The Old Master I bought at Christie’s that took me to Hollywood

The Old Master I bought at Christie’s that took me to Hollywood

Novelist Deborah Moggach discusses how the purchase of a 17th-century painting led to a series of extraordinary adventures, soon to culminate in Tulip Fever, a big-screen adaptation of her book. Photograph by Gareth Phillips

About 20 years ago I went to a talk that Alan Bennett gave at Christie’s. As I sat there, my eyes wandered to the catalogues hanging on their strings. I surreptitiously started leafing through one of them, and saw that some of the estimates were not unbelievably high. I thought: God, people can actually buy an Old Master!

I earmarked three, and came back the next week with my mother, who had got rather excited about it. There I was, holding up my little paddle, sweaty with excitement (auctions are very sexy and thrilling things). I bought all three paintings.

Some months later I bumped into Alan Bennett and said to him: that talk you gave cost me £15,000. So I had entered a different world, and was fascinated by the sort of people that go to auctions — the slick European dealers and the rich people from Munich in their fur coats. I was hooked.

One day I was passing Christie’s and saw that there was another Old Masters sale, and I went in to have a look. That’s when I saw this painting, Seated Woman with Servants, attributed to Job Berckheyde. The estimate was £6,000, but I didn’t have the money.

The Friday of the sale came and went. Then, the following Monday I got a VAT refund of exactly the estimate. I rang Christie’s — just to ask what the painting had sold for — and was told it hadn’t made its reserve. So I went in to look at it again, on an easel in the basement. I bought it for precisely £6,000.

I hung it in my sitting room. And whenever I looked at the ambivalent expression on the woman’s face, and the rather suggestive curtained bed, I thought: she’s going somewhere she shouldn’t.

Tulip Fever, the film of Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel, is released this spring

Some time later I was asked to take part in a discussion at a film festival. The event was at the Empire Leicester Square — the very cinema where, some years before, my then-boyfriend, the cartoonist Mel Calman, had suffered a heart attack and died as we were watching a movie together. Being back there churned up the mud — I think that is when you get your most inspired ideas.

The last question I was asked that night was: if you could write any film, what would it be about? I said that I would walk into a Vermeer.

I began to make up a plot about a painter falling in love with the woman he is painting. I intended to write a screenplay, but decided in the end to make it a novel. I wrote it quickly, in a great rush of excitement. I hardly researched it; instead I got books of Dutch art and spread them out on the floor.

The paintings themselves tell you everything about the lives of those people: what they were wearing and eating, practically what they were thinking. Those moments of quiet drama are like film stills — the wife at the virginal, the maid sweeping. You feel that if you blinked they would all start moving away into the rooms and you could follow them. That’s what I meant when I said I wanted to walk into a painting.

I was then living with a young Hungarian artist. He was going out at night and getting stuff from skips — old doors that he rubbed down and painted and panelled my room with. He also made a fireplace that he copied from a Vermeer.

So I’d be writing this book, lying on the floor, and he would light a fire and build a three-dimensional Dutch painting around me. In the mornings he’d bring me up a cappuccino, and he’d make a little Dutch picture in the chocolate — a tulip or something. It was terribly romantic. Didn’t last, but it was lovely.

Circle of Job Adriaensz. Berckheyde (1630-1693), A Maid dressing a Lady, as a Manservant proffers an Ewer on a Tray, as a child looks on from an adjacent bedroom (The picture displayed depicts Hercules slaying Cerberus). Oil on canvas. 24¼ x 18⅜ in (61.6 x 46.7cm). Sold for £5,750 in the Old Master Pictures sale on 31 December 1996, at Christie’s in London
Circle of Job Adriaensz. Berckheyde (1630-1693), A Maid dressing a Lady, as a Manservant proffers an Ewer on a Tray, as a child looks on from an adjacent bedroom (The picture displayed depicts Hercules slaying Cerberus). Oil on canvas. 24¼ x 18⅜ in (61.6 x 46.7cm). Sold for £5,750 in the Old Master Pictures sale on 31 December 1996, at Christie’s in London

The book was optioned straight away. Steven Spielberg called and said he wanted to make it into a movie. He faded away, as it turned out, and for a long time the project was shelved. But last year it all came back together, with a new director and a new cast: Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench.

The sets were incredibly beautiful — dark and smoky and atmospheric. I know, because I was an extra: I did walk into a Dutch painting.

So this picture has done so much for me. It’s led to the book and the film, and taken me on a huge adventure. I am grateful for that extraordinary connection, and to have given the woman in the painting a life.