Yves Saint Laurent Art Sale’s 1st Night Brings In $264 Million
Jacques Brinon/Associated Press
PARIS — Despite the global economic crisis, a lot of money seems to be left over. On Monday, the private collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner became the most expensive one ever sold at auction, bringing in more than $264 million on the first night alone.
The only significant failure in the sale, one of six auctions of the collection being held over three days by Christie’s, was an apparently overpriced Picasso from the artist’s late Cubist period. The auction house pulled the work when bids stopped at 21 million euros ($26 million) on a painting that had been estimated at 25 million to 30 million euros.
But records were set for Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, James Ensor, Piet Mondrian and Giorgio de Chirico. The Matisse, a colorful painting from 1911 of a vase of cowslips on a carpet, sold for $40.9 million, double its estimate.
The auction unfolded in the cavernous Grand Palais in central Paris, where thousands of visitors lined up for hours over the weekend to get a chance to see the collection in what became a kind of temporary museum. Mr. Saint Laurent is regarded with great affection and awe here as a paragon of French style, and he evokes an era when no country could challenge French prominence in the world of fashion.
The Matisse was believed to have gone to an American, but Christie’s refused to identify the buyer. Few Matisse paintings of quality come on the market, and each of the three Matisse paintings did better than its estimates.
A remarkable painting by Ensor, “The Jealousy of Pierrot,” sold for $5.38 million. Thomas Seydoux, a Christie’s expert in Impressionist and modern art, described it as “the climax of Ensor’s work,” and noted that it last sold in 1987 for $700,000. “Those masterpieces are never on the market,” he said.
The Duchamp, “Beautiful Breath, Eau de Violets,” was a Dada hallmark. Its label depicts the artist dressed as a woman, Rrose Sélavy, a punning alter ego he created in 1920 in a photo taken by Man Ray. It sold for $10.1 million, more than six times the estimate, after a bidding war between two anonymous American collectors. “People had waited a long time for this to go on the market,” Mr. Seydoux said.
Mr. Seydoux accepted some blame for the Picasso’s failure. He said he had based his estimate “on the exceptional quality of that period, but I got carried away.”
Isabelle de Wavrin, deputy editor of BeauxArts magazine, said that while Mr. Saint Laurent loved the Picasso, “Picassos are not rare.”
“But everyone is looking for a good Matisse,” she added.
Jean-Marie Baron, an art dealer who bid on some art but could not afford to go high enough, said the sale suggested that to some extent, “the art market is still good and still strong. Almost everywhere they met the high estimate.”
Pierre Bergé, who was Mr. Saint Laurent’s business and personal partner for many years, said in a brief interview that he was very happy with the results. “But you have to know that I’m very cool about things every day,” he said.
He was more emotional later at a brief news conference. “The day Yves Saint Laurent died, I decided this collection had run its course,” he said. “It was something we created together.” Mr. Saint Laurent died last June at 71.
Mr. Bergé said he explored the possibility of creating a museum for Mr. Saint Laurent’s fashion and art collections but that the project proved too difficult. “Selling it was the only possible solution,” he said.
The proceeds, separate from the commissions that his own company, Pierre Bergé & Associés, will presumably share with Christie’s, are to go to the foundation he established with Mr. Saint Laurent, to various cultural projects, to charity and to found a new research center to combat AIDS. Mr. Bergé said he would keep the Picasso for his foundation.
French museums pre-empted the sale of three works: the record-setting painting by de Chirico, which is thought to be an allegory about the return of Napoleon; “At the Conservatory,” an Ensor satire; and “The Lilacs,” by Édouard Vuillard.
A rare wood Brancusi statue, “Madame L.R.,” originally owned by the artist Fernand Léger, sold for $33.3 million, and it was also a good night for the Mondrian market, with a 1922 composition in white, blue, yellow and black selling for $24.59 million, a record. A monochrome by Mondrian, whose art inspired one of Mr. Laurent’s best-known collections, sold for more than $16.4 million.
The final prices include taxes and the commission paid to the auction house: 25 percent, excluding tax of the first $26,000; 20 percent, excluding tax from that amount up to $1.03 million; and 12 percent excluding tax on the rest. Presale estimates do not reflect commissions.
More than 1,200 buyers, dealers, collectors and wealthy art lovers were in their seats as Christie’s staff members took bids from those abroad on 100 telephone lines. Most of the buyers were said to be American and European.
The sale has five other portions over the next few days, including furniture, silver and Asian art. A dispute has unfolded over two Qing dynasty bronze animal heads, a rabbit and a rat, originally looted from an imperial palace in China but purchased legally. China has demanded their return, but a French court ruled Monday evening that the auction of the heads can proceed as scheduled on Wednesday.
The issue has become a heated one in China, stirring nationalist indignation. Mr. Bergé countered that the heads belonged to him, saying he would give them to China if Beijing would “observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama.”
A Christie’s official then hastened to emphasize that while Mr. Bergé was entitled to his opinion, the auction house had the greatest respect for China and Chinese art. Mr. Bergé, 79, said: “They are my heads. I own them and I said what I meant.”
Before the sale, President Nicolas Sarkozy toured the auction offerings, and accepted from Mr. Bergé a legacy to France from Mr. Saint Laurent: a 1791 portrait of a child by Goya.
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.