China haunts the sale of the century

Beijing today threatened to chill Franco-Chinese relations unless Paris removed two bronze animal heads from the final day of a record-breaking sale of the art collection of the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

The warning cast a diplomatic shadow over the three-day "sale of the century", which has defied the global financial crisis and established half-a-dozen new art market records.

China claims that the two bronze heads, a rat and a rabbit, valued at €10m each, were pillaged from the Summer Palace in Beijing by French and British troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. A French court rejected an attempt to halt their sale yesterday.

Beijing said yesterday that the auction of the heads - due to take place in Paris tomorrow afternoon - would break international law and "seriously harm... the national feelings of the Chinese people". M. Saint Laurent's former boyfriend, business manager and heir, Pierre Bergé - who is selling their joint art collection - said earlier that he would return the bronze sculptures to China under certain conditions.

"All that I ask," he said "is that China respects human rights, gives Tibet its freedom and agrees to the return of the Dalai Lama." M. Bergé's statement was angrily dismissed by Beijing as "ridiculous".

In a couple of hours last night, the auction of the eclectic Saint Laurent-Bergé collection smashed the previous world record for the dispersal of privately-owned works of art. More than Euros 206m were raised on the first evening, including new records for works by Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, James Ensor and Piet Mondrian.

However, the great surprise of the first day of the sale was the failure of the supposed pièce de résistance of the Saint Laurent collection - Pablo Picasso's "Instruments de musiques sur un guéridon" - to reach its Euros 25m reserve price.

M. Bergé, who is to give the entire proceeds of the sale to AIDS research and other charities, said that he would now keep the painting. "You might think that I was disappointed," he said. "Not a bit of it. I have had an extraordinary auction and, what's more, I have gained a Picasso."

Interest in the sale has been so great that it has been installed by Christies in one of the largest exhibition spaces in Paris, Le Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées. Over 30,000 people queued during the weekend to view the 730 works, ranging from Roman antiquities to paintings by Andy Warhol.

Art dealers, art lovers and collectors from all over the world are attending the sale, including Bianca Jagger and Viscount Linley, son of Princess Margaret. Other bids are being made through 100 telephone lines installed for the occasion.

Despite the global financial crisis, the auction seems likely to exceed its total predicted value of Euros 300m. On the second day yesterday, a painting by the early 19th century French artist Théodore Géricault - "Portrait d'Alfred et Elisabeth Dedreux" - sold for Euros 8m, double its reserve price. A painting by Frans Hals (Dutch, early 17th century)- "Portrait d'homme tenant un livre - sold for Euros 3.1m, three times its expected price.

The greatest surprise so far has been the Euros 32m paid by an unknown private buyer for the Matisse painting "Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose." This smashed the previous record for works by the 20th century French post-impressionist.

A wooden sculpture by the 20th century Romanian artist, Constantin Brancusi, "Madame L.R", sold for Euros 26m. An ordinary bottle of perfume still in its box - a piece of "ready-made" art sanctified by the 20th centrury French surrealist Marcel Duchamp - sold for €7.9m.

Comments