also a dealer there, said he was "fairly confident" of a successful fair this year, despite economic concerns particularly among European clients.
Soaring art prices over the last 18 months are testament to the purchasing power of wealthy collectors -- institutional and private -- who appear unperturbed by the euro crisis and are looking for alternative places to put their money.
"We notice there has been much more interest from institutions like banks and funds," Janssens told Reuters, adding that Chinese collectors were also on the rise.
"People are thinking, perhaps it's not such a bad idea to at least park some of your assets into art, which has the great advantage that it gives you something nice to look at. I don't see that diminishing."
MICROSCOPE AND X-RAY MACHINE
Experts caution that too much speculative money in art will ultimately lead to the bubble bursting, although some TEFAF dealers argue that the fair focuses on a less volatile area of the market anyway.
"The strength of the art market is much more focused on the impressionists, on 20th and 21st century art," said Giles Hutchinson Smith of Mallett which is based in London.
"The earlier period market has been mercurial over the last five to 10 years. The great country house sales are almost non-existent now, and it's those sorts of things that get into the public's minds."
Some dealers have lowered their sights by offering less valuable works this year, and a rise in sales tax for local buyers of art imported from outside the European Union may only affect a small number of deals but has angered participants.
Organizers are struggling to prevent the fair from becoming too big -- a common complaint at TEFAF and comparable events around the world -- but one thing they are sure of is the rigorous "vetting" process which they say guarantees quality.
Janssens said 185 people from 29 different committees examined hundreds of objects on display on the stands, with a microscope and x-ray machine on hand should they need it.
Among the highlights this year are a jade Olmec mask of an owl man, probably from Guatemala dated 900-300 BC, on offer at Entwistle for $2.2 million, and a Chinese meiping vase from the 14th or 15th century worth around $4.2 million on show at Littleton and Hennessy Asian Art Ltd.
Artists including Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Vincent Van Gogh are featured, while a ruby and pearl "Lips" by Salvador Dali and based on Marilyn Monroe are on sale at A la Vieille Russie.
A handful of works fetch dizzying sums -- in 2008 a Van Gogh painting with an asking price of more than $30 million sold to a private collector and in 2002 a Michelangelo drawing offered at 13 million euros went to an American buyer.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)