For many years, the garden at La Petite Escalère on the Adour river near Biarritz was open only to a privileged few.
The garden dates from the late 1960s, when Paul Haim (1921-2006) — a Parisian art dealer and collector known for introducing Japanese audiences to Impressionist and Modern art — bought a small farm on the Basque coast with his wife, the painter and photographer Jeannette Leroy (1928-2020).
Within a few years, the garden had grown and become a magical backdrop to a private collection of monumental sculpture, which will be offered for sale at Christie’s in Paris on 22 October. Titled The Secret Garden of Paul Haim, the sale follows an exhibition of the works at Kering’s historic headquarters on the rue de Sèvres from 15-22 October.
‘Paul was originally going to put the sculptures in the Midi, in a town,’ recalled Jeannette. ‘But then he said to me, “I am going to put my sculptures here, in the garden.”
‘I was happy to have the sculptures in the garden, but I didn’t want them to be immediately visible. So we planted the garden so that the sculptures could be discovered one after the other.’
Over the course of his career, Haim had met numerous contemporary artists — Roberto Matta, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jorge Oteiza, Zao Wou-Ki and Eduardo Chillida — and many had become friends and guests at La Petite Escalère. Their sculptures adorned the garden and will be offered in the sale, alongside earlier pieces by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, Aristide Maillol and Fernand Léger.
Among the highlights are Joan Miró’s La Caresse d’un oiseau (1967), an incongruous assemblage of trivial objects embodying the Catalan master’s poetic sensibility and playful interpretation of the female form.
‘I was captivated by the totemic sculpture enthroned in the lush greenery,’ says Christie’s specialist Valérie Didier of a visit to La Petite Escalère. Didier was also taken with a work by Maillol, ‘which seemed to run wildly among the trees’, and one by Rodin, ‘which seemed alive, even intimidating’.
Some works were commissioned specifically for the garden. ‘It was a challenge sometimes,’ recalls Haim’s daughter, Dominique. ‘Paul challenged Matta to make a monumental sculpture; he’d never have made a sculpture of this size otherwise.’
Another notable commission was Sans titre (1984), a 25ft-wide mosaic by Zao Wou-Ki that was created after Haim had visited the Houston home of the great collector Dominique de Menil and encountered a mosaic evoking Monet’s Water Lilies.
‘He asked Zao Wou-Ki to start with a watercolour, then create a large mosaic,’ says Dominique. ‘Zao was a very old friend of Jeannette, and he accepted.’
The sense of the art embedded in a unique landscape is part of what makes it special — the sculptures have a spirit of place that they will take with them into their new homes. ‘The setting allowed me to appreciate these emblematic 20th-century works in a different light,’ says Didier. ‘It was fascinating to see them interacting with such dynamism, by the way they had been orchestrated.’
For nearly 15 years Dominique Haim worked hard to keep her parents’ vision alive, maintaining and enriching the garden and collection with the help of the many artists, friends and members of the association of the Friends of La Petite Escalère.
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‘I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure this garden has been for us all,’ she says. ‘La Petite Escalère was not meant to be. It turned out to be an extraordinary and beautiful adventure that lasted half a century. That was the magic of this place. To have allowed nature to create a showcase for each sculpture.’
Click here to view a short feature film on the Secret Garden of Paul Haim produced by Marian Lacombe