Saint Laurent Art Sets Records

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The Saint Laurent–Bergé auction at the Grand Palais in Paris

Pulling in record prices for seven artists, the much-anticipated auction of Yves Saint Laurent's art collection got off to a flying start on Day One's sale of Impressionist and modern art. The $266 million tallied on Monday — a record auction for a private collection — is good news for the AIDS researchers who will get part of the proceeds; for Pierre Bergé, the designer's former companion and lifelong business partner who put their joint collection on the block; and for Christie's and the entire art market, which hopes the stunning performance will be the shot in the arm needed to give the depressed market a boost in the wake of the financial crisis.

The largest amount realized thus far was the €35,905,000 ($45,264,579) for French Impressionist Henri Matisse's painting Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose (Cuckoos on a blue and pink carpet), which went for twice Christie's estimate. Similarly, a Constantin Brancusi sculpture valued at up to €20 million ($25,877,114) sold for €29,185,000 ($36,792,835). In all, more than 700 items are up for sale at the three-day auction, which Christie's believes could bring in as much as €300 million ($384 million). (See pictures from the auction.)

But don't think for a minute that all this lavish spending at the Grand Palais in Paris might be an indication of a positive turn of events for the world's economy. Indeed, it may be just the opposite. David Nahmad, one of the world's top private art dealers who doubles as a major world currency trader, says the eagerness to invest cash in art is a very visible confirmation of the skepticism that investors have about the crippled financial system. "People today don't know where to put their money. The banks are fragile, the hedge funds don't exist anymore, stocks are weak," says Nahmad. "It's better to stick to art, something you can touch with your hand."

The dwindling supply on the market of top Impressionist 20th century art means museum-quality work should offer stable — and potentially stratospheric — growth over the coming years. In 1979, two years before the record-setting 1911 Mattise would wind up in Saint Laurent's hands, Nahmad paid about $300,000 for the piece. Although he is sanguine about the market, the dealer, based in Monte Carlo, Monaco, was staggered by Monday's sale, which also netted records for Piet Mondrian (two of the Dutchman's paintings sold for eight-digit figures), Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee and James Ensor. "It was the most amazing auction I've ever seen," Nahmad said on the main floor just after the last lot sold. "There are still a lot of rich people in the world, and I think they are anticipating a future inflation. Governments are going to be printing more and more money." (See pictures of money being printed in Germany.)

The auction market, of course, has its own unique calculation, driven as it's said by the incalculable "price of two people's desires." Surprisingly, the only disappointment on Monday was that a late Cubist work by PicassoMusical Instruments on a Table, which had the highest presale estimate, of some $30 million — went unsold. The Saint Laurent–Bergé auction continues on Tuesday and Wednesday with the sale of rare furniture and antiquities, including two Chinese animal heads that Beijing says were pilfered and must be returned to China. Earlier on Monday, a Paris court rejected China's bid to stop the sale.

Giovanna Bertazzoni, head of Impressionist and modern art for Christie's London, is hoping that Monday's record results will give a boost to future sales, after several auctions have taken place with extremely limited supply. "This was a special case," she said of the Paris auction. "But we hope that this will help us unearth more masterpieces, to convince others that this is a good time to sell. We see tonight that people very much still want to invest in art." Nevertheless, the same logic — and the shaky world financial system — may yet convince collectors to hold on to what they've got.

See pictures of the items available in the auction.

See pictures from throughout Yves Saint Laurent's life.