Book sales rarely ever make it onto luxury news feeds so this story is a pleasant departure. Six years after selling off his art collection in a record-breaking “sale of the century”, the French businessman and philanthropist Pierre Berge is now putting his renowned library under the hammer.
The lover and business partner of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent told AFP he is putting almost his entire collection up for auction, one of the most valuable in private hands. In fact, we’ve been waiting for this since we first picked up the story last year.
The sale of the couple’s art collection netted 342 million euros (US$361 million) in 2009, a year after the designer’s death from a brain tumor, then the highest figure ever for the sale of a private collection.
In the first of six sales which could raise a total of 40 million euros (US$42 million) for the charitable foundation he founded with Saint Laurent, 180 historic manuscripts and rare first editions including Saint Augustine’s Confessions printed in Strasbourg in 1470, and the original 1580 edition of the philosopher Montaigne’s Essays will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in Paris December 11.
But the most valuable item in the first sale, the original manuscript of Andre Breton’s surrealist masterpiece Nadja — worth an estimated 3.5 million euros — has already been snapped up by France’s national library.
Berge said that when he bought the book in London “I felt that I had got hold of a fragment of the True Cross”.
“But you have to know how to get rid of things,” Berge, 85, told AFP in his library on Paris’ Left Bank, saying he had been planning the clear-out for years and had even stipulated it in his will.
Escaped the Censor
Among the other literary treasures in the first sale is a first edition of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary dedicated to “the master” Victor Hugo, one of William Burrough’s scrapbooks and the only pages of a lost erotic work by the notorious Marquis de Sade, “The Days of Florbelle”, to have escaped the censor’s flames.
The young Berge, who was born on the Ile d’Oleron off western France, began collecting books at 18 after arriving in Paris and getting a job in an antiquarian bookshop.
He later befriended members of the city’s literati, including Breton and Jean Cocteau, one of whose books dedicated to him he is holding back from sale.
Another by Jean Giono, who was something of a father figure to him, and who is best known outside France for the film of his novel The Horsemen on the Roof, has also been withdrawn.
Berge said that he intended to “replace all the books in the library” with identical cheaper copies. “A lot will probably be more fun to read in paperback.”
“I came to love these books through reading, the collector part only came later,” he said.
Asked if he was worried about fears of falling auction prices, Berge said, “There is never a good time to sell. They said in 2009 (in the middle of the financial crisis) that it wasn’t a good time to sell…” his art collection, but it broke records.
Although known as a formidable deal-maker, Berge has been a lifelong supporter of left-wing causes and an advocate of gay rights.
He founded the AIDS charity Sidaction and the French gay magazine Tetu, with the vast proceeds of the sale of his and Saint Laurent’s art collection going to AIDS and HIV research.
He was close to former French president Francois Mitterrand and helped bankroll the failed presidential bid by Segolene Royal, the former partner of French President Francois Hollande, whose campaign for the Elysee he also supported.