Paris’ Sale of the Century
Inside the Christie’s Auction of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s Collection
Architectural Digest, Cover Story
Jeanne Moreau once told me that during her tenure as a French film star, now one of the longest in European screen history, only two dinner guests in Paris were considered absolute prime catches: Jean Cocteau and, following the poet’s death in 1963, Yves Saint Laurent. Cocteau died just as Saint Laurent, formerly Dior’s head designer, had become master of his own fashion house, created with his business manager and life partner, Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent’s manic bursts of creativity and descents into depression and drugs helped fuel the mystique that surrounded him until his death in 2008 — a mystique that Bergé, a shrewd sales-and-marketing man, recently helped exploit to Ringling scale. It was billed officially as the “Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé” and unofficially as “the auction of the century.” Christie’s and Pierre Bergé & Associés coproduced, and the big top was the cavernous glass-roofed Grand Palais exhibition space, constructed in 1900.
“He’s rather Proustian, but I haven’t decided which character yet,” said Meredith Etherington-Smith, a seasoned London art and fashion writer-editor, “and I think he’s having the time of his life.” It was late in the evening, and we were watching Pierre Bergé once again assume his role before banks of photographers, television news teams and print media — just as in the YSL glory days of three decades before. The first of the sale days had ended, and the results were astonishing: seven world records broken, including those for Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian and de Chirico. Bergé knew this was a very strategic moment: Five sessions remained, and the press from the first one would be extremely useful in prolonging the frenzy.
Bergé chose his words carefully. “I wish to thank the people of Paris who queued up outside for six hours or more to be here,” he said in French from the dais, in a moment oddly reminiscent of Eve Harrington’s acceptance speech in All About Eve. A tacit acknowledgment perhaps that it was never the superrich who propped up his YSL brand; it was the ardent middle class who gobbled up the licensed accessories — the department store ties, duty-free YSL cigarettes, and sunglasses. Along with Pierre Cardin, Bergé was a licensing pioneer, and Opium, the Saint Laurent perfume launched in the ’70s, was the cash cow that enabled the couple to become major-league art collectors.
Alighting from a black Audi A8 luxury sedan a few minutes before key sessions was Bergé, rakish in a dark suit and shirt, followed by Saint Laurent’s erstwhile muse Betty Catroux — still in dark glasses — and Moujik, the late designer’s French bulldog. The trio disappeared through a side door to observe a stage set suitable in proportion for Verdi’s Aida. In all there were around 1,500 seats to fill; apart from the world press, these were divided among bidders and the Parisians who’d observe the spectacle. Celebrities were few, as phone buyers were in abundance, though as one walked closer to the stage, the perfume became more expensive and the outfits more rarefied — inside the Palais it was chilly enough to wear fur.
Yet for all the broken records and hyperbole, the room was “cold.” It wasn’t just the winter air or the absence of floral arrangements. Or that black (which Saint Laurent helped make de rigueur) was the predominant color on stage and on the armies of demoiselles hired as security/usherettes for the event. (Relief came from the long red scarf draped over one shoulder of their smartly tailored jacket-and-skirt uniform.) Nor the mournful, tedious, taped Callas aria that began and ended each session (she was once in the YSL-Bergé circle). It’s that the focus was strictly on “moving the merchandise.” The rather tragic aura that surrounded the Saint Laurent-Bergé axis may have contributed to the darkness.
François de Ricqlès, the vice president of Christie’s France, was by far the smoothest of the auctioneers. In unctuous tones he’d introduce the most inconsequential lots by cooing, “Il y a énormément d’intérêt” (“There is enormous interest in”), and bidders seemed to fall for the ploy. He handled stratospheric bids blithely, no editorializing over the winning $28.3 million bid for an Eileen Gray chair, other than mentioning that it was a world record. He moved briskly through the smattering of applause and the noisy exodus from the prime seats after the hammer fell on a session’s star lot. (This was so pronounced, it was as if Saint Laurent himself had left the room and the party had peaked — never mind that other masterpieces followed.)
Despite some controversy, the event was remarkably glitch-free, especially considering that the previous high for a Christie’s Paris sale was $76.3 million. Christie’s and Bergé knew all along that the only real coup de théâtre rested in a number, especially the final one, which was tantalizingly close to half a billion dollars, making it the largest private sale in history. MG