Record-breaking YSL art auction shrugs off crisis

PARIS Wed Feb 25, 2009 10:29pm GMT

1 of 10. Christie's auctions a bronze rat head made for the Zodiac fountain of the Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace in China from the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais Museum in Paris February 25, 2009. The rat head, and a rabbit head from the same fountain, are part of a collection created over five decades by the designer and his business partner and companion Pierre Berge and described as one of the most important in private hands. The Chinese government formally demanded earlier this week the cancellation of the auction in Paris of the two historic bronze sculptures claimed by China.

Credit: Reuters/Regis Duvignau

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PARIS (Reuters) - The auction of Yves Saint Laurent's monumental art collection ended on Wednesday having broken a string of records, defied the Chinese government and raised more than 370 million euros ($470 million).

The late fashion designer's collection, built up over five decades with his partner Pierre Berge, had been described as one of the most important in private hands and the auction attracted interest from collectors and spectators all over the world.

The final total of 373.5 million euros broke estimates of 300 million euros but Berge, who is donating the proceeds to charity and medical research, said he was not surprised by the sale's success even in the worst global recession for decades.

"Despite people telling me I should wait two or three years for the crisis to calm down, I decided to go ahead with the sale and I think I was right," said Berge, who decided to sell the collection after his partner's death last year.

"When you offer buyers works of quality, the buyers are there," he told reporters after the last of 733 lots had gone under the hammer in Paris.

The final evening saw two historic bronze sculptures, looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing during the 19th century Opium Wars and claimed by China, sold for a total of more than 31 million euros, well above the estimate of 8-10 million each.

The collection ranged from paintings by 20th century Spanish master Pablo Picasso to 17th century German silverware, ancient Roman sculptures, Chinese bronzes, Art Nouveau furniture and 18th century cameo brooches.

A 1911 painting of a vase of cowslips on a blue tablecloth by French painter Henri Matisse broke the record for a Matisse, selling for nearly 36 million euros on Monday, the opening day, and setting the tone for the rest of the sale.

CAREFULLY ORCHESTRATED

One of the centerpieces of the collection, a cubist Picasso entitled "Musical instruments on a gueridon," which had been estimated at 25-30 million euros, did not find a buyer.

But that was virtually the only shock as collectors shrugged off the gloom that has enveloped much of the global economy to embark on a buying spree that surprised even the optimists at auctioneer's Christie's.

"This is the greatest single private auction of a collection of all time and it seems fitting to me that it is in Paris," Christie's chief executive Edward Dolman said.

Crowds had lined up around the block at the weekend to see the works displayed in the Grand Palais in Paris, a 72,000 square meter hall off the Champs Elysees, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900.

Helped by a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign of television features and gushing magazine spreads, and by the exceptional quality of the works on sale, Christie's ticked off a series of record prices.

As well as the Matisse, the sale saw the highest price paid for a sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi at more than 29 million euros, and 21.5 million for a 1922 abstract composition by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.

A leather-covered armchair from 1917-19 by Irish artist Eileen Gray sold for just short of 22 million euros, more than seven times the estimate, to set a world record for a work of 20th century decorative art at auction.

China's demand for the return of the 18th century Qing dynasty bronzes proved controversial. Berge rejected the demand but offered to hand over the pieces if Beijing allowed the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to return home.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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