Source: Bloomberg, by Scott Reyburn
The biggest auction ever held in Europe ended last night with Yves Saint Laurent’s two Qing bronzes as the star lots, after objections from the Chinese government and a legal challenge failed to halt their sale.
Christie’s International’s six-session sale in the Art Nouveau exhibition hall of Paris’s Grand Palais raised a combined 374.4 million euros with fees ($477 million), beating estimates of 200 million euros to 300 million euros. The London- based auction house said nearly 96 percent of the 689 lots sold. Estimates don’t include Christie’s fees.
“After this, people will believe that it’s a good thing to buy art,” Pierre-Yves Machault, a Paris-based dealer, said in an interview. “It will help them understand that if you buy good things, they will keep their value -- even if you’re not Saint Laurent. It makes me more optimistic.”
The biggest-grossing auction of a private collection was boosted by the quality of items on offer and the number of people who shared the taste of the late fashion designer and his former partner Pierre Berge, said collectors. The proportion of lots selling at some other auctions -- and prices of works -- have dropped in the economic slump.
The mid-18th-century Qing dynasty heads of a rat and a rabbit sold for a total of 31.4 million euros. They both made 15.7 million euros, against low estimates of about 8 million euros each, said Christie’s. They were bought by Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international co-head of Impressionist and modern art, on behalf of an unidentified telephone bidder.
The sculptures, thought to have been designed by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, were among 12 zodiac animals from a water-clock fountain in one of the imperial summer palaces. The building was set ablaze and its treasures plundered and scattered by British and French troops in October 1860 at the end of the second Opium War. On Feb. 23, a Paris court ruled Christie’s could sell the bronzes.
“We consider the auction to be contrary to the basic spirit of relevant international conventions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters in Beijing on Feb. 24. “It will seriously damage the cultural rights and national feelings of the Chinese people.” Christie’s said in an e-mail that it supported the principle of repatriation and respected Chinese culture.
The animal heads were included in a session of 64 lots of antiquities and Asian art, archaeology and furniture. The session made 42.9 million euros, against an estimate of 19.1 million euros to 24.8 million euros.
“This was a once-in-a-century sale,” Hugh Edmeades, deputy chairman of Christies South Kensington, said in an interview. He has been involved in single-owner collections at the London-based auction house since the 1980s and said, “I can’t remember anything like it. I’ve never seen people queuing for hours to view an auction before. Patriotism was definitely a factor.”
About 35,000 people went to the presale view, said Christie’s. On Saturday, the line in front of the Grand Palais stretched nearly a kilometer. Among the VIP visitors was Russian billionaire art collector Roman Abramovich, accompanied by dealer Larry Gagosian. Christie’s owner, French billionaire Francois Pinault, was also at the sale.
An early 18th-century Gobelins tapestry of a Brazilian native potentate being carried through a jungle in a hammock fetched 553,000 euros yesterday. The 12-foot-high hanging had been expected to fetch 100,000 euros to 150,000 euros.
“That was a crazy price,” said Machault, who specializes in tapestries. “The top of the tapestry was restored and it was worth half that.”
When the auction was first announced in July 2008, before the economic crisis began to depress selling rates and prices, Christie’s valued the collection at up to 500 million euros. With estimates reduced, auction house executives and dealers were looking to the sale to boost art-market confidence.
The record 21.9 million euros paid by the Paris dealer Cheska Vallois for Eileen Gray’s “dragons” armchair stunned the audience on Feb. 24 during the 59.2-million-euro sale of 20th-century decorative arts. In the same auction, a telephone bidder paid a 10 times-estimate 46,600 euros for a lump of black quartz that had been owned by Saint Laurent.
Similar mineral samples can be bought in specialist stores for less than 500 euros, said dealers. Saint Laurent’s silver fetched 19.9 million euros against an upper estimate of 7.1 million euros on Feb. 24. All 111 lots sold. A 17th-century German silver-gilt ceremonial cup sold to the Paris-based dealers Galerie J. Kugel for 853,000 euros, more than eight times the low estimate.
“These results reflect what happens when auction houses sell well-provenanced, high-quality works from a legendary collector,” said Edmeades. “Buyers have to take the opportunities that are presented to them, regardless of what’s happening in the wider economy.”
The 61-lot session of modern art on Feb. 23 made 206.2 million euros. New artist records were set for Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp and James Ensor. Seventy percent of the buyers at that session were European, 30 percent from the U.S., and one individual from Asia; Russian collectors bought at least one of the most-expensive lots, Christie’s said.
Matisse’s 1911 still life of cowslips in a vase, “Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose,” led the first sale with a price of 35.9 million euros paid in the room by the New York-based dealer Franck Giraud, against a low estimate of 12 million euros.
“My clients have gone back in time,” said New York-based dealer Christoph Van de Weghe. “If they have $1 million to spend, they feel confident about buying older names. The prices of young artists have gone up too quickly. And these buyers don’t want to leave their money in the bank or in the stock market.”
Saint Laurent and Berge co-founded the Yves Saint Laurent couture house in 1961. It closed in 2002, the year in which the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation was established. Berge became the sole owner of the collection in 2008, following the death of Saint Laurent in June, aged 71. Earlier in the year the two of them had formed a civil union.
The majority of the proceeds from the sale -- held in collaboration with Berge’s own Paris-based auction house, Pierre Berge & Associates -- will benefit the foundation and medical research against AIDS, said Christie’s.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)