Yves Gastou: An Eclectic Eye

Yves Gastou: An Eclectic Eye

Between homes in Paris and Biarritz, French antiques dealer Yves Gastou collected and commissioned design according to taste, not trends
Between homes in Paris and Biarritz, French antiques dealer Yves Gastou collected and commissioned design according to taste, not trends

R ecalling Yves Gastou, who died in 2020 at the age of 72, many people single out his sunny southern accent. But that wasn’t the only characteristic that set the late French antiques dealer apart from his Parisian peers. He was a jovial, tireless professional who praised his finds with almost feverish passion. To Gastou, almost everything he saw was an exciting discovery.

Yves Gastou in 2018. Photo: © B. Chelly/Albin Michel

He was born in 1948 in Limoux, a small town near the fortified city of Carcassonne, where his father worked as a bailiff and auctioneer. Seeing that he was not thriving at school, his mother found him a work placement with a dealer specialising in 18th-century antiques. It was an epiphany: the young Gastou had found his path.

Gastou left school at the age of 16, and in 1970 opened his first boutique in Carcassonne, before moving to Toulouse five years later. He was fascinated by art nouveau and art deco design, which had fallen out of fashion and was relatively inexpensive at the time. He was soon supplying the galleries of Paris with Émile Gallé vases and Pierre Legrain furniture.

Every weekend Gastou would drive to Italy in search of treasures. In Venice he bought glassware crafted in Murano by Ercole Barovier, Flavio Poli and Archimede Seguso. Then, in Milan, he had a revelation. “I lost my mind after seeing 1970s Italian design,” he recalled. The work of Ettore Sottsass in particular enchanted him: the fanciful shapes, the unusual materials, the colours, the humour.

“I lost my mind after seeing 1970s Italian design.”
–Yves Gastou

Feeling stifled in the provincial south, Gastou headed to Paris. After four years running a stall at the Saint-Ouen flea market, he took over Galerie M.A.I. in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The storefront, adjacent to the École des Beaux-Arts, was in need of refurbishment, and Gastou chose Sottsass to do the work. The designer proposed a black-and-white terrazzo facade made of marble debris and cement. Naturally, it caused an uproar in the historical district, but Gastou held his ground.

The black and white storefront of Galerie Yves Gastou, designed by architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, was controversial at the time of its construction. Photo: © Olivier Bac

For months Gastou wrestled with the burdensome French administration to secure planning approval, and eventually Jack Lang, the minister of culture, granted his request. In 1985 Gastou inaugurated his gallery with a bold retrospective of Sottsass’ work. He was also the first in France to present the furniture of Ron Arad and Shiro Kuramata. Passersby who spotted the Japanese designer’s unusual creations in the window would burst out laughing, thinking it must be a joke. Such pieces – though displayed today in some of the world’s greatest museum collections – were unmarketable at the time.

The gallery’s accountant bristled with concern, but Gastou proved to be an excellent salesperson. Though he spoke no English, he managed to land sales with American buyers who couldn’t understand a word of French. His sheer energy spoke for itself. He then broadened his scope, and was soon selling works from the mid-20th century alongside contemporary designs. Gastou presented furniture by André Arbus, Jean-Charles Moreux and Marc du Plantier at the prestigious Biennale des antiquaires, which until then had stubbornly refused to exhibit any decorative art from after 1930.

“He saw beauty in objects that others dismissed”

Gastou never confined himself to a particular period of the 20th century – he was too curious, and saw beauty in objects that others dismissed. He also resurrected forgotten talents. If he came across an original piece of furniture as he browsed, he sought out its designer. That was how he gave a second wind to the career of Ado Chale, whose tables topped with petrified wood or stone mosaics had thrilled buyers in the 1970s. Gastou also initiated the production of Philippe Hiquily’s sculpture-furniture, which had been in demand decades earlier.

Gastou’s Biarritz villa featured 20th-century and contemporary design pieces such as The Skull chair by Vladi Rapaport, 2023. Rosary beads, crucifixes and other religious symbols decorated the walls.

He exhibited work from every decade and joyfully jumbled it together. Gastou would eagerly juxtapose an armchair by Gio Ponti with a Lalanne sheep sculpture and bookshelves by Zaha Hadid. On a single occasional table he placed a figurine of a phallus-brandishing Mickey Mouse next to a praying Madonna.

However, one of his design passions remained secret until two years before his death. In 2018 he unveiled his huge collection of men’s rings at the École des Arts Joailliers in Paris. From the precious episcopal rings of bishops to skull rings worn by Hell’s Angels, he had amassed more than a thousand of them.

Gastou also loved opera, and regularly attended the Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille. According to his son Victor, who joined his father’s business in 2005: “If he enjoyed the show, he would express his enthusiasm by shouting ‘bravo’ so loudly that the staff began to recognise his cries. At the time I was embarrassed that he brought attention to himself in such refined company. Today, when I think I won’t ever hear his happy outbursts again, it makes me want to cry.”

Two homes, many passions

The forthcoming auctions of Yves Gastou’s personal collection at Sotheby’s Paris say a lot about the eclecticism of his taste. His Paris apartment on Quai Malaquais was filled with the same mix of 20th-century art and design that he sold in his gallery. A resin Expansion mural by César was displayed alongside Altuglas columns by Jean-Claude Farhi and an acrylic occasional table, Placebo, by Shiro Kuramata. There was colourful glassware by Sottsass and a scarlet Carapace cabinet by François Cante-Pacos, who created futuristic furniture for the fashion designer Pierre Cardin and was the last of Gastou’s great enthusiasms. Works by Hiquily, who had become a friend, were given pride of place, with a desk, Cygne lamps, candelabra, a gilded brass dining table and an aluminium Coque armchair.

“Works by Philippe Hiquily, who had become a friend, were given pride of place”

At Gastou’s retreat in Biarritz there was a completely different ambience. For his holiday home, he had chosen a gothic-revival folly built for a member of the imperial court under Napoleon III. The villa, topped with battlements, also reveals a surprising aspect of his taste – a fascination with religious objects.

His Paris apartment mirrored his gallery, with an eclectic array of contemporary furnishings and sculptures. Photo: © Guillaume de Laubier

Despite being an atheist, Gastou hung the walls with crucifixes, rosaries and medallions bearing the portraits of martyrs. On the doors of a book cabinet by André Arbus there were a number of votive offerings in the shape of the Sacred Heart, alongside reliquary frames and silver crosses. The top of a sideboard by Jean-Charles Moreux held chalices, candle-snuffers and an enamel plaque portraying Saint Sebastian. On another table stood a devil.

Gastou was also fond of 19th-century bronzes, and the figures of brave knights in his collection express his nostalgia for a childhood spent within the ramparts of Carcassonne. Prominent among the warriors in shining armour was Joan of Arc, the great French heroine of the Hundred Years’ War with England.

The Biarritz villa is a true cabinet of curiosities. Pebbles that Gastou collected along Bidart Beach were piled up on a forged iron bench to form a kind of land art. Every day on holiday he would set out on a treasure hunt, and he rarely came home empty-handed. What was this aesthete seeking in the local bazaars and rummage sales? Simply another moment of wonder.

Cover image: Yves Gastou’s Biarritz retreat

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