Sale of the Century
History took place on Feb. 25, 2008 with the ending of the private auction of the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge. With over 700 pieces in this collection this sale set the world record for the most valuable private collection to ever be sold at an auction. With multiple world records of the most valuable private impressionist and modern art collection, silver sale, 20th century decorative arts, and artists to be sold at an auction. The three-day sale offered by Christie's auction house in association with Pierre Berge & Associates took place at the Grand Palais in Paris. Melina Sales of Christie's said, "The Grand Palais was packed with around 1200 of the world's most important collectors". Pieces dated from the 20th century all the way back to the first century. It had masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrain, antiques, enamels, bronzes, and art deco gems. In one day the sales reached $263.6 million. "Most items sale prices exceed high above estimates." said Sales.
The top of the sale was the Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, by Henri Matisse dated 1911 which sold for $46.4 million. Another work by Irish designer Eileen Gray, the 'Dragons' armchair, circa 1917-1919, achieved a record price of $28.3 million. There wasn't a single popular item but, "all different items from the whole spectrum of the collection held vast appeal to a wide range of buyers" said Sales.
The controversial pieces of the auction where the two bronzes of a rat and rabbit fountain heads that are said to be taken from China in 1860 during the second Opium war by British troops. Although YSL acquired these legally China disputed the sale of the artifacts and for them to be returned to China. A French judge and Christie's over ruled the dispute sold the bronzes for $20.12 million each. However, the sale turned out to be a hoax.
According to the LA Times Barbara Demick says a Chinese dealer by the name of Cai Mingchao sabotaged the auctioning of the bronzes by submitting the winning bid to block the sale. Demick said, "Art experts have ward that Cai could be subject to civil and even criminal charges for submitting a fraudulent bid in the auction, which was conducted anonymously by telephone". Chi has been on the front pages of many Chinese newspapers becoming an overnight national hero.
"Controversy is old stuff. The English have been accused of stealing sacred statues from the Acropolis in Athens...the Getty museum has been accused of stealing an ancient greek god, Asians are upset about their Buddahs in Western collections" said professor of art history Mario Samere. "The fact is that there is a great black market for art....and as long as there is a demand, there is little that the injured parties can do other than rely on the courts. My personal feeling is if you can return the work to the original owner without too much fuss, do it".
Christie's press release said, "We continue to believe that the auction process offers a valid opportunity for items to be repatriated through public exposure and sale. We respect the dialogue that has occurred about the heads and believe that people all over the world are better informed about the sensitive historical connections. Christie's remains committed to China and sincere in our respect for government's strong position in this instance". All the items in the collection that did not sell will be returned to Pierre Berge including the bronzes. In total the auction raised $484.6 million. The proceeds are said to go to the fight against aids and a new foundation for scientific research, and to the Pierre Berge - Yves Saint Laurent foundation.
The five volume catalogs of the complete collection can be viewed by visiting Christie's website.