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To avoid such eventualities, each year they hoard merchandise to unveil at the fair that has become a byword for quality - most dealers would rather stay at home than show up with poor stock.

We say it every year but it remains the case that The European Fine Art Fair, now over a quarter of a century old (it celebrated its 25th anniversary last year), is still the best art and antiques fair in the world.

Yes there is talk every year of young pretenders vying for its crown, that TEFAF has become too complacent, that the 'exclusive' preview day for 10,000-plus guests often descends into a Brueghel-esque fight (yes, literally) for the last vol au vent.

But to exhibit at TEFAF is still considered the pinnacle of the trade and says that as a dealer you have truly arrived.

This year the fair runs from March 15-24 at the usual venue, the huge Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre. From the outside the MECC is yet another soulless convention centre in a business park. But inside it is a stunning sight, millions upon millions of pounds/euros/dollars worth of art, antiques and jewellery, and more cut flowers than you'll see all year - 64,500 tulips and 33,000 roses last year.

Unlike events in metropolises such as London and New York, TEFAF truly takes over the small Dutch city - its restaurants, hotels and bars refer to its run as their 'golden weeks', as the world's collectors, curators and dealers arrive and spend. Maastricht is centrally positioned within Europe, undoubtedly picturesque and steeped in history, but if it was not for TEFAF, most would probably never have visited.

This year 264 dealers from 20 countries will exhibit at TEFAF and, as usual, by far the largest national contingent are from the UK, with 75 exhibitors, followed by the Netherlands with 39, Germany with 33, France with 29 and the USA with 24.

As many will know, the event that laid the foundations for TEFAF was Pictura, which was started in 1975 with just 28 dealers and concentrated purely on Old Masters and medieval sculpture. Some dealers who exhibited at Pictura, such as Richard Green and Johnny van Haeften, have stood at the fair since its inception, and Old Masters and early works of art are still at the crux of the fair.

But it has now widened to include disciplines such as furniture, design, jewellery, tribal art, antiquities, illuminated manuscripts and Asian art, with Modern and Contemporary art playing an increasingly prominent role.

Navigating the enormous fair can be tricky, but it helps that the floorplan divides exhibitors into ten areas by discipline: paintings, antiques, modern art, manuscripts, classical antiquities, jewellery, design, the business pavilion, Showcase and Paper.

TEFAF Paper is devoted to works on paper and is housed in an annexe to one side of the fair - it can be easy to miss, but make sure you make the effort to visit as there are great things in this oasis of calm.

TEFAF Showcase, meanwhile, offers younger dealerships a one-off chance to exhibit on a small stand. This year, the lucky six are an even split of London and Parisian dealers - from Paris, Eric Delalande (marine and scientific pieces and Chinese objects), Lucas Ratton (African art) and Laurence Souksi (Chinese snuff bottles) and from London, Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, Sinai & Sons (19th and 20th century decorative art and design), and Trinity House Paintings (Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Modern British and 19th century art).

Fair Debuts

While this is a one-off opportunity to exhibit at TEFAF, 15 dealers have this year managed to move from the lengthy waiting list to secure a stand in the main body of the fair. One of these, the 20th century artists' jewellery specialists Didier Ltd from London, has made the jump from Showcase last year, while New York design dealer Jason Jacques was selected for Showcase in 2009.

Two others have exhibited here in the past but will return - Modern and Contemporary art super gallery Gagosian of New York and London-based Asian art dealers Rossi & Rossi, who last took part in 1995.

Two of the newcomers join TEFAF Paper - Galleri K from Oslo and Francesca Antonacci Damiano Lapiccirella Fine Art from Florence.

Munich-based Kunstsalon Franke-Schenk join the paintings section with Old Master and Impressionist works, and two more German galleries, Galerie Ludorfffrom Düsseldorf and Galerie Bastian from Berlin, both dealers in Modern and Contemporary art, join TEFAF Modern.

The remaining five debutants are in TEFAF Antiques - Amir Mohtashemi, London (Islamic and Indian works of art), Galerie Kevorkian, Paris (Far Eastern and Islamic works of art), Van Cleef and Arpels, London (jewellery), Yufuku Gallery, Tokyo (Japanese art) and Gallery 1492, Paris (Pre-Columbian art).

The second TEFAF Art Symposium will also be held this year from 10-11.30am on Friday, March 15, this year titled Rising Stars in the Art World. Emerging Markets and Top Performing Artists.

Kicking off with a review of the global art market during 2012, the symposium will look at the differences between the emerging markets of China and Brazil and the arts economist Dr Clare McAndrew will present the latest TEFAF Art Market Report. For more information and registration see www.tefafartnews.com