July 06 2012
Simon de Burton
There is a building near Jean-Pierre Slavic’s magnificent château, beside Lac Léman, that he describes as “looking like a garden house”. Once inside, however, the visitor discovers it is actually the entrance to an extraordinary underground cavern, supported by 220 tons of steel, lined in black marble and illuminated by vast sheets of glass and many hundreds of spotlights.
For want of a more appropriate word, this is Slavic’s garage. In here, he keeps one of the most remarkable private collections of classic cars in the world, worth tens of millions of pounds, including some of the greatest, rarest and most desirable models from marques such as Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche, Maserati and Jaguar.
Fascinated by cars since he was a child, Slavic began – like most boys – collecting toy versions before acquiring his first “serious” car in 1976, aged 27. “It was a beautiful, silver Ferrari 250GT Lusso, which I had admired at the Geneva Ferrari dealer where its owner had it serviced. She wouldn’t part with it, but then one day I heard that she had sold it to someone else who didn’t pay up.
“I went to my bank, withdrew about SFr70,000 [about £17,000] in cash – the most I had ever seen – and she let me buy it. It was the start of a love affair with Ferrari that endures to this day.”
Slavic was able to indulge his passion for Ferraris thanks to the success of his business, which specialised in manufacturing watch crowns. It supplied 85 per cent of the world market before being bought by Rolex in 2001.
The following year, Slavic met Simon Kidston at a Bonhams auction in Gstaad, and the pair quickly formed a bond – despite a potentially ignominious start to their relationship.
“I had heard about this Ferrari-only auction held at the Palace Hotel each Christmas, so I went to have a look,” recalls Slavic. “There was a delightful 166 Spider on offer, and the charming English auctioneer who spoke perfect French and Italian – Simon – answered all my questions and confirmed that it had been imported into Switzerland with all taxes paid, so I bought it.
“Afterwards, he was very embarrassed to find out that the seller hadn’t, in fact, paid the Swiss import taxes – but Simon paid them on my behalf without me even asking. That’s the moment he earned my trust and loyalty.”
Kidston, the 44-year-old nephew of the late aviator and “Bentley Boy” Glen Kidston (who famously drove a Speed Six to victory at Le Mans in 1930, when Bentleys took the first four places), left Bonhams in 2006 to set up Kidston SA, which has grown into one of the world’s leading consultancies to established and aspiring classic-car collectors.
“Jean-Pierre is undoubtedly one of our top three clients, and I feel very lucky to be able to work with him,” says Kidston. “He knows a great deal about cars; he appreciates the subtleties, and understands the value of history and originality, yet he will always listen to advice. He has a good overview of the market, is extremely decisive, and it is perfectly usual for him to commit to buying or selling a multimillion-dollar car over lunch, or even during the course of a short phone call. And he’s happy to work with me on gentlemanly terms – I have never met his lawyer and we don’t need lengthy contracts. He is simply a man of his word, and we trust and understand one another.”
This mutual trust has enabled Kidston to assist Slavic in refining and broadening his collection, which has been reduced from 65 cars to around 40. The finest Ferraris have been retained, while lesser cars have been sold to make way for top-end examples of other marques.
“In particular, Simon has helped me to share his fascination with English marques, notably Aston Martin,” says Slavic. “The Holy Grail of Astons must be the sublime DB4GT bodied by Zagato – an automotive English masterpiece in an Italian suit. With just 19 made, they are very hard to acquire, and I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to own one. Simon, however, discovered an original Zagato, for which he made an offer on my behalf.
“The owner said he was ‘minded’ to accept the offer, but then disappeared to Africa for a month and couldn’t be reached. Simon sensed my anxiety and discreetly scoured the world for an alternative. I was overjoyed when he tracked one down in Los Angeles that had been in the same ownership for almost four decades,” says Slavic.
“He flew out to inspect it with the head of Aston Martin’s restoration facility and it turned out to be the Geneva show car. Now, I’m pleased to say, it’s back in the city where it made its public début 50 years ago.”
Despite the quality of the cars in his collection – the DB4GT Zagato is worth north of $6m – Slavic drives most of them quite regularly.
“He uses his cars more than any other collector I know, and that really proves his passion for them,” says Kidston. “Once the roads have been cleared of salt after the winter, he’ll be out driving them again and always turns up for our meetings in something interesting. Last time, it was a 1973 Porsche 911 RS, the time before that it was a Ferrari 250 GT short-wheelbase Spyder California – I have never seen him behind the wheel of some boring, modern estate car.”
As Slavic says, “We do have some great roads in the mountains, so I try to keep a couple of cars at my chalet in Gstaad in addition to the ones in Geneva. I love driving old cars, and I buy them mainly for the pleasure that gives me, and for their aesthetic appeal. But if the values go up, as they have been doing recently, then so much the better.”