And the Winner is...YSL and Christie's
The big winner this week was not Slumdog Millionaire, which garnered eight Oscars, nor was it Barack Obama, who gave a rousing address; the big winner was Christie’s auction house, which rolled the dice on the YSL collection, and came up sevens. Of course, Pierre Berge, St. Laurent’s long-time companion and heir, was also a big winner, as was the Berge-St. Laurent Foundation and AIDS research, which received most of the proceeds. Thomas Jayne, Interior Design’s newest blogger, wrote eloquently on Tuesday about previewing the collection, concluding that it required a sense of humor to live amidst such a galaxy of brilliant objects. If so, St. Laurent and Berge surely had the last laugh, to the tune of roughly $484 million dollars.
This is a tidy sum in any circumstance, let alone in the teeth of a global financial crisis and a floundering art market. Broken down, the results are even more impressive: lot after lot sold well over high estimate, an astonishing 96 percent of the 733 lots found buyers, and world records were set at almost every session of the three-day sale. Some of the highlights include: a record for a single-collector sale ($7 million shy of being the highest-grossing auction ever); a record for a sale in Europe (achieved the first day); a record for silver, and a record for Art Deco, at $75 million.
Belle haleine - Eau de violette by Marcel Duchamp; Il Ritornante by Giorgio De Chirico
The top lot at the sale was a 1911 canvas by Matisse, which sold for $46.4 million, well over the high estimate of $23 million, and a record for the artist. “Madame LR,”an early work by Brancusi and an early acquisition by Berge and St. Laurent, brought $36.8 million, a record for the artist. Three paintings by Mondrian, representing three stages of his work, sold above high estimate, including “Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir,”which sold for $27.9 million, another record. Individual records were also achieved for Klee, Ensor, de Chirico, Ingres, Gericault, and Duchamp, whose ready-made brought $11.2 million, or five times the estimate.
As well as the artworks fared, the most staggering result of the sale was the whopping $28.3 million shelled out, or to be shelled out, for Eileen Gray’s unique 1919 “Dragons” armchair. A pre-eminent example of Gray’s exotic, symbolist style no doubt, but a price tag that raised more than a few eyebrows. I’m not sure where the line between art and design is anymore, but it is no longer a matter of dollars and cents. The chair was purchased by Cheska Vallois, who sourced it originally from the estate of the couturier Suzanne Talbot, and I’m willing to assume she knows what she is doing. Two other Eileen Gray items sold in the stratosphere: the “Enfilade”cabinet, at $5.1 million, and the “Satellite” fixture, at $3.8 million. Records were easily achieved for works by Eckart Muthesius, Gustav Miklios, and even the much-venerated Jean Dunand. As usual, works by Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne were wildly underestimated. A set of 14 mirrors by Claude, commissioned by St. Laurent and Berge, and produced over an 11-year period, fetched $2.4 million, while the idiosyncratic YSL bar, commissioned in 1965, brought $3.5 million. At the other end of the spectrum, a piece of quartz could be had for a mere $3,235.
Paire de banquettes by Gustave Miklos; Bar ‘YSL’ by Francois-Xavier Lalanne
Two off-notes marred an event deemed by acclamation the auction event of the century: the lot with the top estimate—an early Picasso—failed to sell, and the two Chinese bronzes from the Zodiac Temple did sell, for a combined $40 million, despite an official protest and legal contest by China. Pierre Berge was perplexed that the Picasso passed, but was consoled by raising a half-billion dollars for charity and having a Picasso to boot.
A French high court ruled on behalf of Christie’s in the matter of the two bronzes, purloined from the Zodiac Temple during the Second Opium War in 1860. Chinese officials were not pleased with this decision, and suggested that Christie’s officials might have trouble passing building inspections in their planned Beijing office.
Fauteuil aux Dragons by Eileen Gray
Despite this, the art and design world felt buoyant, if not giddy, for a few days. Experts hope the sale will give a depressed art market a much-needed boost. The signs are indeed encouraging: all it takes is world-class taste, bottomless pockets, an eponymous brand for cachet, and fifty years of commitment.
Top image: Yves St. Laurent from Rex Features. All auction images courtesy of Christie’s.