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The untimely death on January 16 of Robert Noortman, the charismatic Dutch picture dealer who co-founded of the TEFAF Maastricht art fair, inevitably raises questions about the controversial relationship between Noortman Master Paintings and its owners Sotheby's.

In June last year Sotheby's announced that they had acquired 100 per cent ownership of Noortman's Maastricht gallery and stock, as well as its $26m in debts. Although no cash changed hands, Sotheby's paid Noortman's Luxembourg-based holding company Arcimboldo an Initial Consideration of 1.95m Class A shares, equivalent at the time to $49.2m, or 3.2 per cent of Sotheby's total shareholding. Arcimboldo was also to receive an Additional Consideration of 486,712 shares if the company achieved "certain targeted performance criteria" over the next five years. Noortman Master Paintings thus became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sotheby's, with Noortman himself joining the auction house's International Advisory Board.

Within months of this deal being struck, Robert Noortman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

As ATG reported in November, the acquisition by a major auction house of one of the leading exhibitors at the trade's TEFAF Maastricht fair created some difficult conflicts of interest. During the autumn, in an unprecedented and highly controversial move, the TEFAF board decided that not only should Noortman retain his stand at the fair (albeit in a less preferential location), but that that private sales team of Christie's should also be allowed to exhibit at Maastricht under the name of King Street Fine Art.

Robert Noortman's passing will not affect Sotheby's and Christie's presence at this year's TEFAF fair. However, as Johnny van Haeften of the TEFAF board of trustees intimated in November, it looks unlikely that the invitation will be extended to Christie's in 2008 and an air of uncertainty now hangs over Noortman Master Paintings.

The Maastricht gallery's website states that staff are determined to honour their founder's memory by "continuing dealing in art in his spirit". At present much of the responsibility for this dealing falls on the young shoulders of Noortman's son, William, aged just 25, who has rejoined the gallery having worked as a trainee in Sotheby's Old Master Paintings department in New York.

Noortman's elder son, Timothy, 32, has recently graduated from the INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, but is not as yet directly involved in the business.

Noortman has died almost exactly 12 months after he telephoned Sotheby's chief executive Bill Ruprecht, suggesting a partnership. At the time, Ruprecht was quoted in the International Herald Tribune as describing Noortman Master Paintings as "a superb business" and an opportunity not to be missed.

How much will this assessment be modified now that the business has lost the charismatic leadership and contacts of its founder?

According to a leading Old Master dealer with close connections to the Noortman family, Sotheby's are determined to maintain their trade presence in Maastricht: "The contract will be adjusted, but no more than that. As soon as Rob learned of his illness he worked closely with Sotheby's to ensure the future of the gallery.

"He was impressed and touched by how strongly they stood behind him and supported his decisions. William was being groomed to take over the business, but he is very young. There are lots of deals being done, but the gallery does need new leadership."

As for Sotheby's, when contacted by ATG the auction house intimated that they would soon be making an official statement to shareholders outlining their new relationship with Noortman Fine Paintings.

By Scott Reyburn