Pierre Bergé: A Life in Collecting

By Peter Carr

A rt collector, patron and aesthete, the late Pierre Bergé (d. 2017) is perhaps best remembered for his lifelong business — and romantic — partnership with famed couturier Yves Saint-Laurent, with whom he created the eponymous YSL fashion house. Instead of retreating behind the scenes after the death of Saint-Laurent, however, Bergé continued to forge his own equally strong legacy — namely, his prolific and eclectic private collections of rare books and manuscripts, paintings and objets de curiosité. That’s not to forget his dextrous interests away from business; in literature, politics, theatre, and famously, as a champion of the operatic arts.

Pierre Berge and His Brother

Pierre Bergé was born in 1930 to a progressive household in Oléron in the south west of France. His father was in the civil service and his mother, a teacher, taught the recently-developed and child-focussed Montessori Method. After his education in La Rochelle, 19-year old Bergé arrived in Paris, where he fell in with the literary avant garde, working as a bookseller specialising in first-editions. Here, he met luminaries of French thought and literature such as Jean Giono, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton and Albert Camus, with whom he shared his passion for literature and art.

This and his lifelong political-convictions brought him the editorship of a left-wing political magazine, La Patrie mondiale, a publication which sadly did not last. But one which allowed him to establish a long-standing friendship with Christian Dior, among others, and a relationship with French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet — and for eight years Bergé claimed they were never apart.

Bernard Buffet and Pierre Bergé coming back from the market in Manosque, Summer, 1950. Photographed by Claude Gelin. © Claude Gélin – DR.

Bernard Buffet’s works are often figurative and graphic. The artist decided to reject the abstract and instead focus on representative painting, and Buffet was part of a collective known as the L'homme Témoin, or the ‘witness man’. This at a time when the abstract had begun to dominate the art world, his work was sometimes denigrated by the French cultural elite.

Bergé became a patron and promoter of Buffet, while Buffet was Bergé’s mentor during their time together. Bergé later bought many of the artist’s works for his own collection, which have now become popular in the artist’s native country. Ten of these stark Buffet originals will be sold by Sotheby's and Pierre Bergé & Associés in October.

Bernard Buffet, Boeuf écorché, 1954.

Yet, all was to change when Bergé met Yves Saint Laurent in 1958, for whom he parted with Buffet, and together they started what could now be considered one of the most important and influential haute couture houses of the 20th Century. Yves Saint Laurent, with Bergé as his manager, partner and publicist, took the fashion world by storm throughout the 1960s and they used the proceeds to fund their shared passions and interests.


When Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé first discovered Morocco in 1966, they fell in love. The culture, the people, the sights and sounds of the souks all captivated the couple and it is where Saint-Laurent “learnt about colour” and where he designed most of his collections. Later, they bought the spectacular Jardin Majorelle and Villa Oasis in Marrakech (which they saved from hotel redevelopment in 1980).

Yves Saint Laurent in front of La Ménara, Marrakech, 1960. Photographed by Pierre Bergé © Estate of Pierre Bergé.

In 1983, Bergé bought the 19th century neo-gothic Château Gabriel, in Normandy, which had been run down since the end of the war in 1945. Here, Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé named each room after a character from Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). They also created a log cabin — ‘the Datcha’ — designed by famed architect, Jacques Grange, within the beautiful 120-acre estate. As ever, the decor was eclectic as the owner’s themselves, with 19th century orientalist art, Russian hand-carved dining sets, and Moroccan-inspired stained glass.

the interior of La Datcha © PATRICK CHEVALLIER.

Pierre Bergé also acquired 'Villa Mabrouka' in Tangiers in 1990, and later, he bought an 18th century residence on Rue Bonaparte in Paris, where impressionist Edouard Manet was born, and also acquired the ‘Mas Theo’ in Saint-Rémy in Provence. All the properties were furnished in a sumptuous style fitting for the properties, including exquisite antiquities, paintings, objet d’art, period furniture, and sculpture.

Villa Mabrouka, Tangier © Anna Gaelle Rio.

The Fondation Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech now houses the Berber Museum, in what was once artist Jacques Majorelle’s studio, it was opened to the public in 2011. It was created using Yves Saint-Laurent and Bergé’s own personal collection of Berber art and culture, which Bergé donated after the designer’s death in 2008.

Fondation Jardin Marjorelle, Marrakech.

It is just a stone's throw away from the recently opened YSL museum in Marrakech, which houses the designer’s past sketches and his many collections. Both will be funded by the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, which is the benefactor of the Sotheby’s and Pierre Bergé & Associés sale.

There will be around 1200 pieces of the immense collection Pierre Bergé amassed over the last 50 years on sale in October. This will include, amongst others, orientalist paintings, 16th and 17th century vanitas, and highlights such as the ten Buffet paintings, and a Picasso sculpture called Masque, produced in 1961. This is closely followed by another auction of Bergé’s vast collection of books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, many of them first editions, including Flaubert, Dickens, and Oscar Wilde.

Auction in association with Pierre Bergé & Associés.

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