French Treasure Trove

Santiago Auctions May 5, 2015

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.

1956 MASERATI A6G 2000 GRAN SPORT BERLINETTA FRUA - COLLECTION BAILLON - SOLD 2 ME-2,2M$ ∏ ARTCURIALFollowing 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.1961 FERRARI 250 GT SWB CALIFORNIA SPIDER - COLLECTION BAILLON - SOLD 16,3 ME-18,5 M$ - ∏ ARTCURIAL

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!

Innocence in Danger

Santiago Auctions May 5, 2015

Mouna Rebeiz sweeps into the Saatchi Gallery, her long coat flapping in the slipstream of her arrival, carrying two or three bags and a dinner jacket – something she describes as a ‘smoking’.

Everything about Mouna is dramatic: tall and statuesque as befits an erstwhile model; coal black eyes which shine all the more brightly in contrast to her pale skin; her striking features framed by a shock of wavy black hair which in others would seem unruly, but which seems to fit perfectly with her restless character. In short, Mouna Rebeiz would be the ideal subject for one of her own paintings.

In a sense, the exhibition of paintings recently on show at the Saatchi Gallery is ‘the statement that isn’t’. One might think that a collection of nudes wearing nothing but the tarbouche or Fez, traditionally worn in some countries in the Middle East as a symbol of male dominance, carries a feminist message. Mouna is adamant: “I am not a feminist. I hate politics. Politics is all bullshit – its just money and power!”

This is a bold statemen at time when the Middle East is being increasingly radicalised as never before. Lebanon, her country of origin, is sixty percent muslim, but Mouna is unfazed. “Hisbollah? Who are these people? I do not know them! In Lebanon we are free – like Europe”. Nevertheless, even moderate Muslim culture finds it hard to accept the frenetic sexualisation of western culture, where the female form is shamelessly exploited to move product.

In contrast to this, the graceful lines and subtle skin tones of the figures in Mouna Rebeiz’s paintings seem to recall Kenneth Clark’s description of the nude in art: “The word nude…carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled, defenceless body, but a prosperous and confident body”.

This is in line with the training Mouna has received. Originally a student of psychology at the Sorbonne, she then trained for ten years under Alix de la Source, an expert in 17th and 18th century art at the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. Originally influenced by French painters like Watteau and Bouchard, Mouna was later drawn to the more sensual work of Rubens.

So where does Mouna Rebeiz stand in the debates that rage about gender and equality? Her answers are thoughtful if a little complicated. :” In Lebanon the place of women is changing in many ways. (So) it has never been more important to reflect at length on the very essence of the ‘woman being’. I am Levantine, Lebanese…Lebanese women are at once sensual and sophisticated. I also identify as French, and a characteristic of French feminity is precisely that sophistication. … At a time when many magasines seek to reduce women, photoshopped and thin, I choose to paint them fleshy, timeless, women as mistress and mother, women both sensual and maternal”

The fez was the instrument chosen to make her point. “I decided to take an object that, in its cultural and historical context, was essentially a male article of clothing, in counterpoint… This is not a provocation. This not about any opposition between man and woman. It is not an act of militancy. To put a tarbouche on the head of a naked woman is to recall the place of woman in the world. I have hijacked the tarbouche and made it an emblem of feminity”.

After London, there are plans to take the exhibition of paintings, first to Paris , and then to New York.