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. • Louis XIV (r. 1610–1643) owned the jeweled rock crystal pot for flowers that came from the Salon d’Apollon at the Château de Versailles.
• King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848) commissioned the large painting by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) David Playing the Harp for King Saul in l822 for his gallery of contemporary art in the Palais Royal.
• The Qianlong emperor is represented by the bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit (Fig. 8) that decorated the Calm Sea Hall, which the emperor commissioned between l756 and l759 from the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione for the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan). The rat and the rabbit were later owned by José Maria Sert (1874/1876–1945), the early twentieth-century muralist and husband of pianist Misia Sert (1872–1950), that supreme taste broker.
• Ernest August, Duke of Cumberland and king of Hanover (r. 1837–1851), Queen Victoria’s extremely wicked uncle, owned the magnificent set of silver-gilt Hanoverian cups (see Fig. 4), table fountain, and nef (Fig. 11).
• Many of the wonderful pieces of silver were owned by several generations of the Rothschilds.
• Other bibelots and silver came from the distinguished Sir Harold Augustus Wernher Collection.
• The fresh and beautifully observed Thomas Gainsborough portrait of the castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (Fig. 5), famous for being employed to sing the mad son of Charles III(r. 1759–1788) of Spain to sleep, was owned by John Braham (c. 1774–1856), a famous tenor.
• The exquisitely delicate likeness by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres entitled Portrait de la Comtesse de La Rue (Fig. 2), the first he painted of a woman, belonged to Martine Marie Pol, comtesse de Béhague (1870–1939), a noted early twentieth-century collector.
• The drawing by Jacques-Louis David (1740–1825) of an unknown man, for many years erroneously thought to be a self-portrait, came from one of the most famous collections of the nineteenth century, that of the brothers Edmond de (1822–1896) and Jules de Goncourt (1830–1870).
• Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur (1905–1956), the maharajah of Indore, famed for his elegance and taste, commissioned major art deco pieces for his palace of Manik Bagh from whence come the two elegant minimalist aluminium lamps by Eckart Muthesius.
• By far the most interesting art deco pieces came from the famous collection formed by Jacques Doucet, a leading Paris couturier at the turn of the last century. Doucet sold his eighteenth-century collection in 1912 and donated his famous library to the Université de Paris in the 1920s and became a patron of modern art and furniture design. Saint Laurent and Bergé were at the famous Doucet sale of 1972 and bought a pair of leopard skin covered stools commissioned by Doucet from Gustave Miklos, among other important pieces (see Fig. 9).
• Suzanne Talbot, another famous couturier, owned the fantastical Dragon chair designed by Eileen Gray (see Figs. 1, 7).
• Hubert de Givenchy formed a superb collection of Limoges and Venetian enamels that Saint Laurent and Bergé bought in its entirety.There are interesting gaps in the collection. There is, for instance, only one piece of eighteenth-century French furniture, which one might expect more of in a collection formed by two Frenchman with impeccable taste. Bergé has briskly dismissed it as boring, preferring the art deco furniture the men bought in the 1960s when it had been virtually forgotten. And there is no American art.
The twentieth-century paintings in this sale are wonderful, one of the most significant collections of modern art still in private hands. Bergé’s personal favorite is a very early Italian landscape by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), painted when he was staying in Italy in 1856. Among the other stars are four works by Fernand Léger; Henri Matisse’s Le couscous, tapis bleu et rose (Fig. 10), reputedly Saint Laurent’s favorite work; and a magnificent cubist work by Pablo Picasso (see Fig. 12) once owned by Mary Callery (1903–1977), the American artist and collector who is thought to have bought it from the artist himself.
There is also a sculpture in wood by Constantin Brancusi (Fig. 3), the first masterpiece Saint Laurent and Bergé bought after their business really took off. The sculpture has added interest in that Brancusi had given it to Léger in exchange for a painting. The ready-made La Belle Haleine by Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and Man Ray (1890–1976) is also exceptional.
Among the shades who may be wandering through the Grand Palais at the end of the month, one is more important than the rest, as it was she who inspired this extraordinary collection. The Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles (1902–1970) and her husband Charles (1891– 1981) were leaders of avant-garde Paris society in the 1920s. They lived in an elaborate belle époque palace filled with boiseried rooms on the Place des États-Unis that had been built for Marie-Laure’s grandfather. In the 1920s she commissioned Jean-Michel Frank (1895–1941) to create a modernist environment in her large over-furnished salon. The boiseries soon disappeared under huge squares of goatskin vellum. Elaborately carved doors became sheets of patinated bronze. The chimneypiece was subsumed under layers of glittering mica. Elaborate French furniture was consigned to the attics, and Frank’s blockish chairs, simply upholstered in white cotton canvas, his huge white sofas, cubist bronze tables, and his straw-marquetry screens took over.
It was what Marie-Laure subsequently did to the apartment that so influenced Saint Laurent and Bergé. She started by hanging her collection of modern pictures by Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall, Léger, and Picasso on gilt-bronze chains on the walls. Then she added layer upon layer of art from earlier eras including two works by Francisco de Goya and a large painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Frank’s bronze tables groaned with elaborate pieces of silver, eighteenth-century etuis and card cases, little gold boxes, and jeweled miniatures. What may have begun as an austere temple to modernism was transformed by Marie-Laure into an elaborate and exotic stage set reflecting her commanding personality. Saint Laurent and Bergé visited her often in the 1960s, and Bergé is quick to acknowledge her influence.
And finally there is the shade of Edmond de Goncourt presiding over the spirit of the sale. He bequeathed the proceeds of his and his brother Jules’s entire estate to fund the prix Goncourt, and he perfectly expressed the way in which Bergé has approached selling this collection after the death of Saint Laurent. “My wish is that my drawings, my prints, my bibelots, my books,…the works of art which have been the delight of my life, shall not be consigned to the cold tomb of a museum and subjected to the coarse gaze of the indifferent passerby,” Goncourt wrote, “and I ask that they are all scattered by the commissaire-priseur’s gavel so that the joy which each acquisition gave me can be experi-enced once again by the inheritors of my tastes.”
Proceeds from the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Collection, sold by Christie’s in association with Pierre Bergé and Associates, will go toward a new foundation dedicated mainly to scientific research and the fight against AIDS. For further information and catalogues, visit the Web site www.christies.com.
MEREDITH ETHERINGTON-SMITH is a London-based writer who specializes in the fine and decorative arts.