The lure of provenance

February 2009 | There may never be another event to match this month’s seven hundred lot sale of the collection of Pierre Bergé and the late Yves Saint Laurent. What could well be one of the greatest private collections of the twentieth century, the result of fifty years of passionate and informed acquisition, is estimated to bring between 200 and 300 million euros during the three days of February 23 to 25 at the Grand Palais in Paris. But astonishing as these figures are, there are matters more riveting than money here, and among them is the impressive provenance of these objects.

The fragile designer Saint Laurent and his far tougher partner, the industrialist Bergé, cut a swath through Paris society beginning in the early 1960s when Saint Laurent, having been dismissed as the designer at Dior, established Yves Saint Laurent haute couture with the financial help of Bergé. In doing so, the two men wrote a new chapter in fashion history. The 1960s and 1970s were hugely successful times for them, and even though their personal partnership changed, they continued to build their collection together. What will be on view in the Grand Palais is an extraordinary assemblage that combines apparent opposites—a portrait by Théodore Géricault (see Fig. 12) and a geometric work by Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), a chased thirteenth-century crucifix and a 1920s banquette—putting each in a new light. This is a richly complex collection that, when seen in its eclectic entirety, has profound lessons for future collectors.

Viewing the collection in situ in Saint Laurent’s apartment in the rue de Babylone and in Bergé’s present apartment in the rue Bonaparte, one begins to see that the tastes of the two collectors actually differed and that the differences account for the richness of this extraordinary amalgam. Saint Laurent was the one who was most responsive to the twentieth-century works—to the visual play of form and mass, to the power of the primitive (especially in African art), and to the decorative surfaces of so many of the paintings and pieces of furniture.

Judging by his apartment, which one can best describe as the abode of an old-fashioned connoisseur, Bergé was the one who brought a sense of the importance of the past and a refined literary sensibility to the collection. His apartment is Proustian, filled with historical northern European, British, and French portraits, and with superb continental objets de vertu displayed en masse on the tables.

When the doors of the Grand Palais open for the viewing, the crowds will be joined by the shades of distinguished collectors who once owned the treasures brought together by the two men. The list of the previous owners is extraordinary.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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