The man about to sell the world's finest private art collection cheerfully compared the experience yesterday to "attending your own funeral".
"It is an interesting experience, not sad," said Pierre Bergé, the life-long business associate and romantic partner of the couturier Yves Saint Laurent, who died last year.
"Everyone dreams of attending their own funeral. I am going to attend the funeral of my collection."
The art collection assembled by M. Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent is so vast – 733 items, dating from the 1st to the 20th centuries – that it will be displayed to potential buyers for two days from 21 February in a Paris exhibition hall, not an auction showroom. There will be five catalogues, weighing 10kg in total.
The auction, already dubbed the "sale of the century", will include works by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Brancusi, Warhol, Degas, Goya, Frans Hals and Ingres, old master drawings, Renaissance bronzes and Roman antiquities.
The sale of a collection, lovingly assembled over 30 years by M. Berge and M. Saint Laurent, will be the greatest test of the impact on the global recession on the art market. Estimates of the works' possible value range from €200m (£190m) to €500m. M. Bergé, 79, who ran the Saint Laurent fashion empire for decades and lived with the designer until the final years of his life, announced the plan to sell the collection last September, three months after YSL's death.
He told the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday that the collection became "meaningless" to him after Saint Laurent died. "After his death, I decided there was no longer any reason for it to exist. The works will never die. It is only the collection disappearing. The works will find other collectors, who will buy them and take care of them."
M. Bergé, a philanthropic supporter of social and left-wing political causes, plans to give most of the proceeds to charity, especially Aids research. "I always regarded these works as just passing through our hands," he said. "I can live without them. Saint Laurent never could have. He was a psychotic personality who needed familiar objects around him."
Only close friends of Saint Laurent and Bergé were allowed to see what they had assembled at their apartment in the Rue de Babylone. The works will be shown for two days at the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées, before the 23 February sale, which will be handled by Christies. Highlights include a Picasso from his "analytical cubist" period in 1914: Instruments de Musique sur un Guéridon. This could fetch €30m alone.