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Pleasures great and small at the Saint Laurent art auction

The three-day auction of the vast collection amassed by Saint Laurent, who died last year at age 71 of a brain tumour, and his longtime companion Pierre Berge had been dubbed "the sale of the century" by Christie's auction house. Read more...
None | By DPA, Paris
UPDATED ON FEB 27, 2009 10:57 AM IST

Thomas Leysen couldn't contain his happiness and wanted to tell everyone about the excellent purchase he had just made at the Paris auction of the art collection of the late French fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent and his longtime partner.

"I paid an acceptable price," Leysen said, with a sly smile. "I was even prepared to go a little higher."

Leysen, a businessman in his forties from the Belgian city of Antwerp, had just made the high bid of 100,000 euros ($128,600) for an oil painting by the Flemish Baroque artist Cornelis de Vos.

With the buyer's fee, de Vos's "Portrait of a Lady" cost Leysen 121,000 euros, and he thought it was worth every cent.

"It's a beautiful portrait that was painted in my home town 400 years ago," he said. "And to buy it at this auction gives it a special history."

The three-day auction of the vast collection amassed by Saint Laurent, who died last year at age 71 of a brain tumour, and his longtime companion Pierre Berge had been dubbed "the sale of the century" by Christie's auction house, which organised the sale, and by many respected art experts.

The event fully lived up to that billing on the very first night, Monday, when it broke the world's record for the sale of a private collection by fetching 206 million euros, with a number of works by modern masters breaking the sales record for the particular artist.

An oil still life by Henri Matisse, titled "Cowslips, Red and Blue Carpet", fetched 32 million euros without the fees, the most ever paid at a sale for a work by the French artist.

There were also record prices paid for works by Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, James Ensor, Piet Mondrian and Giorgio de Chirico.

There were fewer high rollers at the sale Tuesday, when Leysen made his winning bid. The large hall specially created for the sale in the Grand Palais, the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world, was only a little more than half-full when the auction began.

But that did not prevent the bidding for some artworks from heating up. Bidding for the Frans Hals painting "Portrait of a Man Holding a Book" began at 500,000 euros and reached 1 million euros in less than a minute.

Bids were made by people present in the hall, by agents connected to collectors via some of the 100 telephone lines or they came over the Internet. The Hals painting eventually sold for 3.1 million euros, more than three times its estimated price.

Bidding for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough began at 200,000 euros and proceeded at a breathtaking pace, until it finally sold for 1.9 million euros, also more than three times the estimated amount it would fetch.

The plum of Tuesday's session was the striking "Portrait of Alfred and Elisabeth Dedreux", by the French artist Theodore Gericault, one of the pioneers of the Romantic movement.

The painting drew the attention of bidders from across the globe, and when it was finally sold for 8 million euros, a record for the artist, bidders and spectators gathered under the enormous glass dome of the Grand Palais broke out in applause.

By that time, the hall was full and many spectators who had come to see the action were forced to stand in the rear of the hall.

That was the case of Jean Mornet of Paris, who had come to the Grand Palais because he loves art and considered the sale a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"This is exceptional," he said. "Because of the quality of the works, because of the collectors and because of all the trappings around the event," he said. "It's a real show."

The "show" provided pleasure to many people, the collectors with deep pockets and those like Leysen, who said coyly that he owned "a few paintings".

"Art is a good investment," he said, "but the main reason I buy it is because I get pleasure from it. The beauty of art gives me great pleasure."

And there was pleasure, as well, for Pierre Berge who put the collection together with Saint Laurent over a period of 50 years.

Speaking after the record-breaking opening night, Berge said: "I am very happy, and I think that Yves would have been very happy too."

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