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Image: Christie's auction from the art collection of Yves Saint Laurent in Paris
Regis Duvignau  /  Reuters
Yves Saint Laurent's art collection was acquired over five decades by the late fashion designer and his business partner Pierre Berge. The auction at Christie's in Paris raised much more than the $250 million-$380 million estimate.
updated 2/26/2009 8:19:55 AM ET 2009-02-26T13:19:55

Two rare bronze sculptures that disappeared from China nearly 150 years ago — and were demanded back by Beijing — sold for millions Wednesday as an auction of art works owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent concluded with dazzling sales of nearly $500 million.

The collection of Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, broke several world records in a three-day "sale of the century" that amassed more than $484 million, said the organizer, Christie's.

That was well over the $250 million-$380 million the 733-piece sale had been expected to fetch. Berge told reporters at the closing news conference he was "very, very happy with the result."

"I considered that with the death of Yves Saint Laurent that this collection had reached its end, that it was finished," Berge said. "I am sure that those who bought these works of art are going to welcome them ... with the same passion that Yves and I had during so many years."

Saint Laurent, who is widely credited with modernizing women's wardrobes by popularizing ladies' pants, died in June at age 71 after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.

The disputed bronze fountainheads — heads of a rat and a rabbit that disappeared from China's Summer Imperial Palace in 1860 — were sold for $18 million each to an unidentified telephone bidder or bidders.

Christie's executives declined to name the winning bidders, comparing the auctioneer's duty to protect buyers' privacy to a doctor's duty to protect that of his patient.

Berge added only that "it was not me."

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage wrote to Christie's last week urging it to stop the auction, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. An agency spokesman said Christie's had replied, but declined to discuss specifics, the report said.

Berge insisted the auction should go ahead as planned, and on Monday a French judge refused a request to halt the sale of the artifacts.

From the start, the auction appeared to ignore the controversy — and the world financial crisis.

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That was welcome news for a world art market worried that the global economic crisis is cutting into art investments, and for Christie's, which wants the auction to boost flagging sales.

Berge said the results proved he had been right to ignore the advice of friends telling to hold onto the collection until the crisis abated.

"When we provide buyers with quality works of art, the buyers are there," said Berge, who said he would use a large portion of the proceeds to support AIDS research.

The issue threatened to further strain relations between France and China, frayed over French boycotts in the run-up to last summer's Olympic Games and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's talks with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Chinese anger led to protests and calls for a boycott of French products.

Buyers breeze by protesters
On Wednesday, dozens of people stood outside the auction's venue distributing pamphlets urging the piece's return — but the well-heeled crowd of buyers and spectators breezed by them.

Other pieces sold Wednesday night included a 16th century, gilded Buddha statue, also from China, a collection of daggers from Turkey and India and a pair of Louis XV velvet couches.

In the auction's second round Tuesday night, 19th century paintings and 20th century decorative artworks took in a total of euro101 million, according to Christie's.

The auction house said an armchair embellished with snakes and designed by Eileen Gray set a record for a piece of 20th century furniture, selling at euro21.9 million. Snakes fascinated Saint Laurent. A vase with a serpent by Jean Dunand sold for euro270,000 — nine times higher than the highest pre-auction estimate.

Another threshold was passed for a painting by Ingres, "Portrait de la comtesse de La Rue" (Portrait of the Countess of La Rue), which sold for $2.66 million, a record for the French neoclassical painter, Christie's said.

On the auction's opening day Monday, "Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose" (The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric), a 1911 oil painting by Henri Matisse, fetched euro32.1 million. That was a record auction price for a work by the French artist, Christie's said.

A rare Picasso from the Spanish artist's cubist period that was expected to be the sale's highest fetching lot did not sell in the end.

Other top-selling pieces included a wooden sculpture by Romania's Constantin Brancusi that fetched euro26 million, a 1922 painting by Piet Mondrian that had inspired Saint Laurent's iconic 1965 shift dress, and a snake embellished armchair that set a record for a piece of 20th-century furniture, selling at euro21.9 million.

Saint Laurent's enormous collection, gathered over a half century, was put on public view in New York and London before coming to Paris. The designer died last year at age 71.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Big bucks and protests


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