'Monsieur, you are a traitor, a traitor to France, and a philistine!" The last word was spat out in a venomous ball of phlegm. Then, without so much as an "en garde", I felt the stab of a cigarette holder in my stomach.
Never, ever pick a fight with a surrealist. Not unless you are packing a kipper yourself, and are prepared to use it. That much I now know. But at lunchtime on Monday, when I tried to slip through the surrealist blockade of the André Breton auction at the Hôtel Drouot, I assumed a black polo neck was protection enough against accusations that I was a bourgeois lackey bent on picking the bones of the great man.
I had gone to Paris to witness the "death of surrealism", to watch what was being called "a great national humiliation", the Passion of André Breton. That is how French intellectuals see the sale and dismemberment of the astonishing collection of surrealist masterpieces, letters, books and bric-a-brac the leader of the 20th-century's most important art movement crammed into his small apartment above the clip joints of the Rue Fontaine.
Dali, Miro, Duchamp and Max Ernst all climbed the stairs to Breton's studio, hard by the Moulin Rouge, to take part in surrealistic experiments and pay homage to the man who wrote the Manifeste du Surréalisme in 1924. All left work behind on the walls next to the Picassos, the Magrittes, and the photographs and collages by Man Ray and the rest of the gang.
The dreams and fantasies that poured out with the absinthe were recorded and stacked away alongside Breton's collections of curiosities, religious kitsch and "object poems" made from bottles, buttons and bits of string. By the time he died in 1966, and the door of 42 rue Fontaine was locked, there was only room inside for two people. It had become a museum to a man and a movement that loathed museums. It was the perfect surrealist conceit - a museum no one could enter except in their dreams.
For years Breton's family assumed that one day the French government would take the flat and its contents off their hands. This was a national treasure, after all, worth many millions, and pride demanded it. Didn't it contain the desk from behind which France last led modern art? But the government never did. The famous "wall" of paintings, cartoons, and Polynesian masks that hung behind that desk was taken in lieu of death duties, but that was it. Even Uli, the four-foot wooden ancestor statue from New Ireland in the South Pacific, whose spirit Breton claimed inspired his "art magique ", was left behind. Breton's daughter Aube finally snapped as she neared 70, the age at which her father died. Now she is getting shot of the lot, piece by piece, in an "ordeal by capitalism" lasting 10 days.
The gannets had gathered in their thousands all last week - 50,000 by Friday - to pore over the odds and sods in the Hôtel Drouot's slightly battered red-plush salerooms before popping down to the glorified house clearances in the basement, offering chamber pots, gilt furniture and hideous 1970s settees. The auctioneers call it "the sale of the century", and expect to make £25m. The French left, with typical understatement, call it a catastrophe, and blame Jacques Chirac.
So emotions outside were high. But the last thing I was expecting was Surrealism's Last Stand, or that I would play a part in that resistance. Nor was I expecting a fight. But then I wasn't to know that the ruck outside the saleroom had been organised by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the big dada of deconstructionism. In leaflets handed out by protestors, he lamented the destruction of this "space made up of creation and desire, the witness to a new form of thought being generated... When you went into the flat, you discovered both the secret of a life and a movement of thought."
I tried to find him among the mass of grey heads blocking the door and jostling bemused dealers back into the street. "I am Jacques Derrida," said a man too big and fat to be the philosopher, when I asked where he was. "I am Jacques Derrida," his friend repeated. This Spartacus chorus continued for a few more minutes, until it became clear he wasn't there.
But the joking stopped when a dealer in an Asterix moustache and a tweed jacket tried to storm the barricade. "Fight your way through," he shouted, brandishing his cane, as the surrealists locked together like a well-drilled front-row. Someone shouted "He shall not pass!" - Marshall Pétain's war cry at Verdun - but he did. "Pigs, communists, homosexuals, sons of whores," the reactionary replied. I following in his wake, and that's when the stabber with the cigarette holder struck.
But the protest outside was only the amuse bouche. As soon as the auctioneer, Cyrille Cohen, started bidding on the first lot - a book by the playwright Arthur Adamov, dedicated to Breton ("a very rare man who remains pure") the main course began. A stink bomb was crushed underfoot and a pale man to my right began to read in wavering monotone from a tightly typed manifesto, quoting Trotsky and Cocteau. Then all round the room, surrealist infiltrators began to throw fake money around. Each doctored 10-euro note carried Breton's head and the legend, "Your money for the stinking corpse of a poet that you didn't dare become." (It's better in French.) The heavies were called but dogged resistance continued at the back.
Then as Monsieur Cohen worked his way through Breton's library of Apollinaires - the man who coined the term surrealist in the first place - a particularly incensed aesthete at the back began to cry: "You are killing the poet! You are killing the poet! This is a scandal against humanity!" He would not be silenced. Then a new corps of cultural nationalists began to show themselves. "I buy this for France, to the shame of France!" one man announced to loud applause as he paid 13,000 euros for another first edition of Apollinaire. Another woman two rows in front secured a Hans Arp novella with the cry: "It's a scandal! Forgive me, André, forgive me France."
I too had been instructed to buy, to take a relic back across the channel before the French slammed on an export bar. But what should I buy? I tried a surrealist method: automatic writing.
Breton, Breton, Breton. Well, he died in 1966 - the same year I was born. Was I his incarnation? Nonsense. He was a miserable git, an inveterate feuder who excommunicated anyone who disagreed with him from the movement. He so loathed Dali's sluttish commercialism that he would only refer to him anagramatically as Avida Dollars. Quite clever, that. Hold on, what was this book by Louis Aragon doing here? Hadn't Breton purged everything by the poet from his library when he and Aragon, one of his oldest friends and co-founder of surrealism, fell out over Stalin? Maybe Dali slipped this Russian translation of Aragon's Red Front back into the library to upset Breton's psychic balance. He'd never have known. He couldn't read cyrillic.
I would have to bid surrealistically, of course. With the price at 300 euro, I bid 250. Monsieur Cohen acknowledged my bid and then paused for a second, perplexed. "200," I said, dropping my bid again. "Monsieur, monsieur," he said, before calling for 350 euro. A bid came. I topped it at 400 and the book was mine. Roland, a writer and theorist who was sitting in front of me, was disgusted. "They may as well give it to the dogs in the street. Surrealism is not dead. They just refuse to publish our books and show our art in the galleries any more. There is a conspiracy, a very big conspiracy against us. I have written a book about it. It starts with the government... "
I went with my chit to pay, and proferred three vacuum-packed smoked mackerel I had grabbed from a cockney cockle-and-eel stall on the way to Waterloo. He was all out of kippers. (What was it with the surrealists and cured fish and female genitalia?) Since they already had my credit card number, I knew it was an empty gesture. But they took the mackerel anyway. "Mackerel means pimp in slang, you know," the teller said. I didn't know that. Bulls eye. Here was proof of Breton's belief in "petrified coincidence".
I was their first fish of the day. No one else had tried to pay with anything but cash. "We French are always protesting but we are always bourgeois when it comes to art," she said. "Everyone wants what they can get."
I returned to the saleroom, but the fight seemed to have gone out of the surrealist guerrillas. One, who had been filming the "atrocity", had stopped to flirt with one of the girls taking telephone bids; there was even a round of applause when someone paid 243,000 euros for the Magritte collage Breton had used for the cover of his book, What is Surrealism?
I walked back out on to the street and let coincidence guide me. I soon found myself on Rue Lafayette where Breton met the beautiful actress who became the model for the girl in his novel Nadja. I opened a page of Nadja at random. It was one of the plates, a collage called The Agonising Journey or The Enigma of Fatality. It pointed up the hill towards Sacré Coeur. After a few minutes I was on Rue Fontaine itself, a street of dives, goth cafes and seedy bars where peroxide blondes with voluminous thighs perched on bar stools by the door. And then I was outside number 42 itself, squeezed between a burlesque theatre where a show called The Bathroom was playing, and the Carrousel de Paris - "cabaret and diner spectacle".
The door was locked. I tried to force it. It wouldn't budge. So I waited. A fat boy on one of those foot scooters eventually turned up and tapped out the combination. The door opened. I followed him into the gloom of the tatty lobby. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but there, nearly 37 years after his death, was Breton's postbox, with his name typed out in clean capitals as if he had just popped out for lunch.
I pulled up my sleeve and squeezed my hand inside, half expecting to find a scorpion. There was only emptiness and dust. I scooped some out on to a tissue. I took the book from my bag. Four hundred euros, 471 with tax. Bugger it.
I tried to read a few lines of the Red Front. One stanza had CCCP five times. Aragon obviously had communism bad. I slipped it into the postbox and left.
Today I wrote a letter to Breton's book. Bids on the dust start at £250.