Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

What Money Can Buy

Perhaps you've heard: The very rich are not like you and me. Oh, they're feeling the impact of the financial crisis and watching their portfolios, if not their pennies. Just not so much that they're willing to bypass a rare opportunity to pay $37.7 million for a Brancusi statue or $46.4 million for a Matisse.

The Sale of the Century, as it was called, was held at Paris' Grand Palais, and it was not a sale at all but an auction of the art collected by the late iconic French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his business and former life partner, Pierre Bergé. It's understandable if you want to dismiss the hundreds of millions spent on someone else's stuff as just another example of clueless extravagance in an age of thrift. But for those with means, there was something else for sale, as valuable and just as likely to drive a person to irrational spending as a masterpiece: taste.

During his 45-year career, Saint Laurent changed everything about the way women exist in public life. He introduced them to a universe of color and dared them to adopt a male silhouette, revolutionizing the way men see women and women see themselves. To own a piece of art or an object collected by Saint Laurent, who helped define an aesthetic for the 20th century, gives new meaning to provenance.

Taste is a disappearing commodity. Today a Russian oligarch or a Park Avenue hedge-fund manager might still have the bucks to buy Saint Laurent's Matisse, but the real investment is in something far scarcer: Saint Laurent's eye, his love of beauty and mannerisms and the exotic dream world within which he lived. As Christie's Giovanna Bertazzoni said of the viewing, which was open to the public, "it gives ordinary people the experience of what it might be like to actually own works of this quality." Perhaps the greatest and last gesture of good taste came from Bergé, who announced that proceeds from the three-day sale — $484 million total — would be donated to charity.