Thousands of small farms in south western France lie half hidden down narrow, winding tracks, concealed behind thick woods or tucked away in obscure valleys. On the 11th December 2014, a discovery was made at Deux Sevres near Niort, more sensational and valuable than anything found for decades.
As Guy de Maupassant described in his short stories set in rural France, French peasant culture preserves an aura of secrecy and suspicion – an attitude possibly reinforced by the divided loyalties that tore France apart under the occupation. So it is perhaps not surprising that occasionally something amazing turns up, forgotten for years, suspected by no one.
Following a tip off, no less than 60 of the worlds rarest and most exclusive vintage automobiles, coated with dust, protected only by rusty sheets of corrugated iron and piles of old magasines, were tracked down by Matthieu Lamoure, managing director of Artcurial’s car auction division, and his assistant, Pierre Novikoff.
The collection was amassed by Roger Baillon, a wealthy haulier. Between 1953 and 1966 he indulged his passion for rare automobiles, buying some two hundred of the most exclusive cars produced between the 1930’s and the 1960’s.
In 1978 Baillon went bankrupt, forcing him to sell some hundred vehicles from his exraordinary collection. The remainder have mouldered away in dusty barns ever since.
What Lamoure and Novikoff stumbled upon was some 60 classic motoring gems, bearing names like Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Talbot-Lago, Panhard-Levassor, Masarati, Ferrari, and Delage. Apart from the Schlumpf collection of Bugattis In Mulhouse, there is no more important collection in the world.
The find included three Voisins, eight Delahayes, a Lagonda LG45 Cabriolet, eight Talbot Lagos and and a rare cabriolet, once the property of King Farouk of Egypt.
The rarest find of all was a Ferrari 250 California SWB, of which only some 37 were ever made. The car has an interesting history, having once belonged to French film star Alain Delon. There exists a rare photo of him sitting in the driving seat with Jane Fonda as passenger. This extraordinary find, half metallic graveyard, half museum, provoked Lamoure to remark: “We were overcome with emotion. Probably like Lord Carrington and Howard Carter’s reaction on being the first to enter Tutankhaman’ tomb…”The obscurity of the location and the rarities it revealed has transfixed the auction world and vintage car collectors world wide with a fascination probably only equalled by the French tax authorities who, no doubt licking their lips at the ‘impots’ to be raised, are never far behind in the wake of such events.
And so it turned out. The retromobile auction on February 6th raised a total of over 25 million euros (£18 million), more than any previous European sale. Five cars went for over a million euros and ten others for over 500,000. A Masarati A6G sold for over two million euros and the 1961 Ferrari raised an astounding 16,288,000 euros (£12.1 million).
It may well be that rural France still contains other priceless rarities waiting to be disovered. Who knows!