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How did this come about? Through a series of developments that started with Sotheby's acquisition in June of the gallery and stock of the high-profile Maastricht picture dealer Robert Noortman, one of the founding fathers of the fair.

In 1975 Noortman was instrumental in establishing Maastricht's Pictura Fine Art Fair, the forerunner of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). In the ensuing years he has continued to be a prominent member of the organising Board of Trustees, being listed as Vice Chairman Pictura in this year's catalogue. The lavish dinners and cocktail parties Noortman hosts at his castle just outside Maastricht have become a legendary feature of the event.

Among Noortman's most spectacular recent TEFAF offerings was Rembrandt's 1633 Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet, which was on sale at his stand in March priced at £18.5m. The painting had originally been acquired for a premium-inclusive $12.7m (£8.7m) at Christie's New York back in January 2001. In December 2000 Noortman had spent £19.8m (again including premium) at Christie's London for Rembrandt's Portrait of a Lady aged 62. This was exhibited, complete with security guards, at TEFAF Maastricht 2001, but only sold last summer to a Dutch collector in America for €45m (£32m).

The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and changes in collecting taste have created difficult trading conditions for the Old Master picture dealers who form the backbone of the Maastricht fair.

When Sotheby's took over Noortman Master Paintings in June they acquired not only 100 per cent of Robert Noortman's shares but also $26m in debt. In return Noortman was to receive 1.95m Sotheby's shares at a price of $29 each - equivalent to 3.2 per cent of the company's total shareholding, or $56.5m (€44m) in cash - "subject to certain performance criteria" over a five-year employment term as a member of Sotheby's International Advisory Board. No money changed hands and Noortman was to remain managing director of the Maastricht gallery.

Noortman Master Paintings' newly-acquired status as a wholly owned subsidiary of Sotheby's created obvious problems for the committee of dealers that makes up TEFAF's Board of Trustees.

Soon after Sotheby's announcement, a board meeting was convened in London during the week of the Grosvenor House fair. Robert Noortman was present, as was Pictura chairman Konrad Bernheimer and other prominent TEFAF board members such as Johnny van Haeften.

Though Noortman's enormously important role in the development of the Maastricht fair was widely acknowledged, so too was the conflict of interest presented by his new role at Sotheby's. However, any hopes that TEFAF might have had to exclude Noortman/Sotheby's from the fair were soon extinguished by specialist legal advice.

"We were told by our lawyers that according to Dutch law it would have been very difficult not to re-invite Robert Noortman to the fair," Konrad Bernheimer revealed to the ATG.

When Christie's heard their main competitors were going to be represented at TEFAF they forcefully requested that they be included as well, or else they would set up their own rival marketing operation elsewhere in Maastricht.

"After a series of very difficult meetings we thought it would be better to have Christie's in the fair rather than outside," added Mr Bernheimer. "This wasn't an easy decision to make. Lots of our members aren't happy about this, including myself. TEFAF always was and always should remain the domain of the dealers. But overall we believe it's in the best interests of the fair."

Noortman Master Paintings and Christie's have now been allocated stands directly opposite each other in the second aisle of the TEFAF floorplan. Noortman's former prime location at the front of the fair has been given to Richard Green.

The salerooms' participation in the fair will be subject to strict rules of engagement. Paintings and objects from forthcoming auctions will not be allowed on the stands, nor will departmental specialists. Only objects that have been consigned for private sale will be allowed into the fair.

In response to these restrictions, Christie's have formed the new company King Street Fine Art Ltd which, according to the auction house's press office, "is currently not scheduled to be active on a broader scale beyond exhibiting at Maastricht 2007". King Street Fine Art's stand will be manned by Alan Wintermute and Jennifer Vorbach from Christie's private sales department in New York.

This situation is further complicated by the news that the 59-year-old Robert Noortman has recently undergone surgery for pancreatic and liver cancer. Noortman Master Paintings will be exhibiting at the PAN Amsterdam fair, opening on November 19, but an official spokesperson was unable to say whether Noortman would be attending in person. "He has to recover from surgery. Hopefully he'll be there. He's doing really well."

Sotheby's have also issued a statement on their website revealing that Robert Noortman is suffering from cancer: "Sotheby's cannot predict at this time what effect Mr Noortman's illness may have, but does not believe that it will have a material adverse effect on Sotheby's overall business." However, they do not explain what provision, if any, has been made under the performance terms of Noortman's five-year contract.

In the meantime, the next five months leading up to the Maastricht fair look set to be a difficult period for all those concerned. Dealers and auctioneers alike will be wishing the enormously popular and highly respected Robert Noortman the very best of luck, but regardless of medical outcomes it looks unlikely that the auction houses will be long-term exhibitors at TEFAF Maastricht.

"The invitation is extended on an annual basis," pointed out Johnny van Haeften, tersely.

By Scott Reyburn