Sale of the century: The YSL auction

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Forget the credit crunch when the world's most expensive chair sells for €21.9m. The Yves Saint Laurent auction in Paris this week broke record after record for art sales and raised €400m for charity. John Lichfield reports

Crisis? What crisis? The record-trampling sale of the century at the Grand Palais in Paris this week has proved one thing at least. The rich, just like the poor, are always with us, even if they prefer not to reveal their names. The three-day auction of 730 antiquities, paintings, sculptures, objets d'art and pieces of furniture which belonged to the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, smashed a dozen art-market records in its first two days.

The world's most expensive armchair is now a sinister-looking "dragon chair", created by the Irish designer Eileen Gray. At €21.9m (£19.6m), the highest figure ever paid for a piece of 20th-century furniture, it is unlikely that anyone will ever dare sit on it again. The overall total of €59m raised for Saint Laurent's furniture and furnishings on Tuesday night was the highest figure achieved in a furniture sale.

The auction, which has attracted collectors, celebrities, dealers and wheeler-dealers from all over the world, has also set new records for works of art by Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, James Ensor, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio de Chirico, Théodore Gèricault, Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David. On the first evening alone, the sale raised €206m, smashing the previous record for the auction of a private collection. By last night, the end of the third day of bidding, the collection – sold by Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's heir and former boyfriend and business manager – was expected to raise up to €400m for Aids research and other charities.

Why such high bids, despite the worst economic climate for 70 years? Paris art market sources suggested that the crisis may actually have pushed up the bids. "The super-wealthy are not sure where else they can safely put their money," one Parisian dealer said. "Beyond that, collections like this come on to the market very seldom. The Yves Saint Laurent name has also inflated the bidding for minor items."

Another international dealer said buyers from "nouveau riche" countries such as Russia or India had not attended. He said that the money was coming from "long-standing collectors" in Europe and the US "who know that you buy [art] in the teeth of a crisis".

There is mystery about the identity of the final buyers. Those at the auction have included Bianca Jagger, Lord Linley and Roman Abramovich, but they are not thought to have purchased much. Most of the running has been made by two young, French, New York-based dealers, Philippe Ségalot and Franck Giraud, working on behalf of unnamed clients. M. Giraud made two of the most astounding final bids on the first night: almost €36m for the Matisse painting of 1911 The Cuckoos, a Blue and Pink Rug and €8.9m for a couple of ordinary perfume bottles, declared to be "ready-made" art, and signed by the surrealist, Marcel Duchamp.

The sale was held in one of the world's largest and most prestigious exhibition halls, the Grand Palais, off the Champs-Elysées. A staggering 33,000 people queued to see the collection last weekend. Access to the auction room has been strictly controlled, with potential buyers having to prove they had access to at least €500,000 in ready cash.

Two bronze sculptures, which disappeared from the summer Imperial Palace when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860, were snapped up despite repeated attempts by the Chinese government to ban their sale. Phone bidders paid €14m each for the rat and rabbit heads. But some lots attracted little attention. Surprisingly, a Picasso from one of the painter's most sought-after periods failed to achieve its €25m reserve price on Monday. But the Eileen Gray armchair was fought over as fiercely as the last seat on a Metro train at rush-hour. It fell finally, for 10 times its reserve price, to Cheska Vallois, a Parisian dealer, bidding for an unknown client.

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