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.
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.