The Find of the Century: the Baillon Collection

Paris’ traditional classic car salon, Retromobile, was boosted this year with the presence of an unparalleled lot by Artcurial Motorcars, who on Friday February 6th 2015 auctioned sixty previously unknown pieces once owned by Roger and Jacques Baillon. The sizeable cache was found last autumn inside a makeshift metal shed at a chateau in Deux-Sevres in western France by car specialists Pierre Novikoff and Matthieu Lamoure when they were contacted by Roger Baillon’s grandchildren, after his son Jacques’s death. Unaware of the scope or worth of the collection, the Baillon heirs were sitting on what has already been dubbed “the barn find of the century.”

 

TALBOT-LAGO T26 RECORD SAOUTCHIK (1948). Source: velocetoday.com

French entrepreneur Roger Baillon was a car enthusiast—more a hoarder than a collector, really—who never sold any of his purchases and slowly got his hands on an enormous number of vintage cars. His fixation began in 1952 when he came across a unique Talbot-Lago Record T26 with bespoke bodywork by French coachbuilder Jacques Saoutchik, which the latter brought back from Egypt immediately prior to the revolution that same year (indeed, the car was thought to have belonged to King Farouk, although in reality it was owned by Princess Nevine Abbas Halim of the Egyptian Royal Family). For the next two decades Baillon would focus his attention on acquiring old cars, displaying a particularly keen eye for Talbots and his beloved Delahayes. But when things went sour for him businesswise in the 1970s he was forced by the banks to liquidate his collection. Two sales followed in 1979 and 1985 respectively, but even then close to 110 cars survived the purge. Ninety of them were hidden and never again seen—thought destroyed or dispersed—until Lamoure and Novikoff came on the scene.

 

The treasure the two experts unearthed is staggering but the question beggared by the sheer magnitude of the find is, should this incredible turn of events be seen as a boon or as a crying shame? On the one hand, we are evidently confronted with a unique trove that adds to the existing stock of some very rare specimens indeed; but on the other hand, had the cars been sold thirty years ago or so—when the rest of the Baillon treasure was put on the market—they would likely be in much better shape. The collection’s most astonishing samples include a 1936 Lagonda LG45 that is barely recognizable, a once gorgeous Hotchkiss 686 Cabriolet from 1939 which is all but destroyed, a sad-looking but once grand Voisin C24 from 1933, and two outstanding—though hardly savable—Delage from the mid 1930s, all superb illustrations of the art of carmaking in the years leading up to World War II which have cruelly been left to rot for too long without care. In this nagging, troubling sense, Baillon’s incomprehensible decision to hide these cars can only be regarded as criminal, twice over!

 

And yet, not every one of the items auctioned on Friday is or should be considered a masterwork. Which is not to say that all the hype behind Artcurial’s auction is only down to good public relations—not at all: at least thirty of the pieces found in Deux-Sevres are truly extraordinary, genuine gems that merit every effort necessary to pull them right back from the jaws of corrosion. For instance, there are three Talbots designed by Jacques Saoutchik—the aforementioned Record, a 1949 Grand Sport SWB and a Record Fastback—which are testament to the very high standards of coachbuilding evidenced in France even after World War II.

 

Alain Delon & Jane Fonda in a Ferrari 250GT California. Source: theredlist.com

And while throughout the posterboy of the auction was the Ferrari 250GT California featured in the 1961 Paris Motor Show and once owned by Alain Delon, some of the most intriguing cars showcased in the sale were also some of the cheapest, such as the 1954 Singer Roadster, highlighting the fact that despite the steep rise in value and attention in the classic car market of late exceptional vehicles don’t always have to come with exceptional price tags.

 

While we are on the subject of exceptional facts, though, listen to this: Baillon’s stash includes a 1947 Delahaye 135 as well as a custom built 135 with bodywork by Faget-Varnet, a four-door Delahaye 148 and three (out of 84 ever built!) Delahaye 235, all outstanding cars from the immediate postwar period, although all of them in deplorable state. Other remarkable—and equally remarkably damaged—cars from the lot are a 1925 Hispano-Suiza H6B whose body has been twice rebuilt but which retains an impressive line, another Talbot-Lago T26 Sport, and two charming but battered Talbot Baby T15 Convertible styled by Guillore from 1950 and ’51 respectively, as well as a dilapidated Packard 120/EIGHT, a rare European model from 1938, and a 1937 four-door Bugatti 57 which has much history but little else going for it.

 

Sadly, the great potential of the majority of these finds is irretrievably lost by the extent of their disrepair—but turning away from what might have been, there are still at least four perfectly restorable major highlights in the collection: first there is a 1960 Facel Vega Excellence and a Porsche 356 SC from 1963, an iconic piece of motor engineering. And then, of course, there is one of the only four Frua-bodied Maserati A6G 2000 (displayed at the 1956 Paris Motor Show), a rare breed of what is already an unfamiliar model as only 60 of them were produced altogether. Finally, there is Delon’s Ferrari, one of the 52 250GT Spider ever built, which Jacques Baillon bought in 1971 and used briefly before parking it right next to the Maserati, sheltered from the elements like the two sleeping beauties that they are.

 

Now that time, circumstance and Artcurial Motorcars have put an end to their long hibernation and restituted the Ferrari 250GT and the Maserati A6G 2000 Frua to their rightful place, they might well be the two most stylish and elegant sports cars to be auctioned this year. Thus, the barn find of the century may easily prove beneficial to all car lovers after all—not just the lucky heirs who stumbled upon a prize worth close to US $20 million!

 

Written in collaboration with Adrian Kobbe and published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday February 7th 2015.

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