By: Sallie Brady
It was the sale of the young century, and a powerful reminder that there is still a great deal of ready money in the international art and antiques market.
When the final hammer fell on lot number 733, well after 11 p.m. on Feb. 25 in Paris’ Grand Palais, the collection of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, had shattered dozens of records on its way to realizing a staggering $483.8 million. It was by far the largest take from a single-owner sale in history, surpassing the $206.5 million garnered by the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz at Christie’s New York in 1997.
For three packed, often grueling, days of sales, thousands of bids flew from the paddles of the crème de la crème of the international collecting world seated under heat lamps in the makeshift salesroom, battling 100 phones manned by staff from Christie’s and Bergé’s own auction house. Estimates often looked naive as prices soared for the important Impressionist and modern paintings, Old Masters, German silver, French enamels and Art Deco pieces that the couple assembled over a 50-year period.
While the duo was known for buying the best, the sale was also helped by a certain amount of hype. The limited-edition, five-volume, 22-pound catalogue wasn’t even sold at Christie’s New York, but, once ordered for $290, arrived next-day air from London. The sale’s Paris viewing was ridiculously restricted to a weekend, causing scores of Parisians to line up around the Belle Epoque exhibition hall, waiting as long as six hours for entry to the re-created salles of the couple’s fabled apartments, which remained thick with crowds until the midnight closings.
The auctions themselves had all the drama of the runway, opening with enormous television screens flashing heart-tugging stills of Saint Laurent and Bergé with the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Loulou de la Falaise, Nan Kempner and John Paul and Talitha Getty, all to the haunting arias of the designer’s beloved Maria Callas, whose recorded voice poignantly marked the beginning and end of each session. Even Saint Laurent’s French bulldog, Moujik (he had four, all with the same name), was in attendance at most sessions, running off-leash but with exquisite Franco-canine manners.
The ultimate stage had been set for buying, and collectors would not disappoint, beginning with the evening offering of Impressionist and modern works. It tallied more than $266 million and set records for seven artists. Among the stand-outs were Henri Matisse’s 1911 Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose (est. $15–23 million), which sold for $46.3 million; Marcel Duchamp’s 1921 Belle haleine—Eau de voilette (est. $1.3–1.9 million), an encased perfume bottle assembled in 1921 with the help of Man Ray that made a shocking $11.5 million; and Constantin Brancusi’s Madame L. R. (Portrait of Mme. L. R.) (est. $20–26 million), a rare wood sculpture once owned by Fernand Léger’s Russian widow, reportedly sold to a Russian buyer for $37.6 million. James Ensor’s much-fought-over Le désespoir de Pierrot (est. $2.6–3.8 million), the artist’s most important work to appear at auction in decades, made a record of $6.4 million. The one surprise was Pablo Picasso’s 1914–15 Instruments de musique sur un guéridon (est. $32–38 million), which failed to sell.
“C’est formidable, ce soir,” Bergé said after the first night, acknowledging the activity of American buyers, who would end up with 30 percent of the collection. Among them was Diane Wilsey, president of the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who worked with Bergé to bring a YSL retrospective to the museum this past summer. She bought Edouard Manet’s Jeune fille en chapeau d’été (est. $640,000–890,000) for $929,500. “This morning I put on the news and saw the Dow dropped 600 points yesterday, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t care; I just bought a painting.’” Her museum would also purchase the sale’s final lot, a colorful 19th-century Sèvres chinoiserie breakfast set (est. $51,000–76,000) for $465,400. U.S. Ambassador to Britain and keen art collector Robert Tuttle and his wife, Maria, were also bidding.
U.S. buyers were also active in the evening 20th-century decorative arts sale, where interior designer Brian McCarthy bought a pair of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann stools (est. $64,000–89,000) for $156,000; he also purchased a Pierre Legrain red lacquer fauteuil (est. $51,000–76,000) for $60,100, for a New York client. “She wanted the François-Xavier Lalanne YSL bar (est. $260,000–380,000) but dropped out at $1.6 million,” McCarthy says. The industrial-chic metal masterpiece was said to have gone to a Middle Eastern buyer for $3.6 million. “I collect Lalanne, and I couldn’t believe the prices,” says McCarthy, citing 15 custom-made Lalanne mirrors (est. $894,000–1.2 million) that went for $2.4 million. Works by Jean Dunand broke records, and Eileen Gray’s now-famous “Dragons” armchair (est. $2.6–3.8 million) was bought back for a gasp-inducing $28.3 million by Cheska Vallois, the Paris dealer who owned it in 1971. She was bidding for a client. The session made a total of $76.5 million.
In general, dealers buying back were key drivers of the sale. (The collection was acquired mainly from dealers.) At the Old Masters session, Paris gallerist Alain Tarica—who sold numerous works to the couple, including Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Portrait of the Countess de La Rue (est. $2.6–3.8 million), which set an artist record of $2.7 million—bought back Théodore Géricault’s 1818 Portrait of Alfred and Elisabeth Dedreux (est. $5.1–7.7 million) for $11.6 million, the highest price for any 19th-century non-Impressionist painting. The Old Masters session made $28.7 million.
The venerable Galerie J. Kugel in Paris also went on a shopping spree for the exquisite sculpture, inlaid boxes and 17th-century German silver-gilt cups it had sold Saint Laurent and Bergé over the years. “We tried to buy about 200 pieces but ended up with about 20,” says Nicolas Kugel. “It was a big challenge for us—the worst economic crisis and the biggest sale came together, at the same time.” The Kugel brothers were buying for stock. The record-setting 1649 Oserode cup (est. $130,000–190,000) that they bought for $1.1 million, and the rare Bodendick table fountain (est. $200,000–250,000) that they bought for $932,900, were both packed up for Maastricht. The silver session was 100 percent sold for a total of $25.7 million.
The sale’s final day was marked by a consistent tripling of estimates for bronzes, cameos and French enamels, many once owned by Hubert de Givenchy. That evening featured the telephone sale of the controversial Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads from the old Summer Palace in Beijing (see From the Editor, page 20). There were also Islamic works and antiquities, including the 1st–2nd-century Roman marble Minotaur torso (est. $380,000–630,000) that greeted salegoers in the entrance of the Grand Palais, just as it had greeted Saint Laurent’s guests in the foyer of the apartment on Rue Babylone. It sold for $1.6 million.
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