APRIL 2013 – Laurence Graff, known for his art-interested eye, is focusing on South Africa and its artists.
Faced with a choice between bold letters or small print, Laurence Graff early on in life opted for the former. A man variously dubbed the ‘king of bling’ and ‘Britain’s richest living art buyer’, Graff has consistently made news headlines, his life as complexly faceted as the luxury diamonds he is most famous for trading in. In 2009, the same year that Slovakia adopted the euro as its national currency, this London-born Swiss-based entrepreneur created a buzz with the launch of his company’s first-ever watch collection; became the victim of Britain’s biggest ever gems’ heist; travelled to New York expressly to bid on (and win, for $6,1 million) a rare self-portrait by Andy Warhol that had been hidden in a closet for four decades; and, just to prove that he wasn’t joking when he once said, ‘I have a lot of energy and need to express myself,’ quietly launched a luxury wine estate in Stellenbosch.
While the story of the two fashionably appointed gentlemen who walked into Graff Diamonds at 6 New Bond Street with pistols in their pockets and larceny on their minds is a captivating one, it is a peripheral one. Standing on the veranda at Delaire Graff Estate, a fastidiously realised gourmet-and-art destination that looks out to the Simonsberg and Drakenstein mountains, surely one of the Cape Wineland’s most privileged views, bank robbers with eyes like diamonds are a very distant concern indeed. After all, the landscape here is more Tolkien than it is Guy Richie. But that’s just my version. Laurence Graff tells it much better. ‘After spending much time in South Africa working with the mines, I realised the growing interest in South African wines and saw there was a niche market for truly upscale vineyards that provided more than just wine,’ explains Graff, who in 1988 acquired a controlling interest the South African Diamond Corporation, a diamond wholesaler and manufacturer based in Johannesburg. The move enabled him to create a vertically integrated diamond company that mines, polishes, sets and sells these precious stones. His more recent decision, in 2003, to buy Delaire was made within five minutes of seeing the rundown farm at the top of the Helshoogte Pass. Thirty minutes later he shook hands on the agreement. Six months later he inked the deal. Delaire was finally his.
Located on the top of Botmaskop, a right turn off the main road that connects Stellenbosch with Franschhoek, the interior styling of the newly launched Delaire Graff Estate was handled by London-based interior architect David Collins. It is the first time these two powerhouses – Graff and Collins – have collaborated. ‘I am always directly involved in any project we do at Graff, and Delaire is no exception,’ says Graff, who made his fortunes servicing one key client, the Sultan of Brunei. A notoriously tough dealmaker, Graff imposed one important restriction on Collins: it would be he, Graff, who selected the art.
Given his well-known taste for Warhol, Picasso and Bacon, it might come as a surprise to learn that Delaire showcases predominantly South African art. Graff handpicked the collection, mixing acknowledged masters, such as water-colourist Durant Sihlali, with unknowns, notably the young painter Lionel Smit. The main dining room sets the tone for Graff’s local collection, presenting an uneven mix of pitch-perfect pieces alongside more idiosyncratic and whimsical selections. The key work here is undoubtedly the charcoal-and-burnt orange portrait by William Kentridge, which Graff bought two decades ago. (The work inspired the colour selection of the dining room’s bright orange leather banquette.) The Kentridge portrait looks across the dining room to a monochromatic drawing, a unique three-way collaboration between Kentridge, Deborah Bell and Robert Hodgins. Perhaps less interesting than the trio’s earlier collaborative work from the 1980s, it nonetheless has a dominating presence. These two substantial works on paper are flanked by a selection of Bell’s totemic sculptures and mixed-media paper works.
Based on a farmstead north of Johannesburg, Bell produces work that mixes mythologies and iconographies from countless eras and geographies. Earlier this year she participated in a group exhibition at the NIROX Sculpture Park, a purpose-designed cultural space in the Blaaubank River Valley near the Cradle of Humankind. It was here that she first showcased her towering sculptural work portraying two bronze figures on a chariot. Graff didn’t attend the event but he acquired it shortly afterwards, installing it in the outdoor pond adjacent the tasting room. He says of Bell, a diminutive figure in person, that her work is ‘very creative, fresh and interesting’.
When visiting Delaire, be sure to spend a quiet moment with the work of Durant Sihlali. Alongside sculptor Sydney Kumalo and painter Fred Schimmel, he is one of the older, more historical figures represented in the collection. Born in 1935 in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, Sihlali was a masterful observer of things. In the manner of the English engraver William Hogarth, he was especially good at detailing scenes of industry and idleness. A quiet presence in a collection that leans towards the predictable and showy, Sihlali introduces a hint of sedition into the collection. During his life, which sadly ended in 2004, Sihlali never felt compelled to sell the best examples of his work. ‘Money has no value,’ he told The Daily News in 1976. ‘My works that are very good and have great beauty, I keep for myself.’ Few of the living artists represented in the collection could say the same.
Graff acquired many of his historical pieces, including the gorgeous late modern period oil-on-board by Schimmel in the dining room, on an intense buying spree early in 2009. The buzz that accompanied it still brings a perplexed smile to Baylon Sandri’s face. The energetic force behind Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary (SMAC) Art Gallery, he says Graff got him out of bed with a late-night phone call. Graff was surfing SMAC’s website and wanted to inspect the work. The luxury jewellery magnate proved a fussy but knowledgeable art buyer. In total Sandri spent three long nights hanging and then re-hanging his gallery before Graff made his final selection. ‘My love of South African art comes from my long-term involvement with the country,’ explains Graff of his impulse to buy locally. ‘It has developed over time and I believe it is important to support and give back to the countries from where we source so many of our beautiful diamonds.’ Delaire is a fitting venue to view the work Graff has assembled. This is not a self-evident statement. Delaire was so named by its original owner, the wine connoisseur John Platter, whose son Cameron is a budding young artist. Cameron is about the same age as James Webb, himself an energetic and spry figure in the South African contemporary art scene and winner of the 2009 ABSA L’Atelier Award.
Webb’s family home, Thelema, is located directly across the road from Delaire and neighbours on Tokara, the wine and olive-oil estate. Owned by the financier GT Ferreira, Tokara has long championed art appreciation among the vineyards, and the estate’s restaurant includes a large-scale tapestry by Kentridge. None of which is meant to gainsay Delaire’s achievements. The Delaire Graff Estate is a testament to a singular man, a man possessing creativity, enterprise and a fair share of audacious willpower. It is also the bold headline that will no doubt draw new visitors to a neighbourhood already deeply in love with art, wine and the resplendent outdoors.