The thinking man's house sale

Voltaire's Lake Geneva chateau, his art collection, even his bathrobe, are at the centre of a row over who can buy them, says Geraldine Norman

What price Voltaire's bathrobe? The great 18th-century thinker, writer and campaigner, widely blamed for setting the French revolution in motion, built the perfect country house next to Geneva Airport, the chateau of Ferney-Voltaire - the airport came later, of course. Now the house is for sale, along with all the memorabilia it contains - Voltaire's green silk bathrobe, his bed, a set of needlepoint chairs embroidered by his niece Mme Denis, his card table, portraits and paintings and his heart, in a neo-classical ceramic monument that looks like a stove.

A heritage stink has broken out in France which is being pursued with characteristically French muddle, intrigue and political bad blood. When it was first rumoured in the neighbourhood that Christie's, the London auctioneers, were to be entrusted with the sale, a group of conservationists, led by the socialist mayor of Ferney-Voltaire, accused the present owners of trying to maximise their price without caring whether Ferney was sold to "the Russian mafia, narco dollars or a religious sect". In the local elections 18 months ago the present mayor, Georges Vianes, ousted a right wing lawyer - who just happens to be the chateau owners' solicitor.

Since then, Vianes has changed his tune. "The family has now indicated that they will give the State first refusal," he told me. "We are all very grateful to them for the way that they have looked after the chateau for the last 150 years." The chateau and its beautiful park are in good repair and the family has arranged three rooms as a Voltaire memorial exhibition which is open to the public. Michael Southam, a family member based in Geneva, is not sure the truce will last forever. "The authorities have done everything possible to make things difficult for us - including reclassifying the use of land to tinues we will cancel the sale."

Christie's have valued the chateau and grounds at pounds 2 million, and set a still undisclosed, but slightly lower, figure on the contents. They are currently struggling with the problem of determining what the contents are - most of the paintings have been attributed to the wrong artists ever since Voltaire's day. Take the Maurice Quentin de Latour pastel portrait of Voltaire, for instance. The Louvre, among others, owns a version of it; if the Ferney one is the original made for Voltaire, it might be worth pounds 500,000, but it would be more like pounds 20,000 if the pastel is a good copy made in Latour's studio.

Vianes and his friends want to turn the chateau into a cultural foundation incorporating three features: a museum, an arts centre with its own theatre troupe, and a home for writers who are exiled or persecuted like Voltaire was himself. The third option - a refuge Rushdie, as one local described it - is getting the highest profile.

Voltaire is a name of international resonance. While it sparks emotional pride in France, he is, if anything, even more respected in America as the pioneer of free thought and inspiration of the nation's founding fathers. Voltaire campaigned for religious tolerance, the pursuit of material prosperity and respect for the rights of man through measures such as the abolition of torture and unjust punishments.

However, he created scandals wherever he went. He was thrown out of Prussia and France. Even Switzerland, where he settled in 1755, was incensed by his blasphemy. After a long relationship with a brilliant bluestocking who died in childbirth, he fell in love with his niece, the widowed Mme Denis, and settled at Ferney with her in 1758.

The chateau's location on the frontier of Switzerland and France meant that he could shift his residence according to which authorities were seeking to prosecute him. He was 65 when he arrived and lived there for 23 years.

Everyone who was anyone in 18th century Europe visited Ferney. Many of them stayed for long periods - the guests at a time. Voltaire left their entertainment to Mme Denis, making impressive appearances from time to time in his dressing gown - maybe the one now for sale? Constantly ill, he entertained in bed, using its draperies as a useful means of hiding his presence from guests he didn't like. The bell now preserved at Ferney could be the very one, though the family admits that the hangings were restored 30 years ago.

Ferney was much more than a home for Voltaire. In the course of his varied career he had made a vast fortune from financial speculation which he lavished on his new estate. He built the neo-classical chateau, inscribing on the frieze "Voltaire fecit". He turned a barn into a theatre, built a marble bathhouse in the garden, and rebuilt the little church. He also developed a passion for farming. In his spare time, he used his powerful pen to right miscarriages of French justice - he famously intervened in the case of Jean Calas, a protestant accused of murdering his son to prevent him converting to Roman Catholicism who was broken on the wheel while protesting his innocence. Voltaire obtained a posthumous pardon and the indemnification of his family.

Within a year of Voltaire's death in 1778, Mme Denis had sold the chateau to the Marquis de Villette, a close family friend who had the extraordinary pottery-marble monument constructed in Voltaire's room to receive an enamel casket containing his heart - no-one knows whether it is actually inside or not. The marquis got in financial trouble and sold out to a M de Bude in 1785 whose family sold it in 1845 to a M Griolet, who started pulling the chateau's interior to pieces in order to improve it, then went bust.

In 1848, a rich lapidary from Paris, Claude-Marie David, bought the desolate shell and turned it into an exquisite summer home. His family bought the Voltaire memorabilia that are now for sale and turned three rooms into a memorial exhibition. The chateau has remained in the family ever since.

The two sisters, both in their 80s, who are the current owners, are the lapidary's great-grandchildren. One of them, Mme Claude Poulain, lives in Ferney in a house next to the chateau; the other, Jacqueline Southam, married a Canadian and lives in Canada. The two sisters move into the chateau every summer and entertain their extensive families, but none of their eight children - each sister had four - can see how the chateau could be preserved for another generation. French law insists that an inheritance must be divided equally between the children, and none of them can afford to buy the others out. Hence the decision to sell.

Christie's has been put in charge of the sales strategy. At present they are offering the option of buying both chateau and contents to the mayor of Ferney, as co-ordinator of a French institutional strategy. If he can't find the money this summer, Christie's will look for an alternative buyer - one American museum is said to be interested in setting up an outstation there.

If the buyer wants the chateau but not the contents there will be an auction, either a special Voltaire sale in Monte Carlo in December or a spectacular house sale at Ferney, under the imposing shadow of Mont Blanc, next summer. Watch this space. !

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