Sold: Multi-Million Dollar Matisse

A painting by Henri Matisse sold Monday for $41.1 million (€32.1 million) — a record auction price for a work by the artist — at an art sale from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, Christie's said.

The sale came at the start of a three-day Paris auction of art from the collection of the late French fashion designer that some are calling "the sale of the century."

A Piet Mondrian painting that had inspired one of Saint Laurent's most memorable dresses sold for nearly €20 million.

Sales reached $263.6 million (€206 million) in the auction's first day — marked by six world record prices for works by individual artists at auction, Christie's auction house said. Fierce bidding in the cavernous, glass-topped Grand Palais museum hall quieted concerns that the global financial crisis might damage the auction's prospects.

"I never doubted the success of this sale," Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's longtime partner, told reporters after the auction. "When you have a collection of this importance, and of this demand, you stop being an amateur art lover — and you become more or less an expert."

Matisse's 1911 oil painting "Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose," (The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric) sold for a total of €35.9 million, including the buyer's premium, Christie's said.

Mondrian's 1922 painting "Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black," with rectangles of saturated colors that had inspired Saint Laurent's 1965 shift dress, sold for $24.6 million (€19.2 million), or about twice the pre-auction estimate. A wood sculpture by Constantin Brancusi entitled "Madame L.R." went for $33.3 million (€26 million). Those prices exclude the buyer's premium.

Christie's officials said they were still working on confirming the identities of the buyers, who mostly came from North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The night's big surprise was that the lot that had been expected to fetch the highest price — a 1914-1915 Picasso "Instruments de musique sur un gueridon," (Musical Instruments on a Table) — didn't even sell.

The painting of a guitar from the Spanish artist's cubist period had been estimated to sell for €25 million to €30 million, but the bidding never got past €21 million. Berge said he and Saint Laurent bought the painting themselves from Picasso.

"I don't understand" why the Picasso didn't sell, Berge confessed, before adding: "I hope that I'm not going to surprise you because I am very happy that I can keep this painting."

The sale came as the auction sidestepped a legal controversy earlier Monday. A French judge refused to halt the sale of disputed Chinese bronze fountainheads due for sale later during the three-day auction.

The bronze heads — of a rabbit and a rat — disappeared from the summer Imperial Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860.

The dispute had cast a shadow over the three-day auction at Paris' Grand Palais museum of 733 works collected over half a century by Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, his longtime companion. The Chinese artifacts are to be sold later in the auction. News reports say they are expected to fetch up €10 million ($13 million) each.

Lawyers for a China-linked association, known as APACE, sought to block the sale of the bronzes. The group acknowledged that Saint Laurent acquired the bronzes legally, but said they should be returned to China or at least displayed in a museum.

Berge displayed political defiance toward China.

"I'm absolutely ready to give myself to China, with my two heads of the sculpture," he said in English. "The only thing I ask is, for the Chinese government to have human rights, to give liberty to the Tibet people and to welcome the Dalai Lama."

The fountainheads date to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. The Christie's catalog says they were made for the Zodiac fountain of the summer Imperial Palace.

Other lots include sculptures from ancient Egypt and Rome, ivory crucifixes and silver German beer steins that once covered every available surface of Saint Laurent's homes. Also on sale is his Art Deco furniture and his bed.

The sale had been expected to gross $250 million-$380 million (€200 million-€300 million). A portion of the proceeds will go to support AIDS research.

Saint Laurent died in June at age 71 of brain cancer.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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