Curious about Artcurial
Louise Simpson goes under the hammer over lunch with Artcurial Monaco director Louise Gréther
“Hermès crocodile handbags need their own passports to travel,” says Gréther
As I pincer salmon sushi into my mouth at Capocaccia, Gréther recounts a recent Artcurial Monaco auction sale. I cannot decide whether to be more shocked that a handbag required its own passport (as crocodiles are an endangered species) or that this particular fulgent-pink crocodile Hermès handbag encrusted with pink diamonds sold for over 100,000 euros.
With her statuesque figure and blonde hair neatly coiled into a chignon, Gréther fits seamlessly into the world of priceless artefacts. There’s a hint of James Bond girl about this convent-school girl who spent seven years as a director in the world of business intelligence and ended up marrying into one of Monaco’s most established dynasties. The mysterious Gréther is a formidable networker – indeed I met her through a mutual friend in one of Monaco’s hallowed circles.
“Artcurial is a lean and mean organisation,” says Gréther.
Artcurial has risen from new-kid-on-the-auctioneering-block to a 150-strong team in less than a decade. Set up in a hôtel particulier (townhouse) by Nicolas Orlowski in Paris, Artcurial has defied expectations. Headquartered in Paris, this general auction house has expanded worldwide to Brussels, Milan, Munich, Tel Aviv and now Monaco. A subsidiary of the Dassault Group, Monegasque billionaire Michel Pastor was a shareholder until his death in 2014. Since then, his daughter Delphine (who is president of the John Taylor real estate group) has remained an investor.
Gréther was recruited to oversee the 2015 opening of Artcurial Monaco. The branch runs summer and winter auctions of luxurious collectibles such as jewellery, fine wines, watches and vintage Hermès handbags. There are also specialty auctions: in the past these have included Philippe Hiqily sculptures and vintage limousines from the private collections of Prince Rainier III or Maria Callas. Gréther runs evaluation days for jewellery and Hermès at Monte Carlo’s Hôtel Hermitage and oversees confidential valuations of private house collections in other areas from contemporary to ancient art and furniture.
“I’ve always had a fascination with crime,” she says.
Her first job out of Edinburgh University was for BBC’s Crimewatch series working on film reconstructions and speaking to the police and to victims. The role was so poorly paid that she spent her evenings supplementing her income by pulling pints in a local pub. After the high-profile murder of Crimewatch presenter Jill Dando, she decided it was time to move on.
“I started looking behind my back as I walked home from work,” she recalls.
She moved into International Relations with a post-graduate course at the well-regarded Johns Hopkins University in Washington and Bologna. During this time, she worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) monitoring elections as a short and long-term observer. Observers are posted (in pairs for long-term observers) to evaluate corruption levels and then report back to the European Union in Brussels.
Gréther was posted to crime-ridden political regimes around the globe from Bosnia to Nigeria. In Pakistan, she hid her face in a Burka. In Siberia, she visited hospitals and prisons where locals endured filthy conditions and minus-30-degree temperatures. In Burkina Faso, she ended up staying with a local family to get away from staying in one “disgusting” hotel.
“It was a test of endurance,” she says. “There were many moments when I was scared for my life.”
Her mission partners provided both support and, at times, frustration. In Madagascar, her mission partner was an immaculately-dressed Venetian Italian. He commenced the mission inauspiciously by falling into a sewer with his designer suitcase and extensive medical supplies tumbling into the excrement after him. In Armenia, her mission partner shouted permanently. She recalls that he got himself into such a state of fury that he drove into a wooden pole. He then pulled himself off the mission by claiming that the accident had been caused by his having a heart attack.
Her favourite posting was to Nigeria. Despite the rife political corruption, she spent a happy six weeks in Lagos where she had two fun-loving bodyguards called Friday and Sunday.
“I loved the energy and spirit of Africa. I was touched by the incredible kindness of strangers,” she says.
During her time at John Hopkins, Grether met her Monegasque pilot husband Fabrice. They lived in London where she spent seven years working as a director in business intelligence and investigations at an international level for one of the leaders in risk consultancy before being headhunted to work at Artcurial. In light of the recently alleged billion-euro Monaco art fraud involving art dealer and Freeport* entrepreneur Yves Bouvier, no one could be better placed than Gréther to navigate collectors safely through the risk-infested waters of the art world.
Since arriving in Monaco, Gréther has made the most of everything that the principality has to offer from the Philharmonic orchestra to the endless sunshine. In her rare spare time, mother-of-three Gréther helps to organise events with her friend Saman Ahsani for the Iran Heritage Foundation. Four intimate dinners are held per year at places such as The Courtauld, Tate Modern and The British Museum.
“For our charity events, we seek somewhere,” she pauses as she chooses the right words: “Extraordinary with an art focus.”
I wonder whether this last phrase would be an apt description for Gréther herself.
*Bonded warehouse where paintings, wine and antiques can be stored tax-free
Summer on the Riviera
Artcurial’s summer auction starts this afternoon at Monte Carlo’s Hôtel Hermitage. The four-day auction will include fine jewellery and watches, Hermès Summer Collection and Franck Sorbier couture. There will also be a sales of Hermès vintage and rare wines in aid of Benefit Mission Enfance on 21st July at 6pm. See the artcurial website for an up-to-date auction schedule.