Art trumped reality, if only for a moment. Buyers shelled out $264 million (Rs1,315 crore) on Monday for the impressionist and modern works collected by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Amid the haul were record prices for Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian and others.
Most expensive: Henri Matisse’s Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose. Remy de la Mauviniere / AP
The impressive take was underpinned by a number of one-off factors. There was the setting: In a bid to put Paris back on the auction circuit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the glamorous Grand Palais available for the event. Next was the cachet of Saint Laurent himself, whose taste was highly regarded. Then there was the Christie’s stamp of approval. Bergé owns an auction house, yet he saw fit to call on the global auctioneer’s star power to further elevate the event’s profile.
Finally, West Asia added a frisson of support. The quality and rarity of the collection attracted strong interest from Abu Dhabi and Qatar, which are accumulating masterpieces for the desert museums they are building. Buyers representing the states reportedly made multiple offers to buy the whole lot. Bergé is said to never have seriously entertained doing so. Nevertheless, the interest of the Gulf states was well known, and more than a few of the pieces are certain to turn up in the region.
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The most expensive piece sold was Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, a 1911 work by Henri Matisse, which fetched $46 million, the highest price ever paid for the artist at auction. Records were also set for Brancusi, Mondrian, De Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee and Ensor.
One Picasso painting, Instruments de musique sur un gueridon, did not sell. Bidding stalled at about $26 million against an estimated price of about $32 million.
With wealth on the wane, many of the world’s rich are sellers not buyers of art these days, so it would be foolish for anyone to be too exuberant about the evening’s implications. Christie’s may have oversold the event as the sale of the century even if it might have been the sale of the decade. But just because a few billionaires dug deep for some scarce works owned by a singular collector in a unique setting doesn’t mean the art market can outrun this rare economy.