Record-breaking YSL art auction defies crisis

PARIS (Reuters) - The sale of the art collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent defied the financial crisis Monday, breaking world records by raising over 206 million euros ($262 million) on its opening day.

Members of Christie's sell by auction the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais museum on the Champs Elysees in Paris February 23, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Auctioneers Christie’s said a number of world records were broken during the evening’s bidding, including 35.9 million euros paid for a 1911 painting of a vase of cowslips on a blue tablecloth by the French painter Henri Matisse.

The designer’s companion, Pierre Berge, who built up the collection with Saint Laurent over five decades together and who decided to sell after his partner’s death last year, said he was very pleased but not surprised by the success of the sale.

“I never doubted this sale would be a success, even if I couldn’t say exactly what it would be,” he told reporters after bidding closed on the first evening of a three-day auction.

“Even during the crisis, I always knew that these paintings -- and what we’ll see tomorrow and the day after -- would interest art lovers in the whole world. I never doubted that for a second,” he said.

More than 700 pieces ranging from paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Degas to 17th century German silverware, ancient Roman sculptures, Chinese bronzes, Art Nouveau furniture and 18th century cameo brooches are on sale.

Before the auction, Christie’s had said it expected the collection to raise up to 300 million euros.

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“Quality pieces of modern art, works that live, in a good state of conservation, can get record prices,” said Thomas Seydoux, head of modern art at Christie’s. “These are unique opportunities and people know they won’t come up again.”


There was one surprise, when one of the highlights of the collection, a cubist work by Picasso entitled “Musical instruments on a gueridon,” which had been estimated at 25-30 million euros, failed to find a buyer.

Berge said the painting, the only Picasso of its kind and period in private hands, had been one of his and Saint Laurent’s favourites but he was happy to keep it for his foundation.

“I don’t understand, but that’s fine,” he said.

Crowds lined up for hours at the weekend to view the collection in the Grand Palais museum and Berge said he had been “profoundly touched” by the wide public interest in the sale.

Other records included the highest price paid for a 1914-17 sculpture by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, at more than 29 million euros, or 21.5 million for a 1922 abstract composition by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, Christie’s said.

A 1921 piece of “found art” -- a bottle of breath freshener -- created by the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp sold for 8.9 million euros, almost six times its estimated price.

Seydoux said some of the works were so rare that competition was fierce.

“We saw two collectors who I think were American, who had been waiting for so long for a Dada work that they were fighting with all their heart,” he said.

Earlier, a court in Paris rejected an attempt by a group representing Chinese cultural and heritage interests to block the sale of two bronze sculptures taken from China in the 19th century Opium Wars and claimed by the Beijing government.

Editing by Andrew Roche