The unique sell of YSL: Fashion king’s art auction

The sale of one of the world’s best private collections could raise £267m

‘It’s magnificent, like stepping into Yves Saint Laurent’s home,” Roberto Dumont, an architect who had travelled to Paris from Brazil, said yesterday. “It’s an incredible collection to have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Mr Dumont was one of 30,000 people who will visit the Grand Palais, open until midnight yesterday and tonight, to see one of the greatest private art collections of modern times. Accumulated by the fashion designer, who died eight months ago at 71, and his close friend Pierre Bergé, it is being sold in a three-day auction, starting tomorrow, which is expected to raise ¤300m (£267m). It is so extensive that the cavernous Grand Palais was about the only space in the French capital that could accommodate it.

Even the five-volume catalogue of the auction is expected to become a collector’s item, with all 7,000 copies long ago sold out. But Mr Bergé is selling the 731 lots, which the couple collected together over five decades, “without regret and without nostalgia”. He said that since Saint Laurent’s death “there is no longer any reason for it to exist. It is only the collection disappearing. The works will find other collectors.” The collection, which ranges from the 1st century to the 20th, includes Picasso’s Instruments de musique sur un guéridon, expected to sell for ¤25m-¤30m, three Mondrians, Renaissance bronzes, Art Deco furniture and two Chinese figureheads.

Christie’s spent ¤800,000 transforming the Grand Palais, which has never previously hosted an auction, into 11 rooms modelled on Saint Laurent’s three-storey Left Bank apartment in Rue de Babylone, where he lived from 1972 until his death, and Mr Bergé’s apartment in Rue Bonaparte, to which he moved from Rue de Babylone two decades ago. The work of the interior designer Nathalie Crinière was praised by Mr Bergé as “extraordinary, simply magical … It’s a shame the exhibition will only last two and a half days.” He held a private view on Friday night, surrounded by luminaries from the art world and his ever-present companion, Yves Saint Laurent’s bulldog, Moujik IV.

Danielle de Charnacé, 21, a student in Paris, said: “His home was like no other: you would have a Matisse here and a Picasso there, a bronze beside an Art Deco table.” Yves Saint Laurent and Mr Bergé remained business partners, and continued collecting art together. Since becoming the sole owner, Mr Bergé has given a portrait by Francisco Goya to the Louvre and a tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones to the Musée d’Orsay. Proceeds from the sale will create a foundation to fight Aids.

Philippe Garner, the head of 20th-century design at Christie’s, said: “It’s one of those rare auctions that marks its own era and creates a reference long-term. The Saint Laurent collection is a homage to a great moment of creativity, Paris in the early 20th century. The basis of the collection is the birth of modern art.” Saint Laurent said in 2004: “I have always been passionate about painting; it is natural that it should inspire my creations.” His collection of Mondrian shift dresses, designed in 1965, brought art and fashion closely together. Seven years later, the designer and Mr Bergé bought their first Mondrian painting. “Yves and I were convinced that fashion is not an art, but fashion needs art to exist,” said his former partner.

After visiting the Zen temples in Kyoto in the 1960s, Saint Laurent began collecting antique Chinese art objects, including a red and gold lacquered Buddha, and in 1977 he dressed his models in kimonos and mandarin tunics for the launch of his perfume Opium. The former model Nicole Dorier, who directed the couture house’s catwalk presentations, said: “With every collection, there was an invasion of art, which mixed with his work to the point that he got under the artist’s skin, and at the end it was like two artists rolled into one.”

The collection has not been without controversy. China’s government went to court on Friday in an attempt to stop the sale of two Qing dynasty bronze sculptures of a rat and a rabbit head, expected to raise ¤8m each. Beijing says the works were plundered during the Second Opium War in 1860. The court is expected to rule tomorrow, hours before the auction is due to start.