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What to do with your estranged father’s art when he dies?

Gerard Dureux was a paranoid, reclusive painter and sculptor whose collection has been smuggled to the UK by his son

The sun is barely visible on the grey skyline and I’m battling fierce wind as I move through the streets of the post-industrial wasteland near the centre of Leeds. The odd train whistles by on the nearby tracks and I can hear a faint police siren in the distance, but otherwise the streets are muted.

What once stood proud as an economic hub of the Industrial Revolution is now reduced to abandoned warehouses, dishevelled canals, and a slew of unflattering street art all over the walls. Things have changed round here.

I arrive at the heavy steel door of a vast, nondescript warehouse sandwiched between an old boxing gym and a bus depot. Despite the unimaginable location, this is the location for the most exciting art exhibition the city has seen in some time.

The venue is Freedom Mills, Leeds’ newfound ‘art and rave’ home, and I’m here to meet the son of the late 20th century French artist Gerard Dureux. During his life Gerard produced a breathtaking collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures. His collection (well, what is left after he controversially burnt an unknown portion of it) mainly features nudes, landscapes, and still life.

The work, much of which depicts and glorifies the female human form in a beautiful, erotic, and sometimes provocative manner, appears to be heavily influenced by the Italian icon Antoniucci Voltigero and French sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle. By all accounts, Dureux was a troubled individual who constantly struggled to be understood. Reports suggest that he was forever locked into a battle with all the things he found to be undesirable in society – or ‘the system’ as he would put it.

I’d heard rumours about the captivating tale of how Gerard’s work came to be featured in this unusual, clandestine gallery and I was here to separate fact from fiction. The work sits prominently alongside contemporary names - such as the phenomenally popular abstract colourist Nicolas Dixon (who famously reworked the Pacha logo) and Mikey Brain (the man behind the vividly graphic art on EP covers released by the Hot Creations record label) – who straddle the UK’s underground art and music scenes.

Gerard’s story is an enthralling one riddled with intrigue, shrouded in mystique, and enveloped in uncertainty. Born in Paris in 1940 he was taught his trade at the distinguished Beaux-Arts and Arts Appliqués schools in the 60s. “Dureux has hands of gold, but his head simply cannot agree,” one of his teachers, highly revered artist Roger Plin, once remarked of him.

After finishing his education, and struggling to get a grip of ‘the system’ that he so loathed, he decided to move into an isolated part of the countryside in central France in the mid-70s. But by 1979 his problems began to manifest in abusive behaviour which resulted in his wife leaving the home with their two children.

“A large amount of money was withdrawn shortly before his death. A women he knew, who was not a member of his family, ordered his cremation straight away which is totally illegal. It’s really weird and it makes me think something is dodgy. The story probably hasn’t even started yet” – Emmanuel Dureux

Gerard, by then suffering severely from alcoholism and becoming increasingly unstable and reclusive, barricaded his home and proceeded to hoard his art. “The guy was paranoid, he put bars on the doors so nobody could get in,” Gerard’s son Emmanuel recounted as we sat together.

“Why? I have no idea; there has never been a robbery within 100 miles of the place. He was a big name to a lot of people but hardly ever sold anything, he was too fucked in the head. People would commission him but he would not deliver the job, he would keep it for himself,” he told me. “If people praised his work he’d say ‘fuck off, that’s not beautiful, now go away from here’.”

“He died in 2014, but I still don’t know the reason, I hadn’t seen him for 35 years,” Emmanuel pronounced with a hint of disappointment detectable in his voice. “According to the French law if an heir cannot be found in six months everything becomes the property of the state.”

When Emmanuel finally found out about his father’s passing it was just weeks before the art would become the property of France, so he took immediate and decisive action. “Me and my sister took my van, went over to France in the middle of the night and got into the house,” he recalled lighting a thin hand-rolled cigarette. “It was an absolute mess, there were unfinished pieces everywhere. We filled the van up with as much as we could.

“After that we headed for a local town where we spent the night with some people we knew would look after us. On the way we were travelling down a winding, narrow road and when we turned the corner we were met by a crashed, upside down car with smoke pouring out, there was a lot of blood and my sister started crying.

“A man was in the car with a broken neck and a gash on his head. I put my belt around his head and, despite the fact he was a heavy lad of around 19 stone, I managed to pull him out. I met his son some time later and he thanked me for saving his dad’s life.”

It wasn’t long after this incident that Emmanuel found himself at the UK-France border with a van packed full of undeclared, valuable art: “The next day, at the border, I was waiting for customs to open the back of the van and say ‘you need to make a declaration for that’. I was expecting it to be blocked by them. But at that stage hopefully the art would have stayed in the UK and the French couldn’t touch it. That was my idea.

“But, fortunately or unfortunately, for once in my life, the customs never searched me or asked for anything. I was ready to say ‘ok, here are the keys to my van, put me in jail for the night’. But it wasn’t to be. Then I was just like ‘shit, I need somewhere to store it all now’.”

There is also the question of who had been in his father’s house before Emmanuel and his sister arrived to grab the art. “The first time I went around to the house with my sister we made a video and when I went back three months later some things had appeared that were not there before. Someone had returned things, it was weird. That time I changed the locks.

“I also looked at his bank statements and saw a large amount of money was withdrawn shortly before his death. A women he knew [all details omitted for legal reasons], who was not a member of his family, ordered his cremation straight away which is totally illegal. It’s really weird and it makes me think something is dodgy. The story probably hasn’t even started yet.”

The art is being displayed at Freedom Mills on Washington Street, Leeds, LS3 1JL. You can find out more information on their Facebook page.