SCATTERED TO THE WINDS

Yves.jpg

Art.view glimpses works that will be unveiled as part of the biggest single-owner sale in auction history ...

From ECONOMIST.COM

Behind an unassuming courtyard door off the rue de Babylone on the rive gauche in Paris, an art-and-design collection like no other awaits dispersal. Yves Saint Laurent, a French fashion designer who died last June at the age of 71, and Pierre Bergé, his business and personal partner, assembled the collection together over 50 years. At the end of February at the Grand Palais, Christie’s will bring the hammer down on 733 objects. This is the biggest single-owner sale in auction history and, potentially, a coup for the Paris art market, which recently suffered the humiliation of being overtaken, in auction turnover, by Hong Kong (New York and London still rank first and second).

Saint Laurent’s grand salon lies at the end of a grand lacquered hallway. A glance to one side of the long rectangular room takes in a large cubist Picasso, a delicate painting of a countess by Jean August Dominique Ingres, an iconic mechanical nude by Fernand Léger, an odd portrait of two children by Théodore Géricault, and a rare wooden primitivist sculpture by Constantin Brancusi that was once in Léger’s own collection. In the mirror behind the Brancusi are reflected three more Léger paintings and a splendid Giorgio de Chirico (pictured below). The combined low estimate for these nine pieces is €73m ($94.2m).

These works hang above a covetable array of furniture by first-rate designers from the Art Deco period (Gustav Miklos, Pierre Legrain, Eileen Gray and Jean Dunand), as well as small 17th-century statues of muscular Greek gods and rampant animals and other significant objets d’art. Almost every piece boasts a stellar cast of previous owners. The only unsightly thing in the room is Moujik IV, Saint Laurent’s pet bulldog, who greets visiting collectors with an indolent sniff.

From the grand salon, the visitor passes through the music room, lined with mirrors by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne that Saint Laurent and Mr Bergé commissioned in 1974, then down the stairs past both an Egyptian sarcophagus flanked by early 16th-century depictions of John the Baptist and a room of curiosities, including cameos, chalices, crosses and Medusa heads. Then comes Saint Laurent’s personal library--a light, airy room containing, among other things, three magnificent Mondrian canvases dating from 1918, 1920, and 1922. The overall effect is one of profound glamour and intelligent luxury--just as expected from the team that married high art and fashion.

The collection is so renowned, and the works combine so well, that it is not surprising that Abu Dhabi tried to pre-empt the auction by buying it all. Mr Bergé acknowledges that a dealer approached him on behalf of someone in the Middle East, but was unwilling to elaborate. Mr Bergé, however, is set on dismantling the collection for emotional as well as financial reasons. The auction is a spectacular homage and final goodbye to an intimate collaboration.

Additionally, Mr Bergé may not want it to overshadow the collection of 5,000 haute couture outfits and 15,000 accessories, sketches and related objects whose preservation and promotion are the raison d'être of the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. In fact, half of the auction proceeds will go the Foundation (the other half will go to Mr Bergé, and to funding a variety of charity projects including scientific research into AIDS).

Almost as intriguing as the pieces themselves are the machinations involved in bringing them to market. Many dealers assumed that the collection would be consigned to Sotheby’s, which sold the contents of Mr Bergé’s Pierre Hotel apartment in New York in 2004. Moreover, Mr Bergé is not enamoured of François Pinault, Christie’s owner, who also happens to own the Gucci Group, which bought the YSL brand in 1999 and assigned Tom Ford as creative director--an unhappy experience for Saint Laurent.

Mr Bergé is a pragmatist, however, who also owns his own small auction company, Pierre Bergé and Associates. He became frustrated, he says, with the “discussions from ocean to ocean” between Paris and Sotheby’s New York headquarters. Meanwhile, he began quiet negotiations with Christie’s French vice-president, François de Ricqlès, in October 2007. Mr de Ricqlès prevailed and in July 2008 Mr Bergé signed a slim six-page contract with Christie’s that contained neither valuations nor a list of works, but, crucially, included a substantial cash advance.

Now Christie’s is preparing for la grande vente, which will consist of three evening-sales and two day-sales presided over by eight auctioneers. Prominent art historians, such as Yve-Alain Bois from Princeton University, have written essays for the glossy five-volume catalogue, which retails for €200. Selected sale highlights were exhibited in November in New York; others will travel to London at the end of January, then Brussels in mid-February, before reaching the Grand Palais itself. There, the exhibition will be open to the public from 9am to midnight over the weekend before the sale. The Grand Palais activities alone will cost Christie’s more than €1m.

The scale and ambition of the auction hark back to a rosier art market. Although Christie’s has offered Mr Bergé no guarantees and the estimates are considered reasonable (a few have even been revised downwards since the autumn) the sheer volume of lots will be a challenge to the market. None of that seems to worry Mr Bergé. “Maybe I’m presumptuous, but the majority of the lots are so beautiful and so important that I don’t think the crisis exists really for that,” he says. “Even if the sale is not as successful as it might have been two years ago, it will bring in money enough for its objectives.” Christie’s is expecting at least 100 gros acheteurs, and it is confident bidders will be unable to resist the combination of quality and fame. “What is more secure today than a timeless masterpiece with an illustrious provenance?” asks Mr De Ricqlès. “We are cautious, but we expect some world-record prices.”

Picture credit: Christie's

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