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Feb. 26, 2009 

Christie’s Paris
opened up a three-day-long Cathedral of Saint Laurent, and every rich art collector came to worship -- or so it seemed from the results of the sale of the Collections Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, Feb. 23-25, 2009. The auction total of €373.9 million ($483.8 million) was a record high for any auction in Europe, and a world record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction. Over 95 percent of the sale’s 733 lots sold, and additional new auction records were set across the numerous sale categories.

The lavish results astonished art-market insiders, and prompted mockery from outside observers like Gawker, which assembled a list of “Five Things People Paid Too Much For,” including the $28 million pricetag for Eileen Gray’s outlandish “Dragon Chair” from 1917-19, which was won by Paris-based art dealer Cheska Vallois. The chair, which carried a presale estimate of ca. $2.5 million-$3.8 million, now holds the auction record for any work of 20th-century decorative art at auction.

Top lot of the entire collection was a colorful painting of a pot of flowers done by Henri Matisse in 1911 -- Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose, featuring a fairly wan bouquet of cowslips on a notably animated pink and blue textile tablecloth. The painting sold for an incredible €35.9 million ($46.4 million), a new record for Matisse. The buyer, according to observers in the saleroom, was New York dealer Franck Giraud.

The auction’s €30 million Synthetic Cubist Picasso work failed to sell. “Picassos are everywhere,” one observer noted by way of blithe explanation. “Matisse is hard to find.”

The Saint Laurent - Bergé collection of Impressionist and modern art, which sold for a record total of €206 million ($266 million), set records for five other artists at auction. These included Constantin Brancusi (€29,185,000 / $37,762,472), Piet Mondrian (€21,569,000 / $27,908,129), Giorgio de Chirico (€11,041,000 / $18,285,950), Marcel Duchamp (€8,913,000 / $11,532,531), and James Ensor (€4,993,000 / $6,294,755).

The di Chirico was bought by the Centre Georges Pompidou, while the Ensor was acquired by the Museé d’Orsay.

The collection’s tranche of Old Masters and 19th-century works totaled €22.2 million ($28.7 million), with 75 percent of the lots finding buyers. Highlights included Théodore Gericault’s hyper-romantic scene of two children in a moody countryside, Portrait d’Alfred et Elisabeth de Dreux (1816-17), which sold for €9 million ($11.6 million), well above the presale high estimate of €6 million and a new auction record for the artist.

New auction records were also set for Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (€2 million / $2.6 million) and for a work on paper by Arnold Böcklin, whose Odysseus and Polypheme sold for €577,000 ($746,580).

Especially amazing was the sale of the Saint Laurent-Bergé silver, miniatures and other decorative objects, which soared to a total of $25.7 million with every lot sold. The top lot, the silver-gilt Osterode cup from 1649, was purchased for €853,000 ($1.1 million), more than five times the presale high estimate of €150,000.

The sale’s pair of two Qing dynasty bronzes, sculptures of the heads of a rat and a rabbit originally made for the Zodiac Fountain of the Emperor Qianlong’s Summer Palace in China, sold to the same phone bidder for €15.8 million ($20.3 million) each, well above the presale estimate of €8 million apiece. The Chinese government had protested the auction of the two sculptures, noting that they had been looted by British forces during the second Opium War in 1860. Bergé provocatively offered to return them to their country of origin if China restored political freedom to Tibet.

After the sale, China announced that it plans to tighten export controls on Christie’s operations in the country, much to the auctioneer’s dismay.

For illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auction Database.

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