AMSTERDAM, Feb 5 (Reuters) - One of the world's largest art fairs is venturing away from its Dutch home base for the first time as economic weakness in Europe and emerging Chinese and Russian markets leave New York an increasingly important source of wealthy collectors.
Nestled in a pocket of the southern Netherlands on the German and Belgian borders, Maastricht was an odd choice for a European art fair when a group of Dutch dealers set it up 30 years ago. It grew to rival known art centres like Paris and London and targeted wealthy collectors in Germany and Switzerland.
With 269 dealers, a billion euros worth of artefacts on display and 70,000 visitors, The European Fine Art Fair is now the world's leading fair, with hundreds of billionaire collectors jetting in from all over the world.
Buyers including rich museums snap up works spanning 7,000 years of art history, ranging from limestone reliefs from Egypt's Old Kingdom to renaissance masterpieces from Tuscany and the Low Countries.
But in the latest sign of European economic woes following years of recession, TEFAF plans to hold additional fairs in New York in 2016 and 2017.
"Dealers have been asking us to go to New York for several years," said chief executive Patrick Maris van Dijk. "America, South America, is an extraordinarily important market - we want to create a window for that audience."
American interest in the Maastricht fair became clear in 2014, when 3,000 U.S. visitors attended the event, just as EU demand weakened.
TEFAF's own art market report showed EU sales falling 2 percent in 2013. Chinese demand grew by only 2 percent, while U.S. sales jumped 25 percent the same year.
Maris remained bullish despite signs the art market cycle has peaked, with leading auctioneer Christie's reporting a 5 percent fall in sales in 2015.
"Top art is irresistible and recession-proof," he said - even if prices for top works may be falling.
An earlier attempt at opening a subsidiary fair in Beijing in 2012 failed because of a tough business climate, he said.
But China's slowdown has since reduced the number of high net worth individuals on the lookout for top works, much as Russia's economic crisis has forced other big spenders to draw in their horns.
The first of the New York fairs in October will focus on art up to the 20th century, while its follow-up in May 2017 will focus on contemporary art and design. (Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Toby Chopra)