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The Mystery of the Saint Laurent Sketches

More than four years after the designer's death, an international dispute about a 400-item portfolio of his drawings and personal items is swirling.

By and
with contributions from Melissa Drier, Miles Socha
designer-luxury/news
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More than four years after the death of Yves Saint Laurent, an international dispute about a 400-item portfolio of his drawings and personal items is swirling.

In a tale that has all the makings of a Hollywood mystery, the battle involves his longtime lover and business partner Pierre Bergé; allegations the drawings — many of which are erotic — were stolen; one of Saint Laurent’s former lovers, Fabrice Thomas; a German businessman who says he now owns the drawings, but who insists on remaining anonymous; a possible police investigation and criminal complaint, and numerous go-betweens who claim to have links to the works.

The complete story remains elusive.

The nub of the issue is whether the cache of Saint Laurent drawings, as well as a journal, a portrait of his mother that he did as a teenager and other pieces, were indeed stolen. They allegedly were acquired by the unidentified German businessman from Fabrice Thomas, who worked for the designer and later became his lover for a brief period in the Nineties. The businessman now plans to either exhibit or sell the collection, likely worth millions of dollars.

Bergé claims the collection, which includes some 290 sketches, was stolen from the Paris apartment he shared with Saint Laurent. Bergé and his legal team declined to identify any persons of interest.

WWD first saw digital images of some of what appeared to be YSL-signed erotic sketches in New York in late August. Sascha Welchering, director of sales at the Wentrup gallery in Berlin, showed them to a WWD editor. At that time, there was talk of organizing a show at Chrystoph Marten’s salon and gallery. Marten served as editorial director at Vidal Sassoon in New York before he opened his own West 25th Street salon in the heart of West Chelsea’s art scene.


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Ludwig Geiger, a Swiss-based representative for the man who claims to be the collection’s current owner, declined to identify that individual. As a “trustee and friend” of the unnamed owner, Geiger said he not only knows all the background but has seen the “sworn and legalized documents” that transferred ownership from Thomas to the new owner.

Thomas declined to comment for this story via Geiger, who claimed none of the legal disputes target Thomas in any way. Geiger declined to reveal the whereabouts of Thomas, as did others in Saint Laurent’s circle.

While he was not designated to speak on Thomas’ behalf, Geiger shed some light on the current owner and how the Saint Laurent portfolio wound up in his possession. After Thomas and Saint Laurent split up in the early Nineties, this European businessman gave Thomas “a job, a car and a new life,” Geiger said. Thomas, in turn, gave the portfolio to his new friend “part gift, part sold,” according to Geiger, though he declined to give the financial details of that exchange.

Insisting that the exchange of ownership of the collection is legal, fully documented and notarized, Geiger said, “Nothing is stolen, as Mr. Bergé likes to say.”

Bergé, not surprisingly, has a good deal to say about the matter. He told WWD that he believes the sketches were stolen from the designer’s Paris apartment and that a police report has been filed. Bergé said it was out of the question that Saint Laurent would have given so many illustrations to one person. “Believe me, it would have been impossible for Yves to have given someone 300 sketches. Maybe one or two, but 300? Surely not,” Bergé said. “The point is, they were stolen.”

While he did not implicate Thomas, Bergé admitted Saint Laurent probably gave him a few things at some point. Thomas worked for the designer as a driver “a long time ago,” but Bergé could not say exactly when.

Aware of the erotic nature of the sketches, Bergé estimated that they were drawn decades ago. Whatever the nature of the work, Bergé said he is not about to buy back what he insists is stolen merchandise. He also suspects he knows who the culprit is. “I suppose I know who he is, but I can’t tell you his name,” Bergé said. “I expect to find a solution. I am not ready to pay for them. I am not willing to pay for something that was stolen. But I intend to empty every possibility I have to avoid any exhibitions and publication of the sketches.”

Geiger claimed that Bergé has been approached three times to buy the collection, and at one point, “Fabrice himself offered the collection to Bergé, but he said no because he thought [Fabrice] was asking too much.”

Bergé’s New York-based lawyer, Alain Coblence, said a complaint was filed in the Paris tribunal in November 2011. WWD was unable to find any record of a complaint or filing there, though an administrator did not rule out the possibility of one being filed in another city.

In addition to hundreds of sketches, the contested items include personal letters, photographs and a portion of a journal, Coblence contended. As for the estimated value, he said, “It’s impossible to know, really. All I know is the extortionlike price that was requested from Pierre Bergé.

“We already have a number of people implicated. Now it’s in the hands of the justices in France,” Coblence said, noting that the cache may have been taken initially by one person but that Bergé has since been approached by different parties to buy them back.

Asked about the nature of the requests, Coblence said, “The line in the sand between extortion and commerce is for the justice system to decide.

“There is no doubt that we know the circumstances. We know who it is,” he said.

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Geiger insisted that Thomas transferred ownership of similar works to the German businessman and claimed that the exchange was entirely on the up-and-up. Thomas also signed over the rights to his biography with the collection, because he wanted to close the Saint Laurent period in his life, Geiger said. The aim is to sell the art and the rights to the biography together.

“The collection was not stolen. Pierre Bergé told that story, but it is absolute nonsense. He knows very well it was not stolen,” Geiger said. “It’s bad theater, what they do.”

Geiger said that Bergé’s Paris-based law firm, Cabinet Pierrat, has approached Geiger, the current owner and a second German businessman whom he declined to identify but is serving as a manager. Geiger declined to specify what, if any, legal action has been taken by either party. Bergé’s Paris-based lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat, also declined comment.

One of the other partners at the law firm, Julien Fournier, said via e-mail, “Unfortunately, we regret not to be able to give you any information about our clients; as lawyers [we] are bound by professional secrecy and all information is strictly confidential.”

Fournier also declined to say where and when the complaint or lawsuit was filed. “The Paris Bar rules are very strict, and prevent lawyers from giving any information concerning our clients on any subject,” Fournier wrote.

Asked if Cabinet Pierrat is working on his behalf, Bergé could not say for certain. As for whether his legal team is nearing a resolution or decision of some kind, Bergé said, “I don’t think so.”

Thomas first got to know Saint Laurent when he was “a little child,” since both of his parents worked for the designer, Geiger claimed. He also worked for the designer at one point as a driver, Geiger said. “Fabrice knew him as a driver, as a friend, as a boy,” Geiger said of Thomas’ relationship with the late designer.

Thomas did not become romantically involved with Saint Laurent until 1990, and the relationship lasted for at least two years, he said. After they split up, Thomas met the current owner, who allegedly gave him a new course in life. Geiger described the owner as a European businessman who specializes in luxury goods. He said, “If you would like to have a castle here or there, he can arrange that. Or if you would like to buy a special type of Rolls-Royce.…”

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As for how Thomas became acquainted with the businessman, who divides his time between Switzerland, France, Germany and other countries, Geiger said they met in 1992 or 1993, in the south of France, where Thomas opened an antique store after he left Saint Laurent.

When Geiger was first approached by the current owner about the collection, he said he was not interested. “This was not my world. I could tell you about Holbein and van Dyck. I had studied this more,” he said.

But the vastness of the portfolio and Thomas’ detailed written descriptions about each item helped sway his interest. The portfolio, Geiger explained, covers a 40-year stretch of the designer’s life, with items from as early as 1952 and through 1992. Among the pieces are a Helmut Newton photograph, “a wonderful drawing of Saint Laurent’s mother” that he did at the age of 16, a self-portrait where he pictured himself with “death’s head,” a 32-to-36 page journal from his days in Marrakech and a 40-page homage to Maria Callas from her days in Paris when she was at the center of the homosexual scene of Europe. There is also a painting that Andy Warhol did of Saint Laurent’s dogs during a visit with him in Paris. The Pop artist jumped on a plane to France after speaking on the phone with the designer and learning that he was under the weather, Geiger said. Saint Laurent touched up Warhol’s gift with his own artistry, he added.

Geiger claims the entire portfolio has been valued by four different parties at as much as 12 million euros, or $15.5 million at current exchange, and without the 120 to 140 erotic drawings, it would be worth between 5 million and 10 million euros, or $6.5 million to $12.9 million. He claimed to have a written assessment in the current owner’s name from the Monaco bank where the collection was stored for years, although he declined to identify the bank. There are about 250 drawings, with some done on both sides of one piece of paper.

The way Geiger tells the story, when Thomas and Saint Laurent were parting ways, the designer advised Thomas to check with the person in the atelier who was overseeing the archives to see if that person needed the 400-item cache. If the drawings were no longer needed, then they would be Thomas’ to keep, Geiger said.

The portfolio’s current owner, Geiger and the German-born, Geneva-based businessman who is acting as the manager expect to reach a resolution about whether they will exhibit the collection or sell it within the next few weeks. Japan is among the locations being considered for an exhibition, since Saint Laurent is such “a big name there,” Geiger said. “San Francisco, Berlin, New York — there are a lot of possibilities, but we will be very careful. There is no need for us to do anything.”

That said, the European trio might wind up selling the collection in its entirety. “Both [exhibiting and selling] are possibilities,” Geiger said. “If we get a good offer for a sale, why not?”

If the situation weren’t murky enough, there is yet another interested party. Zupp Finance, a little-known Swiss finance trading and investment company, has a listing on its Web site for a 400-item portfolio of Saint Laurent sketches and other personal possessions it values at about $8.9 million based on current exchange rates. Based in Brunnen, Switzerland, the company is said to be “a finance trading and investment company with an active presence in Europe, Russia and Africa.”

Dated Feb. 26, 2012, a document listed on Zupp Finance AG’s site last month claims to be a certificate of authenticity for the YSL materials, which have an asking price of 6.8 million euros, or $8.8 million at current exchange. It also states the work was made from 1952 to 1992. In addition to 100-plus erotic drawings, the collection listed on the Zupp Web site is said to include a journal from Marrakech, a 30-page homage to Maria Callas, a drawing of Saint Laurent’s mother and drawings for fashion, theater, stage and ballet, among other things.

“The works was [sic] given separately as gifts from YSL to his intimate partner Fabrice, some pages are dedicated to him, who buildup this collection.” The document continues, “The collection has been changed by legal way the ownership. The collection is free for sale with no rights of any third party. In the sales contract will be confirmed that the collection is of ‘noncriminal origin.’”

It also claims to be “the biggest and [most] comprehensive collection in private property with works by one of the important fashion designer and artist [sic] of the 20th century.” (Zupp Finance has since updated its Web site to add a security measure that requires interested parties to provide their name and e-mail address to access additional listings.)

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Reached by WWD, Zupp Finance’s chief executive officer, Richard Kuechler, declined comment, deferring further questions to the firm’s chief operating officer, Werner Mueller, whom he said was in the company’s Sierra Leone office. In addition to art, renewable energies, oil, steel and real estate, Zupp Finance purportedly works in diamonds and gold from that location.

Mueller did not respond to e-mail requests for comment. Repeated phone calls to Zupp’s three offices were unanswered, and the company did not have voice mail.

Bergé’s New York-based lawyer Coblence said he had not heard of Zupp Finance and was unaware of its Saint Laurent listing.

As for Zupp Finance, Geiger said, “It has nothing to do with us. I know nothing behind this company.”

Whether Zupp’s Saint Laurent collection exists or is authentic remains to be seen, but the asking price may be inflated. During a phone interview, Patricia Frost, international specialist in fashion and textiles for Christie’s, said she had been shown a collection of Saint Laurent sketches, including many erotic ones, twice in the past 10 years. The auction house passed on the prospect, questioning the commercial value of such risqué material. After being informed that a WWD reporter had recently seen digital images of what appeared to be authentic, signed Saint Laurent sketches, Frost was reminded of the ones she reviewed in the past.

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“Maybe that’s what has resurfaced,” Frost said. The works were presented by two different parties, one being “an Italian gentleman,” but Frost declined to name either. “We had to tell them that this was not going to be a commercial opportunity for us.”

The erotic nature of the work was not “really open-auction material,” Frost said. “It’s just a question of what you want to put up onstage. Some were not quite pornographic, but they would have been difficult for us to publish. We publish [catalogues] in so many different countries internationally,” noting that Christie’s is respectful of the various cultures in each.

Having drawn thousands of sketches in his 72-year life, Saint Laurent illustrations extended beyond fashion to film, theater, ballet and erotica. “He was terrifically prolific. He drew every day of his life,” she said. “His fashion illustrations that are connected to a specific collection are the most valuable. Sketches from his Russian collection are the most coveted. One of those sketches could go for up to a couple thousand pounds. Whereas, something from the Eighties might only bring 100 to 150 [pounds at auction]. There is a big range.

“It is quite a niche market for things of his that aren’t fashion-related,” Frost said. “It will be very interesting to see if it does go up, and if people are interested.”

Saint Laurent devotees and art fans alike were certainly interested when the massive art collection that the designer and Bergé compiled went under the gavel at Christie’s in 2009. Trumpeted as “the sale of the century,” the three-day auction generated $484 million in sales. But it was not without controversy. At that time, two bronze sculptures that had disappeared from China nearly 150 years ago — and were demanded back by Beijing — sold for millions.

Further complicating the sketches situation is that the Paris-based publisher Bazar Edition plans to release a book of Saint Laurent’s erotic drawings in the fall of 2013 or in 2014. Founder and chief executive officer Thomas Doustaly said via e-mail last month that he first heard about the erotic drawings “a long time ago” from his “close friend” Bergé. “When I founded my publishing house, it was one of the reasons to do so — to publish this amazing ensemble of drawings from the Sixties, Seventies and the Eighties. Mr. Bergé is the owner of the rights of all of Mr. Yves Saint Laurent’s works.”

When the yet-to-be-named tome launches, it will have worldwide distribution rather than a debut in France, Doustaly said.

Whether that project will come to fruition remains to be seen.

Coblence, Bergé’s New York-based lawyer, said, “Pierre Bergé is going to do everything he can to obtain these to prevent them from being published. He is going to recover these possessions because they have been stolen. He has no moral judgment or inhibitions about publishing erotic drawings, but those drawings have been stolen.”

And considering Saint Laurent’s freewheeling lifestyle, just how risqué the drawings are is open to interpretation. In a Q&A with Bianca Jagger in Interview magazine in 1973, she asked the designer flat out about his interest in porn.

Jagger said, “Pornography — does it excite you?”

Saint-Laurent responded, “Pornography? I don’t know what that is. Pornography, eroticism, love, it’s all the same to me.”

Forty years after that exchange, the creative class seems to be just as curious as ever about the designer and his work. Pat Cleveland, who was part of the Paris scene with the designer then, can understand why. “It was like a giant watering hole, with all the elephants, giraffes and lions. Everybody was partying together and would end up in the same places. That was when everybody was so free. Now when you get to be famous, you have to have an entourage,” she said. “The first time I saw Yves, he was getting out of his black VW Beetle and was walking to his building. He used to drive himself and leave the doors unlocked.”

While the legal wrangling over the late designer’s portfolio continues, new Saint Laurent-inspired films are in the works. Documentary filmmaker Loïc Prigent has wrapped up “Yves Saint Laurent: Le Dernier Defile” (“The Last Fashion Show”), which is scheduled to air on French-German TV station Arte in late February. Bergé, Violetta Sanchez and the head of Saint Laurent’s atelier, Monsieur Jean-Pierre, were among the handful of people Prigent interviewed for the film, which he hopes will provide both a historical and inside-the-house point of view. Anchored, as the film is, on the designer’s work, it also reveals a bit of his personality. “He didn’t ever say goodbye to Monsieur Jean-Pierre or to Violetta, because he didn’t want to say goodbye,” Prigent said. “So that was sweet and bittersweet at the same time.”

Noting that two fictional feature films about Saint Laurent are being developed by directors Bertrand Bonello and Jalil Lespert, Prigent said the French remain intrigued by the late designer’s life. “I guess he’s really a great legend. His life is really fascinating to people. They like the idea that he was kind of a poet who had a nervous breakdown. They really love his weaknesses.”

Prigent, whose film credits include backstage looks at Sonia Rykiel and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, said of his most recent project, “The documentary that I have done is not about that at all. I’m always interested in the actual work. I am never interested in the private life.”

 

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