LA MAISON DU DÉLICE

PAUL HAWORTH



ITALY


Lounging at the pool - granita in one hand, copy of A Death in the Family in the other - imbibing the Amalfi sun. Best sunshine in the world - there’s weight to it, like a blanket - infused with the lightest breeze, it comes with a scent of lemon trees from the hills, and I experience in real time the healing power of nature.

Then I feel a chill.

Someone - or something - blocks the sun. I remove my shades. There is a man. Bulky. Looming. He has on an apron. No idea who it is. I’ve never seen this person in my life. I’m freaked. Blame my headspace, or his grim expression, or the red smear on his apron (passata?) but I’m thinking this guy - this actual giant - has come to kill me.

He reaches inside a pocket and pulls out - shudder - a note. Handwritten on Smythson notepaper, it reads:


Dearest Patric, As you are close, would do me the kindness of a visit? Affaires et plaisir. Renée


I shouldn’t be receiving invitations like this. I shouldn’t be receiving invitations full stop. I’m off the grid: the phone’s switched off and locked in my room-safe. The whole point of this sojourn is to get away, take a minute, be with myself.

There’s a word people use, what is it? Oh, yes: holiday.

I have happy memories of childhood holidays in this region. Being someone who believes strongly in fate, or at least cosmic ordering, I try to stay alert to directions that the Universe offers. Seek Signs is my motto. The more you trust in the pointers and cues life offers, the more aware you become of their presence. In this case, following a recent upheaval, I felt myself being shepherded back in time.

To childhood: when two weeks was eternity, the pull of the pool, food, glorious food, and blues - luminous cobalt, cerulean, Capri blues - lodged in the most treasured depths of my memory.

This did take me by surprise. I never have seen myself as one of those people that needs a time out. It’s just not done. Our culture simply is work work work: work from home, work through commutes, work on weekends, work through sickness. Survival of the fittest. So you’d better strive to be the fittest, hardest-working person in the room.

And guess what? I love it.

Granted, an Amalfi vacation at the historic Il San Pietro di Positano is pleasant, but I want more than ‘pleasant’ for this time one earth. I could never retire. Couldn’t have a Mon-Fri 9-to-5, or live in a siesta culture. That just isn’t me. I’m the one whose heart weeps at the sight of out-of-office replies.

You should be working! I seethe.

This is why I am so grateful to be a dealer today. It would have been such an utter faff in the olden times. And so boring. Take London - an undisputed Artworld capital - where, once upon a time, every gallery could be housed along Cork Street. The gallerist’s life used to look a little something like:


Open Saturdays 1pm to 3pm or by appointment


That’s all changed. The working week has grown and grown, with even the industry’s day of rest - ‘Sacred Mondays’ - subsumed into the global sales quest. Same goes for summer. Traditionally the season ended in June. If a gallerist could be bothered, they might hang a group show of storage miscellany and plonk an intern behind the desk. But most of them flipped the sign to ‘Closed’ and buggered off - for two months.

Fortunately, this never has been the case in my working life. I’m not that old. How old am I? Let me put it this way: I have over a decade’s experience in Fine Art sales but am vehemently not middle-aged. I have, however, been the recipient of tall tales told by wizened guardians of yesteryear about how little they used to work - boasting - as if I should envy their sloth.

No, no, no, and no.

Artworld under their jurisdiction was tiny, a regal bubble that hardly made a penny. More a subsidiary field of interior decoration than a proper business, a proper market. Today? $100 million paintings by living artists sold to rising princelings in obscure Sheikhdoms. Corporations, banks, and logistics companies, free ports, and offshore trusts, emerging economies, auction houses, mushrooming Biennales. Art isn’t just part of the market now, it is the market in all its infinite complexity.

Art is the signifier of more than just wealth, it is a site of competition in its own right. You define yourself through art and then your art defines you. You buy a Hockney? I buy a Basquiat. You buy a Basquiat? I discover a Cimabue. You discover a Cimabue? I discover a Leonardo! You’ve heard the phrase ‘too big to fail’...there is also ‘too big to stop’.

Whipping up this caravan, this carnival, this moveable feast, that is my job. It was good for a while, then bliss, then it wasn’t. The flavour of the times turned. We now face anti-globalism. Artists and curators talk of localism and sustainability - but this means what, exactly, to an industry in which Chinese artists make work in Berlin studios to be shipped to New York fairs sold to Abu Dhabi oil magnates and stored on a yacht off St. Bart’s?

Is it Game Over?

No, no, no, and no.

You can’t stop the dance - from Istanbul to Mexico City, Hong Kong to Paris - the show must go on...

“See you at the Abramovic?”

“Are you doing documenta?”

“I’m bringing the yacht to Venice.”

“Did you get your invite?”

“To what?”

To the unmissable, exclusive, first nights that are only ever absolutely nothing less than essential.

Be VIP or be RIP.

How it never lets up - the non-stopness - this is my love. The greatest love of all! Love for the life of sleeping tablets and overnight flights, my pillow a stash of Artforum, Frieze and Vanity Fair, to double espressos, appointments with artists, collectors, advisors, patrons, from hotel suite to private club, a call from an unknown number—

“Hey, Patric, where are you?”

Not knowing the answer, I query a child on a scooter, “Where am I?”

No hablo inglés.”

“Somewhere they speak Spanish?”

Until, one day—

I was once taken to an ice-skating show in Moscow. A laser-music-firework spectacular that culminated in the skaters creating a figure eight. There must have been over fifty of them...swoosh...swoosh...swoosh...a continuous line of skaters...swoosh...swoosh...majestic, thrilling, a testament to human accomplishment...until ...one of the skaters clipped another. The two tumbled. The chain had reached such velocity there was no stopping what happened next. Swoosh became smash. It was terrible to watch. One after another, these impeccably-attired athletes, who only seconds earlier had been an image of perfection, collapsed in a catastrophic human pile-up.

And so it had been in my life: one tiny stumble, one faux pas, and it all came down.

Flashback: Two Weeks Ago.

The V+V Summer Party.

V+V is the gallery where I work. It is named after the founders, Verbeke and Verbeke. How to describe this pair? Belgian, brothers, twins, and, like so many grandees of Artworld, they are a). very old and b). immortal.

For a long while, the brothers had just the one gallery in a region of central Belgium called Meerboorhoeklaan. Picture the emptiest, flattest, most nondescript image of Belgium. That is Meerboorhoeklaan.

They had originally been based in Brussels, before making the decision to relocate. The brothers had seen what was happening. The unleashed capital markets of the 1980s were bringing bigger and shinier art. Artists looked enviously to Marfa, Texas, where Donald Judd purchased warehouses and military bases to exhibit his collection. Artists yearned for their own impeccable, wide, open spaces. And yet galleries were offering up only staid, slightly shabby homes, oftentimes the very same Victorian front rooms that had exhibited the Impressionists.

So, in 1990, Verbeke and Verbeke converted a dairy farm into a vast art hangar. Critics called it folly. They warned that being so far from the action would be suicidal, but Messers Verbeke were smart enough to have figured out that the gallery was the destination. Collectors would journey far into bland Flemish countryside to see art looking better than it had ever looked, and the impeccable space attracted artists to show with V+V. The brothers shamelessly pooled local grants, EU rural funds, luring more and more artists with lavish budgets, promotion, publications...and parties. Oh, the parties. These were no less than rural bacchanals.

V+V then were pioneers of the super-gallery. Others did their best to catch up. As the new Millennium dawned, gallerists vacated long-standing terrace homes and moved into sleek purpose-built palaces designed by Casper Mueller Kneer and Caruso St John. Next these spawned second, and third spaces, pop-ups and sister galleries.

But, looming just off stage, 2007.

Timber!

The crash severed the lifelines of so many galleries. Indeed, it nearly claimed me. It kicked off just as I graduated university. I entered the jobs market into a landscape of despair, panic, negativity, ruin. What a time to be alive! Thank God then that a world-changing tome landed in my hands.

Published prophetically in 2006, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret has affected millions, not least yours truly. I wish I could remember why I picked it up. Was it a recommendation, a reference or intuition that guided it into my hands? It was during the summer after graduation that I opened its pages and absorbed its core message. In a nutshell: be positive, visualise, the Universe is abundant. These deceptively simple insights emboldened me not to fear the unemployment and austerity sweeping the planet. I refused to face the future with dread. This was my life, my time, the world into which I had been born, so I’d better make the most of it. And, a few weeks into my Byrne-Journey, I found work: an entry-level position at Sotheby’s Paris. For me, the fact that I got a job during this time - in Artworld - proved The Secret works and I never really doubted myself, or The Secret, ever after.

The crash wiped out the lesser galleries - the cute, the homely, the sleepy ones - leaving the survivors to expand. And expand. Any gallery worth its salt needed representation across the markets. Shops in London, Geneva, New York, Doha. There was always a new city one had to be in.

Being part of V+V during this era - steering the path from Belgian stalwart to international powerhouse - was (and remains) the story that has made me. Somewhere along the way I acquired from the brothers the name Le Fêtard, which translates roughly as ‘party animal’.

Fair play.

The arc of art history bends towards fun, and, in this sphere, I consider myself the Dionysian oracle. One associates Brits with loutishness, hooliganism, binge-drinking. Guilty as charged, on all counts. However, it cannot be denied, we are good at unseemly, degenerated shindigs i.e. the kinds of parties that actually are fun. Europe is still haunted by the spectre of politeness, prone to speeches and grandiloquence - finding mayors and God-knows-who to ‘say a few words’ to sanctify Official Festive Time. This is something I can neither abide nor comprehend. No one ever will give a speech on my watch. I don’t hold Private Views or Openings. The five letters embossed on the ultra-thick invitation cards V+V send are P-A-R-T-Y. And these are never soggy beer-in-a-bucket affairs: I bring in caterers and waiters carrying tray after tray of bubbly and canapés. There is no guestlist per se: any door I open is open to all. There must be mixing and levelling and surprise and tension - tension at a party? More on that, shortly.

Le Fêtard stays sober at his functions. A party is a living thing. A lion-tamer-snake-charmer is required to manage its wild vagaries. The master of ceremonies must remain cognisant for this domain is both playground and battleground - where sales, connections, deals and appointments are made - therefore, a clear head is a must.

A sententious observer might ask, ‘Where does the art sit amidst this revelry?’ to wit I answer: the forefront. Art is never backdrop, it is always the birthday boy, and, should the artist still be living (50:50 for exhibitions at V+V) they deserve the very greatest stage on which to receive our accolades.

Openings can be anticlimactic, even deflating, for the artist - but denouements are forbidden at V+V. After all that time in the studio - isolated and wrangling the cavalcade of admin - the party is theirs, as are all the hugs and kisses. My only role: to whisper sales updates into their ear.


Ten Top Tips For Perfect Parties


1. Isolation - make the destination such a mission to get to that buzzkill guests are deterred and those who make the journey are invested in having a good time

2. Liberty - no curfews, no no-smoking areas, no keeping the noise down, no closing time

3. Fake occasions - weddings, anniversaries and other milestones lend too much gravitas, and gravitas is a joy inhibitor, whereas a made-up occasion really confers a spurious legitimacy on the proceedings that allows people to open up

4. Free bar - self-explanatory

5. Sleepover - knowing some form of bed is nearby, even just a couch, licenses frivolity and deters any utterance of ‘we really should be making a move’

6. Everywhere food - buffets, hors d’oeuvres, a bloody BBQ...anything but a set dinner, which, as well as eating up the heart of an evening, prevents the movement, mixing, and matching that are the makings of a party

7. Family Unfriendly - you only have to think of those weddings, that should rightly be hotbeds of lust, instead filled with crying babies and attention-seeking toddlers, to recognise that children are the bane of adult celebration

8. Near and far - a little something I picked up at the balls of my young-youth is the art of maintaining a gathering’s focus and intensity while facilitating for the separation of raucous, relaxed and romantic energies

9. Tension - exes, enemies, rivals, strangers, outsiders and the clash of class, all create a friction that alienates some, but sparks rough magic

10. The Finale - truly infamous nights, the ones that become fond memories, stories retold, these do not fizzle out with ‘and then I got drunk and went to bed’ but lead somewhere - maybe to consummation, but also to a pilgrimage (e.g. seeing the sunrise, taking a boat out) and such ceremonies bring a sense of completion.


After several years an aspirant, my reputation as Le Fêtard led to an invite from the brothers to organise this year’s summer party. What an honour!

You always remember your first V+V summer party, or at least some of it. I was still working at Sotheby’s Paris when I attended mine. A few of us drove up to the site and, after so many hours cramped in a car, only flat fields and cows for a view, I was primed to party. I remember, upon arrival, clambering out of the car and being swept away...

Local Trappists in hooded robes serving beer so strong it came in flaming pewter flagons, tattoo artists, live cows providing raw milk, rural neighbours in traditional costume (berets, huntress dresses, clogs), violent cheese-rolling contests, a performance by Kanye, a guest appearance by Adam Levine, and, did I imagine a parade of children dressed in costumes designed by Marcel Dzama?

Shortly after that party, rumours suffused the air: the brothers were opening another space in London. PMA. I visualised myself in that job. The Secret teaches that ‘thoughts become things’. At that time, I was having thoughts daily. Then one day, at last, the things started coming.

Patric Farmer, Director of V+V London.

They say that if you want something done, ask a busy person. By no means was I not up to the Herculean task of organising the summer party but, alongside my full-time job, it did threaten to overwhelm. This was a very special summer party to mark the gallery’s fiftieth anniversary - think on that: fifty years - therefore everything about planning demanded more than a little extra. Not that I could throw the towel in or delegate this one. Failure was not an option.

The brothers and I had an, at times, strained relationship. Not dysfunctional. Rather, brusque. Yes, a dealer of my stature could move on, but...I didn’t want to. V+V was my optimal playground. As bosses, the brothers were, by and large, hands-off and distant. So much so, one sometimes wondered were they still alive. But then they’d make a surprise appearance to call the shots, micromanage, and make clear who’s in charge. Which, honestly, I liked. Though my job title includes the word ‘Director’, my ambitions never have been to be the only one in charge: he who is answerable.

Organising the fiftieth anniversary summer party, therefore presented an opportunity to regain some good will and enshrine the reputation of Le Fêtard...

The Fateful Night: late-July.

Helicopters, sedan cars, coaches brought nigh-on the entire population of Artworld to the fields of Meerboorhoeklaan.

Everyone was there - over 2000 guests.

And then—

I can’t.

I simply can’t go there.

Not yet.

Suffice to say, things happened.

Lots of things.

Things that left me in urgent need of the Amalfi. A few days of Italian-cuisine-Mediterranean-luxury-TLC. A time-out from the world. But the world found me in the form of Renée. Renée Previti. Myth, legend, multi-multi-millionaire. She whom I would never refuse.


*


Her man drives me out of Il San Pietro di Positano. I’d have liked a change of clothes - chance to smarten up for the grande dame - but, between the driver’s lack of words and my lack of Italian, I deduced he was not waiting.

And so, in an elegantly beaten-up Volkswagen Beetle, we are soon weaving out of town and onto what can only be described as Those Roads.

The Amalfi Coast comprises steep, rocky hills that lift out of the Mediterranean, almost completely vertically in places. Lemon trees are slotted into every crevice and homes are dotted in the most unreachable parts, overlooking a sea that blends mistily to sky.

Sky and earth, land and sea - it is breathtaking.

But then, Those Roads.

Narrow, two-lane tracks that hug the mountain-side, curling rapidly, sometimes shooting inside of tunnels. They are roads as drawn by a child. To travel on them is a white-knuckle ride even before the addition of a manic medley of tourist coaches, sports cars, Vespas, tractors.

Renée’s man speeds, peep-peeps, overtakes - acts I would have thought terrifying on fairground dodgems, he pulls off with a relaxed composure - as if falling hundreds of feet from the sheer cliff to a fireball death is a preposterous notion.

I’m terrified, you bet, but also thrilled. Grin and grimace merge across my face. When he starts texting, his knee casually nudging the wheel, inches from a jutting scree, it only serves to amplify this pain-pleasure.

He zooms to edge in front of a bus - the bus driver, having none of it, accelerates - we are side to side (us on the wrong side of the road) coming around a blind corner - from somewhere we find an extra surge - push in front - horns blare from every direction.

He stops texting to take a call. Sounds like he’s picking up an argument mid-sentence.

The poolside hours of relaxation crackle out of me. But that’s good. It’s necessary. I could use a little nervous energy. One needs to be sharp for an audience with a Super Collector - poised for their tests. These could be financial, moral, or intellectual tests, anything really: they’re always finding ways to determine if you’re the person for the job.

Hence my regret about not changing. I have on a striped camp-collar shirt, rust-coloured camp shorts, and deck shoes: a look that, while dashing at the poolside, screams powerlessness in the boardroom. I look in the rearview mirror and notice I even have on a bucket hat! An 18 East bucket hat, that is, but a bucket hat nonetheless. (Assembling this ensemble, my thinking was to marry classic Mediterranean elegance with a Brits-abroad garishness).

Details matter.

They are what swing a decision as to whether or not a collector will part with their money. Ordinarily, I’d have done my homework for a summit such as this. I would arrive armoured in Italian tailoring. In my hotel room I have a Cesare Attolini monogrammed single-breast suit jacket, tan with a gold-tone lining, that would be ideal. But I know the element of surprise was deliberate - this is a polite abduction. Renée wants me winging it.

We screech off road and onto dirt track.

With no let up in speed, the Beetle scrambles up a slope. Sunshine dapples through lemon-tree branches and I feel myself almost hypnotised. It grows wilder and darker out there, farmhands step aside to let us pass, exchanging nods with the driver, and Positano’s holiday romance feels far off as we approach our destination: Previti Castle.

I’ve been to Previti pieds-à-terre in Paris and London but never this, their primary residence. I say their. Renée and her husband Tomlin were legends of Artworld, fixtures of its auction houses, who together built a collection of mediaeval and Renaissance art bettered only by the Vatican. They even became fashion icons, famed for colourful patterned luxury (no grey or beige mush for this pair) accessorised with bold glasses or brooches, vibrantly clashing items from their decade-spanning wardrobes. DGAF-styling that can only be pulled off by the over-70s. They made ageing look fun. Pictures of the pair, at an opening or ball, exemplified the Holy Union of relationship, fashion and old-age goals.

Last year, Tomlin died unexpectedly. Unexpectedly in that he was one of those people that was always just there. Tomlin and Renée, Renée and Tomlin, raising batons across the decades on the most exalted lots: there was comfort in how common that sight was. For instance, who can remember, let alone imagine, a Britain without Queen Elizabeth or a world without Paul McCartney on a stage belting out ‘Hey Jude’? These are foundations and centres through the tumult of life: their existence stabilises ours.

When Tomlin eventually did cease to exist, the words ‘But I only just saw him’, echoed across the chasm he left in Artworld. With Tomlin gone, Renée vanished also.

I first became acquainted with the Previtis at Sotheby’s. They were from an era of collector that preferred to bid in person. Old school, or just smart? Artworld’s a soirée and it is love...the emotion a piece stirs, learning its provenance, discovering the blemishes and beauty marks that accumulate into its aura, the magic that whispers, ‘Buy me.’ Half the fun of this bloodsport is the hunt - why miss the ogling, the vying and the celebration by trading art like stocks through bland-suited avatars?

The way art moves, especially in auction houses, relies largely on what is, essentially, gossip. Gossip won’t go in the catalogue. It won’t even go in an email. It’s a private word, shared with the prefix, ‘I really shouldn’t be telling you this…’


*


The car exits the tunnel of trees. Blinded by the light. My eyes adjust. We pull up at a wide, blocky building. Not an ornate castle of a English or German tradition. It is flat roofed, four storeys, and has many windows that face out onto the sea. (Note: every one is shuttered.)

I leave the car, entirely disoriented. The driver stomps over a gravel yard to the grand entrance. He unlocks the high door and heaves it open. Knees weak, I follow him across the threshold - hot to cold, light to dark - “Aspettare,” he says and then he’s gone.

I am left in a high-ceilinged atrium. I remove my bucket hat in respect for my surroundings. There are paintings, sculptures, ornaments, sconces, cabinets, dressers, stained glass, chandeliers, tables, clocks, devotional plaques, ewers, chalices, busts, pianofortes, roundels, candlesticks, vases, tapestries, altarpieces...astonishments everywhere.

These artworks inspire, but do nothing to uplift. They are drawn from a Christian iconography of scowling saints, forlorn Marys, tortured Christs. Colours are muted - even the goldleaf has a doleful hue. There is a tender Carlo Crivelli portrait in which the Christ Child is so grey he might be stillborn. Crucifixes dangle from the walls. One has a terrifyingly realistic carving of Jesus nailed to it, gaunt and malformed.

It comes as some relief to see a defiantly unChristian fountain-piece. Built around a staircase at the centre of the atrium, it is an imposing assemblage of bathing ladies and hounds with a stag-man hybrid at the top. He holds a spear which I assume once spurted water, but it’s been some time since water has flowed here.

The driver reappears at the top of the stairs.

Venire,” he grunts.

I am received in a dining hall. It is cathedral-like in its size and gloom. Firmly shuttered windows barely allow in a crack of Amalfi sun. It seems wrong to inhibit that magical force. But Renée is a woman in mourning: she no doubt wants nothing to do with its life-affirming force, nor the mocking cruelty of the fabulous vistas she once shared with Tomlin.

There she is. I see her far, far away at the head of a long table. A tiny huddle. The sight unnerves. This is ageism, I hold my hands up. I’m not proud of it, but Renée is so old she has Mussolini-connected scandals. And she hasn’t been seen since Tomlin’s funeral. There have been rumours that she is on death’s door, so I steel myself for a monstrous apparition. As I approach, I keep allowing myself to be stopped by the pieces in this room. (Not that that is difficult when faced with art of this calibre.)

An ivory diptych of the Passion of Christ. The minutiae of the carving astonishes.

I recognise a Hans Holbein the Elder I sold to Renée and Tomlin six years ago. Made of gilded silver, set with glass, pearls, sapphires and rubies, representing the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The opulence of the materials rubs nicely against its violent content. And it is very violent: Saint Sebastian is chained to a tree with fat arrows driven into his neck, shoulder, ribs and shins. The lines of the cloth and arms of the figure are angular and rhythmic: there is modernity to the object in spite of its originating in the fifteenth century.

Here is a marble sculpture of Samson slaying a philistine. Their two muscular bodies intertwine in erotic battle.

Each work looks entirely at home. It’s a sumptuous, profoundly informed setting for viewing art. Pieces are in harmonious company and, by quick inspection, good knick.

’Tis pleasure and pain to know art’s destination. Connections - dare I say, relationships? - develop between dealer and object. Many dealers come across the occasional work they must keep for themselves, but I’ve never had that impulse. I am a foster parent. My job is to move art on to new and, hopefully, permanent homes. These are largely the prisons known as ‘storage’ but at least there they are protected. It can be more painful to see art battered, dusty, dismantled, unloved, shoved in corners of a home or office.

Eternal Horrific Memory: I was once witness to a Rodin - a diminutive bronze of the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky - used as a doorstop.

An agonising sight.

I love art too much. I do. I love other things too. Money, travel, living well. But art is my first love, and it will be my last.


Patric Farmer, he loved art


Let that be emblazoned on my grave.

I have been thinking about this lately. My grave, me being not alive. Such thoughts never used to occupy me - I’m not a morbid person - but I suspect what inspired this train of thought is that, for the first time in my life, I have faced the factual possibility (indeed, probability) that I will not live forever - a sense of my own mortality - which, naturally, leads one to funeral arrangements.

I wish to be buried. Therefore I will need a headstone. A visit to any graveyard reveals that contemporary ones are uniformly naff. This is due to the funeral industry indulging gauche design, and families in the grieving process making insane decisions.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the most popular headstones of modern times is that of Patrick Caulfield at Highgate Cemetery. D E A D it states in diagonal knock-out capitals. Capturing the spirit of the man, his work, and the opaque mystery of the place he now resides, it is Caulfield’s final masterpiece.

D E A D puts me in mind of the Bruce Nauman piece in which the artist plays the notes D, E, A, D on a violin. He really hacks them out. A reenactment of the work could provide a fitting overture as my coffin sinks.

Why do we not afford death the attention to detail we do our weddings? Is it that we don’t wish to plan for a party we will not ‘attend’? Or that making arrangements for death bears some residual sense of taboo (pairing the macabre with vanity)? Reticence to plan ahead results in services that are often perfunctory and trashy.

What I’ve decided is to commission Lawrence Weiner, that sculptor of words, to design my headstone. What Weiner could do to a lump of dove-grey marble! Imagine how he would place the words…


Patric Farmer, he loved art


Buon pomeriggio, signorina.”

Renée is encased in a quilted, teal dress. A small fur hat rests on her head. I’m reluctant to describe its angle as jaunty. There is nothing jaunty about this picture. I lean in to kiss her cheeks, struggling to locate an exposed gap of skin beneath a huge pair of black sunglasses.

“Sit.”

On the table in front of me is a chest. Elaborately carved and, I cautiously admit, coffin-sized. Does it contain Tomlin?

“Mr Farmer, as I barely live and breathe. Good of you to join me.”

“My condolences for your loss.”

“Yes, yes. You will take lunch? Luca is the greatest chef. Twenty years he has been with us. My keeping him on is selfish, but food has won out. The final pleasure. Not that my taste is what it was. When you can’t get the flavours, maybe it is time to shuffle off.”

I will not flatter Renée with a but-there-is-so-much-to-live-for spiel: she is too smart for that. Luca brings two plates. Each has on it a carrot, halved lengthways, in a dribble of oil. He sets them before us then uncorks a bottle.

“None for me, thank you.”

“No. Simply, no. Patric, you are not one of those people. This is Positano. We take wine with lunch.”

Luca pours two hefty glasses of white.

“You are enjoying your visit?”

“Very much.”

“May I ask, why?”

“Why?”

“Come come, Mr Farmer. Why are you, of all people, on a holiday?”

“It is overdue.”

“I don’t believe in holidays. They are required if life is imbalanced. A salve for people who live badly. Are you living badly?”

I bumble some non-committal lines.

She cuts in, “Tell me about it.”

“What?”

“The party.”

I down my wine.

“I want to know everything. But start with the cataclysm, and go backwards.”

For the vino I reach.

I’m stunned. Can’t believe that even a nonagenarian recluse in mourning knows about that night.

“It was nothing,” I say, refilling my glass.

“The talk of le monde is not nothing.”

“There was a small incident involving a blimp.”

“A blimpcident?”

Classic Renée: only she, the verbally-gifted collector who parried with me so many times in Paris to secure discount after discount, could concoct such a portmanteau.

“It’s been blown out of proportion,” I say, topping up my glass. “Storm in a teacup.”

“The brothers prefer fair weather.” I have nothing to add and wish she’d change the subject. “I trust you will not remain long in their bad books. Money heals all wounds, even mortal ones.”

I eat a piece of carrot.

Oh. My.

The flavour is gentle, syrupy, almost perfumed. Its texture is soft, yet with bite. I’ve never had cause before to consider excellence in carrots but this is the nicest carrot I have ever eaten.

It helps to remove the bitter taste left by the talk of you-know-what. Already I despise thinking about that accursed evening and this brief exchange fans flames of fear that, come the new season, it will still be all anybody talks about.

Famous quotation: ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’

But I don’t want my name synonymous with disaster. I don’t want to be a punchline, a flop, or, in the parlance of the Web, an epic fail.

“Perhaps I can offer a more pleasant forecast for yourself and the brothers,” Renée says, as Luca removes the plates. “I have been approached by...I am reluctant to call this person a ‘collector’...a wealthy young American has made an offer on the collection.”

“Which pieces?”

“She wants it all.”

(Speechless.)

“Shocking, no?”

“They…” I splutter “are mad?”

“The rich are never insane, Patric, merely eccentric. Nonetheless, I, too, was incredulous. At first…”

“You can’t be considering this. Your collection, it’s your life’s work.”

“My life is as good as finished. These days are postscript. Besides, most of this,” she gestures to the room, “I no longer see. Not because my sight fails. But because I have lived too long. One by one these majesties have passed away. One has a conversation with art, and when you run out of things to say to each other, you must go your separate ways.”

I respect this noble approach to collection. No hoarding sensibility ever drove the Previtis: they bought art with which they wished to live.

“I heard you were to bequeath it to the Museo Nazionale?”

“That was my husband’s ambition. You are familiar with Lady Wokyndon?”

I shake my head.

“Lady Wokyndon was my husband’s lover.” Renée sips her wine. “Take that scandalised expression off your face, Patric, you look like a flounder. We each took lovers throughout our marriage. Life is long. One must. But these were puppies, toys to play with and discard. Not so, it seems, this one. She wants half the estate. Tsk. She claims to be his common-law wife. There are even papers that draw out a spurious will. Oh, Tomlin…”

Renée’s voice trails off. She slumps. Dejected, defeated, debased. It is shocking to witness. This isn’t age and infirmity weighing her down. It’s heartbreak. One should not endure such emotional turmoil at this age - the battles and hardships of love are for the young.

“The last decade, he was in London so frequently. For dialysis, he said. But it seems he was having an entirely different organ attended to. Those trips were to be with this...this witch of Wokyndon. Wo-kyn-don. A woe kingdom. Where is it anyway? Do you know?”

“The midlands?”

“I hate your country. I hate the English. A people small and tedious. Only an Englishwoman would do as she has. She had my husband. A brilliant man. Was that not enough? I shall not submit to law of your land, I shall not play with your barristers, I shall not honour her devious spell. I would rather these pieces burn than be stolen. Oh, it is so like the English! Colonialists and thieves. She will rob me and they will end up in your pious musea.” She points to pieces in the room and says, “My Donatello, my Crivelli, my Botticelli, why should these be looted and sent to that dreary island?” Renée puts her hand on mine. It is cold, tiny and wrapped in wiry blue vessels. “I don’t hate you, Patric. Somehow you have escaped the curse of the English. Their futility. You have a lightness, and you are a born salesman. You always got the best prices from Tomlin and I. When most dealers would fold before the Previtis, you, Patric, fought for every penny of your commission. You were never supercilious, never eager. You did not send us Christmas cards. One never sensed you would cry or sulk if you did not close. You maintained a professional distance, for which I always held you in high regard. And when I learned you were in Positano, well, I took it as fate.” (Fate, how that word pricks my ears.) “Especially as my sources inform me that you vacation alone, a recluse spending his days by the pool. I’m sorry, that is not you, Patric. I could tell that you are a man in need of a job.”

What’s the story?

This is what the dealer must figure. Every time. The job is made simple by learning the motive of buyer and seller. There is so much that drives the movement of art that goes beyond logic. Here then - Revenge! Betrayal! Mortality! - these are what drive Renée.

She inspires me. The old are so often dour and petty. But passionate? Never. And so I couldn’t help but do a mental estimation of Previti’s inventory: this sale would be worth...billions. Plural. Preposterous. And still I hear myself ask, “Who is the prospective buyer?”

“You are familiar with Jenna Freer?”

“The Internet?”

Trés Internet.”

I have seen mention of her name. Something to do with AI, or prosthetics, or robotics, or VR, or the stock market. Perhaps all of them.

“This child has a fortune large enough to purchase my collection, many times over.”

“She is collecting?”

“She has intentions to amass.”

“Interesting…”

I pay people to keep me abreast of new money developments so as to avoid playing catch up. But Jenna Freer? Her name hasn’t come up.

“I want you to go to her. I was contacted not by her, but one of her subordinates. Her brother, I think. He spoke the most ridiculous senza senso about creating...a new planet...really I don’t know how to speak to these personnes d’Internet. This is much more your world.”

“Then why entertain the offer? Your works surely deserve more?”

“Are you loved, Patric?”

“I, my, well, I have, I hope so.”

“To be loved and to love is to stab a dagger into the heart, each holds the power to twist at any moment and kill their lover. To be betrayed after seventy years, and for that betrayal to come from beyond the grave! What recourse do I have but to exact revenge on his legacy? I must break the collection of Tomlin. He wanted it gifted to the nation, his name on galleries and museums, remembered as benefactor and patron, a patron saint of art. Well, no. No, Saint Tomlin, it shall not be. The collection we built together through decades of love shall go to the giant hamster ball!”

Giant hamster ball?! I have to wonder: has Renée lost her mind?

“Speak with Madame Freer. If she is serious, command an audacious number. If she remains serious, do the deal. Because, although I want this all of this gone, I should never accept anything less than the best price, you understand.”

She lowers her sunglasses to look me in the eye for the first time, and there it is: the old sparkle. Never leaves. Everybody has a hustle. Doesn’t matter how old, how rich, how poor. Nothing brings a person to life like the pas-de-trois of power, money, and revenge.


*


Back at Il San Pietro di Positano. Back on my lounger. Back to A Death in the Family. Really now truly ready at long last to get to grips and dig deep into the pages of pure Nordic poetry.

Who am I kidding?

I’m pretending to read. I am not much of a reader at the best of times. I know I should be and I desperately want to be. I write a great deal - my work necessitates catalogue essays, press releases, emails to clients detailing an artwork they must own, all carved out of my inimitable style. Said style has to have zest. When people chastise ‘artspeak’ they mean cloudy, sleepy language - words that don’t convey energy. My gift is for finding phrases that get to the essence of a piece so that it is ‘unlocked’ for a potential buyer.

Therefore, yes, sure, writing I can do, but the urge to read never comes. It’s a great pity. I wish to be a voracious reader. I have it all figured out, a very specific image of the type of reader I shall be: someone who reads epics. I want to board flights with a Dickens tome in hand, War and Peace for the beach, Don Quixote at Christmas time, et cetera. I want them all ticked off.

At home (I say home, I’m hardly there), there is a bookshelf over my bed that carries Proust, the complete Proust and nothing but the Proust. I bought a first edition (gorgeous volumes bound in blue cloth) thinking that investment would inspire commitment. I know - I can just feel - that when I do finally read them, I will connect to this Madeleine Saga. That’s the bit of the story we all know and, as someone prone to experiencing evocations and nostalgic revery, I am convinced Proust will prove to be my man. He that makes a real reader of me. But it’s just never quite the right time. There’s the rub: these books look forward to a moment when I will be centred and calm and present. A moment of contentment. That never comes.

Believing a modern writer might offer a gateway to the epics, I brought Knausgård to Positano. Alas. I’m still barely ten pages in. It’s been a struggle from the get-go.

I manage a few sentences - some stuff about sandwiches - and that sets me reminiscing about the carrot - carote e olio - which gets the mouth watering in anticipation of my forthcoming hotel dinner. I am ravenous! It’s weird. A little time off has opened up a bottomless hunger. At work, if it weren’t for caterers shoving hors d’oeuvres under my nose, or flight attendants plonking a tray of sustenance at my lap, I doubt I even would eat. But here, no sooner is one meal finished than I eagerly anticipate the next. All I want is more. More ragù, more gelato, more burrata, more cannoli.

I balance the book on my chest, while behind the shades I close my eyes. The sun is finishing up for the day and I’m absorbing the last of its warmth - I want it - every last drop of summer...

I told Renée no, of course.

Flying to the other side of the world to chase an Internet zillionaire? Tempting, in its way, but a mission for the Old Patric.

I have a scent for sales. There are those that are sign-along-the-dotted-line simple and others that are filled with am-dram - this venture had the hallmarks of the latter. A cake and arse party, as my father would say. Which I don’t need. No way. Now’s no time to be getting embroiled in funny business. The best thing I can do is keep my head down and focus completely on R+R.

Also.

How to say it?

To admit. To myself. To you. That. In some ways it is arguable that my star has fallen.

Confession Time Part I.

I am a storied dealer. One of the greats. No doubt. From ancient to contemporary, Patric Farmer has sold it all. But, in recent times, my sphere of influence has diminished as the buyers change.

You know who I’m talking about - the disruptive-tech-bro-startup-titans - whose wealth has matured to that stage where it extends into philanthropy, scholarships...and art. Cynics will claim these are variations on a theme: a tax fiddle. But the arts have always held special allure to the Great and the Good, as well as those aspiring to be at least one of the two. Whether it be theatre, dance, classical music or art, every magnate eventually wants their piece.

I welcome all into my gallery - athletes, pop stars, bankers. I’m no snob, I am a dealer. My gateway drugs: editions, prints, sketches. Then, if a habit forms, we can move up to harder drugs.

Collecting is a life’s work - works begat work - once the serious collectors start on an artist or school, that leads them to other pieces they must acquire.

And yet.

I somehow never clicked with ‘The New Establishment’. (Condé Nast’s term, not mine.) Before appointments, my assistants would brief me...

“He is the mastermind behind Fluva.”

“This is Riphop’s co-founder.”

“You’re telling me you don’t use Hilerium?”

...and I was almost always bewildered.

I construed how my parents must have felt decades earlier when bombarded with words like ‘Hotmail’, ‘Geocities’ and ‘Napster’.

Keep up! the world screamed. But losing touch is the same as losing your mind: you learn to fake it...

Obviously, you know everyone is banking with Yozper…‘UpGet is a catalyst for change and a change catalyst’...you nod…someone gossips, “They met on CubbyHole”, an intern asks, “Should I book us a Dyle?”

Sure?

For the first time in my life I was uncertain and lacked confidence.

Uncertain and lacking confidence is no way to go into a meeting with a prospective client. At least I had my people skills - human connection is my strength - but so often I came face to face with...I don’t want to say weirdos but...the asocial behaviour, lack of eye contact, phone fixation...this wasn’t what I was used to. Where were the manners? Charm? Etiquette is nothing more than a set of instructions to navigate life. But this lot…

‘The New Establishment’.

Their startups were valued in the billions before they even launched. This brought a special self-belief, the confidence of the Divine. With great wealth, one joins a club - membership compulsory - to which institutions flock with legal, charitable, civic demands. But how could they exist in this club - let’s be honest and call it what it is: The Elite - when they had yet to learn to exist outside of their bedrooms? Can one run the world without ever experiencing it?

I’m a fool.

I know.

What’s the golden rule?

Those who have the gold, rule.

I’m angry at myself: for not wanting to keep up and then not being able to keep up.

Their mantras...Move fast and break stuff...Move the way you want...Think different...such simpleminded slogans were anathema to Artworld, where we had procedures, diligence, codes, an implied hierarchy of conduct.

I remember some flush 20-something swaggering into the gallery and demanding, “I want one by the guy who does people screaming.”

“Munch?”

“He’s a monk?”

Figuring, sure, I could conceivably source one of his prints, I agreed to enquire, but further probing revealed he meant Goya. He wanted one of the ‘Black Paintings’!

They bewildered me.

They exhausted me.

They infuriated me.

More! More! I want! Why not?

What was I? One more in a line of servants indulging their childish hungers? The world was changing and I perceived the noble profession of art dealer being degraded.

Don’t think me a luddite - I have a smartphone - but there are a lot of things in the world that I am rather affectionate towards and don’t wish to see disrupted, broken, or upgraded. I remain unconvinced we can entrust our Titians and Tintorettos, our Turners and Constables, Monets and Picassos to these boors.

In conclusion: an invitation to travel around to the other side of the world to meet No. 1 on Vanity Fair’s ‘The New Establishment’ List? No thanks.

Rest.

Recreation.

Rejuvenate.

Return to self.

My diary looks a little something like this: another week in Positano before I head to the Black Forest for the Magic Circle, back to London in time for a very special birthday party, then to work on the install of the Ed Ruscha (whose opening will signal the beginning of another triumphant season), and in no time it will be that time.

October.

This means only one thing - the Oscars of Artworld, our Grammys and Super Bowl - Frieze Week.

V+V will show John Currin paintings and Urs Fischer bronzes. Nothing groundbreaking or unusual there, but it is ballsy, pricey and covetable. More exciting, however, will be the party. We are throwing a V+V Frieze Week spectacular that will silence, once and for all, any remaining critics and doubters.

“Mr Farmer…”

A voice stirs me.

“...a call for you...”

A young man from reception carries a silver tray on which there is a phone.

“...from a Doctor Fergus Mac Donnell...”

Yuck - this guy, the director of V+V New York, I do not like. He comes from a museums background and brings a public-sector austerity: austerity in money and attitude. He once described me as representing ‘the next bubble.’ Can you believe that? It was buried in an undeleted email chain. I quote: ‘If the likes of Farmer don’t rein in their expenditure, we risk falling victim to the next bubble.’

As much as I want to refuse the call - I don’t want to hear this man’s voice at the best of times, but definitely not invading my Sabbatical - I know I have no choice but to accept…

“Hello?”

“Patric, finally. Fergus here. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.”

“I’m resting.”

“This is urgent. It’s about the Magic Circle.”

“What about it?”

“The brothers want me there.”

“I don’t need a chaperone.”

“They want you to sit this one out.”

“Absolutely not. I’m a speaker.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger. The brothers think you need to - quote - take a break.”

“I am taking a break. And shouldn’t you be preparing Miami?”

“Trust me, it’s not ideal, I have a monograph on De Maria to finish, but they want a change in direction.”

“What direction is that?”

I hear him exhale.

“Have you any idea how much money you spent on Mark Johnson?”

“Who?”

“This disk jockey you’ve booked for Frieze.”

The idiot means Mark Ronson. What he doesn’t know is I cancelled Mark Ronson. Ronson is a great talent, no doubt, but he lacks that *something* I need to trumpet my comeback. October is a one-shot chance to reclaim my throne. Thus, I booked the one, the only Diplo, whose fee is waaaay bigger than Ronson’s, but his shows - smoke-and-strobe meltdowns - and music - a sonic collision of international sounds - seem more aligned to the current state of Artworld.

Try explaining any of that to Doctor Mac Donnell. So I just say, “Forgive me for securing the hottest ticket of Frieze week.”

“How about I defer to your superior wisdom in that department and delegate party duties to you?”

Deeming me a party animal AKA junkie AKA profligate AKA not serious AKA unprofessional AKA ready to be put out to pasture…

Pasture, quite literally.

Plans are afoot for V+V to open a gallery in Yorkshire. God’s own country. Another converted farmhouse. This time in the actual middle of the Moors. The unspoken truth is that it’s a move to attempt to secure the Estate of David Hockney: the spoken rumour is that I am to be moved there. Me, Patric Farmer, banished like some deranged Heathcliff to howl wildly at sheep.

There’s more.

There have been whispers that Fergus will be transferred to London. It’s only gossip but since when has gossip not contained the full truth? Therefore, this - introducing him into the Magic Circle - is surely a play to establish the new king…I could scream!

The Magic Circle is an annual gathering of the Artworld’s premier collectors, directors, and gallerists. All behind closed doors. (Closed portcullises, rather - the Magic Circle meets in a mountaintop castle.) What they do there is essentially diplomacy. Art is a weapon - a weapon of soft power, but a weapon nonetheless - and it is the Magic Circle that negotiates the rifts and rivalries that exist between Art Nations, as a means to settle the big stuff: selecting and scheduling retrospectives, loan agreements, sales of national treasures. The Magic Circle makes plans not just for the year ahead, but decades.

What is life in the unenchanted outer darkness beyond the Magic Circle? Is it life at all?

All I can manage feebly to say down the phone is, “I’m expected.”

“You have an issue, Patric, take it up with the brothers. Goodbye.”

He hangs up.

I see the face of Karl Ove Knausgård, skulking on the cover of A Death in the Family. He has the same hair as Fergus - floppy and thick - and that pushes me over the edge.

I throw the phone at Karl’s face and it smashes.



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