By Rebecca Voight...
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were a great team in more ways than one. Their art collection, amassed over 50 years, has already beat out all previous collection sales at auction, taking in $261 million on the first of three days and breaking seven world records, which makes Christie's $380 million high estimate for the 733 lots look modest.
Apparently those mysterious buyers who took every available five-star room in Paris had spare change. Marcel Duchamp's "Beautiful Breath Veil Water" perfume bottle—packaged in a cardboard box with a Man Ray photo of Duchamp as his drag alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (a pun for "Eros, c'est la vie")—was the days's most spectacular affair. Fought over by two anonymous American buyers, it went for a whopping €10 million, more than five times its estimate. It was also a record-breaking day for Brancusi and Matisse, whose "Cowslips, Blue and Pink Fabric" went for $40.7 million, doubling its asking price to break the artist's record at auction.
But not everything went according to plan. Picasso's "Musical Instruments on a Table," from the artist's late Cubist period, was originally pegged to be the sale's most valuable piece, but ended up with bids below its estimate and was one of only two pieces that remained unsold on the sale's first day. But Pierre Bergé simply turned a frown upside down, saying, "I'm happy. I won a Picasso." The Picasso will go to the foundation Bergé established with Saint Laurent, as will the sales—minus the commissions, which will be split between Pierre Bergé et Associés and Christie's—which go toward funding Bergé's chosen cultural and charitable projects, including HIV/AIDS research.
Preparation of the Yves Saint Laurent auction at the Grand Palais, Paris (photos courtesy of Christie's)
Getting inside the Grand Palais over the weekend for a pre-show peek into YSL's arty world required a certain stoicism, with a minimum four-hour wait. By 9:15 am on a drizzling Monday, the line had snaked around the block to the front of the Palais de la Decouverte. Christie's reportedly spent $1.2 million renting the Grand Palais, recreating rooms in Saint Laurent and Bergé's rue Babylone apartment. And although critics sniffed about paintings in less than mint condition, all agreed that a sale like this hadn't been seen in Paris for over fifty years.
That Yves Saint Laurent lived on art is undeniable. Throughout his career his inspirations came from artists, from Mondrian to Van Gogh. But what one tends to forget about the legendary house of YSL is what a consummate showman Pierre Bergé was and is. Through a combination of pageantry and pique, he protected the fragile Saint Laurent and kept the hungry fashion press in a perpetual state of fear and awe. This gave his partner a creative freedom unthinkable in fashion's current revolving-door culture. And so we have the Sale of the Century housed under the giant atrium of Paris' Grand Palais with a huge portrait of a young YSL and Bergé hanging outside. And when the Chinese government made a last-minute attempt to retrieve a pair of 18th-century Qing dynasty bronze animal heads, claiming they were looted 150 years ago, Bergé, at 79, showed he's lost none of his bite. "I will return them," he said, "if the Chinese government agrees to observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcomes the Dalai Lama."
"We had our highs and lows," said Bergé in an interview broadcast last Sunday on France Culture, "but the one thing we never disagreed about was art. We never stopped collecting. Many of the best pieces were acquired during the most agitated period in our lives, when Yves was immersed in alcohol and drugs. Our first piece was an African sculpture of a bird. We didn't have much money then. We had a Knoll table, Mies van der Rohe chairs and white walls. That bird is the one thing I'm keeping. It's the end of a love story."
Highly recommended is “The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé” (Thames & Hudson) by Robert Murphy, photographer Yvan Terestchenko and Pierre Bergé, which sneaks into all the secret corners of the homes they shared, from the rue Babylone to Marrakech. The photos below, by Terestchenko, are from the book.