Swellboy on… Bernard Buffet

Our man rues the day he didn’t snap up the artist’s clown painting…

Image: © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2016 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2016

There is a satisfaction to being proved right. But often, as George Osborne and David Cameron have recently found, being right usually comes with a caveat. Rather like the prophetess Cassandra who was doomed to foretell the future but never be believed… it must be very frustrating to predict the winner of the 2.35 at Kelso only to find that your bookmaker mistook your bet for the 2.35 at Newmarket.

My Cassandra moment came during the recent London auctions. As you may know, I have spent the past couple of years working on a book about the painter Bernard Buffet – if you have not bought your copy yet it is the perfect beach read, Christmas present (it is never too early to start Christmas shopping) and indeed an ideal gift for weddings, birthdays, coming-of-age ceremonies, festivals of religious observance, etc, etc.

When I began looking into his work, one could say that his reputation was at something of nadir, but that would be implying too much in the way of critical and commercial success. He had been big back at the end of the 1940s and even bigger during the 1950s when he was talked of as the next Picasso, and he made enough money to buy himself a Rolls-Royce, a castle, an island and a boat… all before he was 30. But after that, his standing with the critics declined. I loved the story for many reasons, not least because Buffet lived about six lives in one: bisexual, lover of Pierre Bergé, married to the singer-novelist-model Annabel Schwob de Lure, alcoholic, drug user, teetotaller, socialite, jet-setter, recluse… About the only constant thing in his life was his dealer Maurice Garnier, whom he met in the 1940s and remained with until his suicide in 1999.

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Back when I started looking at his work about 10 or so years ago, whenever I said that I was interested in his work, educated, cultured people scoffed, howled with laughter and otherwise communicated the belief that I had finally lost what few marbles I possessed. Weak character that I am, I half believed them. I remember passing a gallery in St James’s and falling for one of his paintings, which I could have just about bought had I extended my mortgage and asked for payment terms (which I am sure would have been granted as you could not sell Buffets that easily back then). So, I did what anyone would do in such circumstances and rang a friend who knew about art and he advised me not to touch it.

Fast forward a few years and a massive Bernard Buffet depicting two clowns (pictured) made it into an evening sale at Christie’s. Making the evening sale is like getting into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, or passing behind the silken rope at a nightclub to get to the VIP area. I spoke to the art dealer about this and he said that had he been told about such a thing coming to pass just three years ago he would have guffawed in disbelief, but now that the impossible had happened he was going to be very careful on his way home not to get hit by any low-level flying pigs or get caught in a shower of frogs.

As it happened, Buffet did not just make it into the evening sale, the painting sold for over £1m, a sum which in those not-so-far-off days was equivalent to $1.5m. I am not sure whether to feel vindicated, or just very foolish for passing up an opportunity that is unlikely to come my way again.

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