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China’s demand for relics haunts YSL art auction

Published on February 25, 2009

PARIS – China's repeated demands for the return of relics from the stunning Yves Saint Laurent art collection threatens to dampen the finale of the three-day "sale of the century", ending Wednesday.

The two bronzes, part of a series looted 150 years ago, go on the block from 1700 GMT along with Roman marbles and Egyptian antiques up to 2,000 years old amassed over half a century by the fashion king and his companion Pierre Berge.

The evening session in the glass-domed Grand Palais exhibition hall will be the last chapter in a crisis-defiant spending spree by dealers and the super-rich who snapped up treasures from the YSL/Berge collection for millions, smashing records for two days running.

On opening night, frenzied bids for items in the 700-piece collection that graced the pair’s Paris homes set a world record for a private art sale, ringing up EUR 206 million (CHF 307 million).

Seven world records for contemporary artists – including Matisse, Mondrian, Klee and Brancusi – were smashed on day one.

Day two saw a new frenzy of bids for Art Deco pieces, sending prices soaring through the ceiling and clinching the sale of the 20th century’s most expensive piece of furniture ever – a leather armchair by Irish designer Eileen Gray.

Total sales Tuesday hit EUR 101 million.

Berge, who opted to sell the collection amassed in a lifetime following Saint Laurent’s death last June, is offering the proceeds to fight AIDS and to a foundation honouring the fashion designer’s work.

"Yves would have been very happy", he told journalists.

Some 1,200 well-heeled buyers have gathered daily under the spectacular glass and cast iron vaults of the Grand Palais on the banks of the Seine, transformed for the historic event into a cavernous high-tech auction house.

With dealers hoping the sale causes a sea-change in the fortunes of the flagging art market, auctioneers Christie’s is providing 100 telephone operators for foreign bids in the mammoth sale.

But asked whether the record-breaker would restore confidence to the art market, dealer Alain Tarica, who once supplied Saint Laurent and Berge, was less than certain.

"Everything here is exceptional", he said. "That is not the case unfortunately on the market."

Defying the crisis, dealers and the very rich paid EUR 35.9 million for a Matisse and EUR 21.9 million for Gray’s armchair, making it the second most expensive item of furniture ever.

"Owning a YSL piece is like owning a Cezanne," said a French entrepreneur who walked off with a pair of Art Deco lampshades for EUR 80,000.

But the shine could dim when the fate of China’s prized cultural relics takes the spotlight.

Snatched from the imperial Summer Palace by British and French troops, the 18th-century Qing dynasty rat’s head and rabbit’s head are worth millions of dollars each.

On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu demanded their return while dubbing an offer from Berge to trade them for human rights as "just ridiculous".

"In modern history, Western imperial powers have looted a lot of Chinese cultural relics," Ma said. "These cultural relics should be returned."

"To infringe upon Chinese people’s cultural rights on the pretext of human rights is just ridiculous," he added.

AFP / Expatica