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Saint Laurent art auction -'sale of the century'

February 21, 2009 6:32:21 PM PST
From the Picassos that graced his walls to historic artifacts and hundreds of sculptures, the artwork that inspired late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent went on display Saturday, three days before it is auctioned. Billed as "the sale of the century," the auction of the 733-piece collection will disperse in three days a collection that took Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge half a century to amass.

Highlights include Piet Mondrian's 1922 painting "Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black," whose squares of saturated colors inspired Saint Laurent's legendary 1965 shift dress; a wooden sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brancusi that is expected to sell for euro15 million-euro20 million ($19 million-$25 million); and a pair of bronze animal heads that disappeared from a Beijing palace in 1860 and that China now wants removed from the auction and returned.

The lot that's expected to fetch the highest price is a 1914-1915 Picasso painting of a guitar, "Instruments de musique sur un gueridon," (Musical Instruments on a Table) from the Spanish artist's cubist period. The canvas features angular splotches of red, greens and mustard yellow against a somber gray background and is the last large-format painting from the period still in private hands, auction house Christie's said.

The Picasso is estimated at euro25 million-euro30 million ($32 million-$38 million).

Other lots include sculptures from ancient Egypt and Rome and 17th century Italy, ivory crucifixes and silver German beer steins that covered every available surface of Saint Laurent's homes, as well as his Art Deco furniture and even his bed.

The sale is expected to gross euro200 million-euro300 million ($250 million-$380 million). A large portion of the proceeds is to go to a foundation to support AIDS research.

Saint Laurent died in June at age 71 after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.

"In 30 years in the auction business, I've never seen anything as good as this," said Jonathan Rendell, vice president of Christie's America. Saint Laurent and Berge "collected at the very top of every area that they bought in, the very best Modernist pictures, the very best collection of Art Deco that I've ever seen come to sale, the German silver, the cameos."

"It's really glamorous ... real luxury. The way they lived was extraordinary," Rendell said.

A pre-auction exhibition at the Grand Palais divides the pieces according to theme, although in their homes, Berge and Saint Laurent mixed it up, placing a Picasso cubist painting above a delicate portrait by French neoclassical painter Ingres and covering Art Deco side tables with sculptures, intricate serving bowls and elaborate silver cups made between the 1st and 20th centuries.

Snakes fascinated Saint Laurent and they adorn all sorts or items, slithering up a brass lamp, curled around a vase or embellishing the armrests on a chair by furniture designer Eileen Gray.

Controversy continued to swirl around the two Chinese bronzes - the heads of a rabbit and a rat - which Chinese officials want returned.

A Chinese-backed group on Friday asked a Paris judge to suspend the sale of the relics, which disappeared from a palace on the outskirts of Beijing in 1860 when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

The judge is expected to rule on the request on Monday morning.

"We respect the feelings of the Chinese people. We understand their position. Under international law, there is no reason why this auction shouldn't go ahead," said Rendell.

The exhibition is free and open to the public through Monday afternoon - hours before the start of sale, which will be held in six sessions over three days because of the sheer size of the collection. Hundreds of private collectors and museums from around the world are expected to bid.

On Saturday morning, art lovers braved gray skies to line up outside the glass-and-steel Grand Palais for what for most would be their first - and last - look at the collection.

Saint Laurent and Berge started collecting art in the 1950s, when the designer catapulted to fame at the Paris fashion house Christian Dior. As their fortunes grew with the launch of Yves Saint Laurent's own line, they continued to collect, working largely with private dealers and buying what caught their eye.

Some of the pieces eventually found their way onto the catwalk as the inspiration for Saint Laurent's collections. Rhododendron-shaped leaf appliques on a flowing evening gown from the designer's winter 1980 collection paid homage to the work of Matisse, whose 1937-1938 collage "Le Danseur" is expected to sell for euro4 million-euro6 million ($5 million-$7.5 million) at the sale.

The white doves on a bustier from 1988 recall the marble, bird-shaped chairs by French artist Francois-Xavier Lalanne, which are estimated at euro20,000-euro30,000 ($25,000-$38,000).

One of the most influential and enduring designers of the 20th century, Saint Laurent is credited with helping empower women by reinventing pants as a sleek, elegant staple of the female wardrobe. He is also remembered for his ladies' tuxedo, see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns that remain stylish decades after they hit the catwalks.

Luxury company the Gucci Group acquired the Yves Saint Laurent brand in 1999.

Berge has said he made the decision to sell the collection after Saint Laurent's death because without him, "it has lost the greater part of its significance."

The auction comes at a difficult time for the art world, with the global financial crisis making buyers wary. Christie's, which has announced it is cutting 300 jobs, is betting on the sale to help reverse its flagging fortunes.

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