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Taming Peter Beard

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Jah, according to two friends, could hardly believe it. He won’t comment on the specifics of the dispute, but he suggests that the burden of proof rests with the Beards. “If Peter loaned someone a piece, there should be an agreement stipulating the terms of the loan,” he says. “The problem is, Peter made a lot of transactions that were not in his best interest at times when he did not have money, and probably a lot of those transactions were done without documentation.”

Nejma won’t discuss Jah by name, but she insists she and Beard are only interested in reclaiming works that were clearly loans. “Anyone who owns Peter’s work legitimately,” she told the Post in November, “has nothing to worry about.” In addition to the Jah work in question, Nejma is said to have reported several other pieces to the Art Loss Register, a database of lost and stolen art used by insurers and law-enforcement agencies (if the Beards can’t reclaim the works, listing them this way makes them difficult to sell). People whom Nejma has allegedly asked to prove they legitimately own their Beard works include longtime Jah and Beard friend Jay McInerney, banking heir Matthew Mellon, and restaurateur Nello Balan. (Balan and McInerney have said they own the works legitimately; ­Mellon could not be reached for comment.) Nejma insists that if a work is unsigned, the way Jah’s Bacon portrait is said to be, there is no way Beard would have given it to someone to keep. “When Peter finishes a work, he always signs it.”

Practically speaking, tracking down every errant Peter Beard artwork may prove impossible. In Manhattan, Amaranth, Nello, and Cipriani, to name just a few places, have walls jammed with Beards. “Half the bars in Montauk have Beard photos on the walls,” says one old friend of Peter’s. “Not to mention in the south of France. He’d use a photo to pay off a $20,000 bar bill.”

On Beard’s 75th birthday, Zara, now a college student, presented her father with a 30-page birthday card she’d made. His 40th-birthday celebration, in 1978, had been at Studio 54, and his 65th at Downtown Cipriani. This time around, “we went to see the Annie Leibovitz show at the Norton museum,” Beard told me in an e-mail, “which was surprisingly great. Then we went to the Steve Rubell memorabilia auction. Anson bought me a copy of Andy Warhol’s Exposures signed by Andy to Steve.” Inside, there was a ­double-page spread of Beard in New York, smoking a cigarette, looking like a young movie star. He says the photo was taken the day after a 1977 fire destroyed his millhouse in Montauk, taking with it years of his diaries. At the time, Beard refused to be sentimental about the loss. Now things are different. “It’s a book chock-full of dead friends,” he wrote. “So you can’t help thinking of all the things that have come and gone—and somehow still stayed.”

A year ago, D’Orazio saw Beard out on the town as usual, the only notable difference being he’d just had a hip replacement the previous day. (“He’s Tarzan, that’s for sure,” says D’Orazio. “He’d take you out on safari, and he’d never get hurt, but you would.”) “As recently as a couple weeks ago, I saw him out on the town with two young admirers,” says another friend. “The only time I see Peter is at Bungalow at three in the morning.”

Nejma’s attempts to manage Beard’s career have cost him several relationships. A number of old friends see her as ruthless and meddling, seizing control of her husband’s business affairs and trying to profit from his work in a way Beard himself never seemed to care about. “She doesn’t like anybody who is Peter’s friend,” says one person in question. Nejma’s supporters, meanwhile, say she has done Beard a great service. “Nejma is the only one who has always had his back,” one friend says. “The good-time party people always move on. With Nejma, he can take his rightful place. He can have a legacy.” At heart, friends say, Beard and Nejma complement one another. She loves his unfettered passion, even if it sometimes infuriates her, and he loves her stability and good sense, even if those qualities sometimes madden him. One longtime friend says Beard and Nejma seem to be closer now than they have ever been. “Over the years, I’ve seen it all­­—her being cranky at parties and so on. But they seem to be at a calm point. He speaks highly of her, which is certainly not true of his other wives.”

Beard won’t comment on his romantic relationship with Nejma. He will only say that he’s grateful, and proud, of what she’s done for his career. “I am happy to be independent of the whole system,” he writes. “Nejma has stripped away almost all the complications of the art industry. And with zero business or art-world credentials. What she had instead—and has—is a unique combination of taste, common sense, integrity, and imagination. I’m in awe of what she’s accomplished.” At the same time, one can apparently only tame Beard so much. In the very same e-mail he wrote: “An artist who goes around proclaiming that the art he’s making is art is probably making a serious mistake. And that’s one mistake I try not to make.”


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