O ne of the finest collections of Impressionist and Modern pictures sold during the 1960s came to auction due – indirectly – to an art heist at a restaurant on the Cote d’Azur. Artists dining at the La Colombe d’Or, a colourful Provencal auberge near Nice, would pay for room and board with canvases. The dining room filled up with works by Picasso, Matisse and Miró, a cache that disappeared one night in 1959.
Nearby, on the hills of Cap Ferrat, the British novelist William Somerset Maugham grew nervous. The author of bestsellers such as The Painted Veil and The Moon and Sixpence had masterpieces on his walls at La Mauresque, his villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
Concerned about security, his local mayor paid him a visit. “I have a large old-fashioned house with French windows and I conducted the mayor from room to room,” recalled Somerset Maugham. “When I had shown him all there was to see he smiled and said, ‘I have never seen a house that so obviously invites robbers to enter’.”
And so, with regret, Somerset Maugham offered his pictures at Sotheby’s London in the spring of 1962. At the salerooms on Bond Street, the 34 works were assigned to Impressionist specialists Michel Strauss and Bruce Chatwin (later a celebrated author himself) to be catalogued as fast as possible. “Bruce said, ‘We’ll start tomorrow morning, let’s say at 9.30’,” Strauss recalls. “But when I arrived, on time, I found that he’d been there since 5.30 in the morning and had finished the job by himself.”
There were some extraordinary gems in the group, including an early double-sided Picasso – La Mort d’Arlequin (1905) and Femme assise dans un jardin (1901) – and a door from a Tahitian shack decorated with a mural by Gauguin. Somerset Maugham came to London for the sale and, suffering from a toothache in his rooms at the Dorchester Hotel, briefly considered keeping the collection. He went ahead, however, and every picture sold in an auction room milling with the world’s greatest collectors and dealers.