February 27, 2009

The "Sale of the Century" - The Follow-Up!

Well, the "Sale of the Century" has come and gone and Christie's, Pierre Bergé, and the art and decorative arts markets can breath a collective sigh of relief! The big gamble paid off and the week-long auction extravaganza of the Estate of Yves Saint Laurent was a resounding success. With a final take of €374 Million ($483 Million) including buyer's premium, the results certainly exceeded the high estimate of $375 Million, making this sale not just remarkable in the current economic climate, but the highest grossing sale of its kind in history.

Just to give you a frame of reference, I've selected a cross section of lots and presented them in approximate chronological order, according to period. All prices are in Euro with an exchange rate of $1.28 = €1, and all "Sold For" prices include the hammer price plus the premium.

Lot # 670
Buddha made of wood lacquered in gold and red
Ming Dynasty (16th Century)
45" high
Estimate €30,000-40,000
Sold For €313,000

Lot # 678
Bronze Head of a Rabbit
Qing Dynasty (18th Century)
17 3/4" high
Estimate €8-10 Million
Sold For €15.7 Million
This item was the subject of some controversy as the Chinese
government tried unsuccessfully to have it blocked from the sale.

Lot # 141
Unicorn made of silver and vermeil (gilding)
Circa 1685
12" high
Estimate €50,000-80,000
Sold For €325,000

Lot # 425
Oval Onyx Cameo
Set in gold with colored stones
16th Century
4 3/4"
Estimate €8,000-12,000
Sold For €91,000

Lot # 187
Ostrich Egg in Vermeil Setting
Circa 1717
15" high
Estimate €35,000-50,000
Sold For €169,000

Lot # 573
Tankard in sculpted ivory
Late 16th Century
Southern Germany
7 1/2"
Estimate €30,000-50,000
Sold For €145,000

Lot # 73
Frans HALS (Dutch)
"Portrait of a Man Holding a Book"
17th Century
Oil on Canvas
Estimate €800,000-1,200,000
Sold For €3.5 Million

Lot # 710
Suite of 18 Rococo Chairs
Mid 18th Century
Estimate €300,000-500,000
Sold For €961,000

Lot # 501
Processional Cross in gilded copper and enamel
set with precious stones and emeralds
17th Century
24" high
Estimate €15,000-20,000
Sold For €79,000

Lot # 55
Henri MATISSE (French)
"Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose"
Oil on canvas
Estimate €12-18 Million
Sold For €35.9 Million

Lot # 276
Eileen GRAY (Irish)
Dragon Armchair
Circa 1917-1919
Estimate €2-3 Million
Sold For €21.9 Million

Lot # 35
Constantin BRANCUSI (Romanian)
"Portrait of Madame LR", 1914-1917
Wood sculpture
Estimate €15-20 Million
Sold For €29 Million

Lot # 37
Marcel DUCHAMP (French)
"Belle Haleine - Eau de Violette"
Estimate €1 - 1.5 Million
Sold For €8.9 Million

Lot # 292
Jean DUNAND (French)
Pair of Lacquered "Monumental" Vases
Estimate €1 - 1.5 Million
Sold For €3 Million

Lot # 341
Jean-Michel FRANK (French)
Rock crystal table lamp
10 1/2" high
Estimate €80,000-120,000
Sold For €193,0000

Of course, this is a highly arbitrary look and I did not include any of the (very few) lots that failed to sell, but you get the picture. If you would like to get the complete results, please visit Christie's website, click on "Auction Results" and then "Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé" Sale # 1209. You will be directed to a 23 page document with photos and details of every one of the lots offered.

Finally, you may be wondering what will happen to all this money? The proceeds are to be divided between the "Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent Foundation" created in 2002 to preserve the couturier's legacy and a planned foundation to fund AIDS related medical research.

So far, the moniker "Sale of the Century" is not an exaggeration - but the century is only 9 years old! It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the next record to be set!

February 20, 2009

The "Sale of the Century" - Yves Saint Laurent at Christie's, Paris

When Yves Saint Laurent died last year at the age of 71, France, and indeed the world, mourned the loss of a fashion guru. This month, less than a year after his passing, Christie's will honor his memory with an auction extravaganza, billed the "Sale of the Century", at the Grand Palais in Paris. The event will be stupendous with Christie's pulling out all the stops to promote the auction in a style that would make the master proud.

But let's back up a little bit. Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was born the oldest child to wealthy parents in Oran, Algeria. As a boy he showed a talent for the theater and later became entranced with costume and fashion design. He submitted his fashion sketches to various contents and did quite well, capturing the attention of Michel de Brunhoff, editor of Paris Vogue and eventually earning him a position at the pre-eminent haute couturier Christian Dior.

When Dior dropped dead of a massive heart attack in 1957 he had already ensured the continuation of the House by naming the 21 year old Yves Saint Laurent as head designer. His first collection was a smash hit starring the "trapeze dress", but subsequent presentations did not garner the same adoration from the press. He was conscripted into the Algerian War of Independence in 1960 but served only 20 days before suffering a mental breakdown for which he was treated with electroshock therapy and drugs. After his release from the hospital, Yves Saint Laurent and his lover, industrialist Pierre Bergé, started their own couture house in 1962 and the rest is fashion history.

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé
55, rue de Babylone

The new company, "YSL", was fashion-forward to say the least. Creations such as the "Safari Look", tight pants with thigh high boots and, of course, the tuxedo inspired "Le Smoking" suit, remain icons in the annals of 20th Century fashion. Saint Laurent was the first designer to present a pret-a-porter line and the first to use black models in runway shows.

Though the romantic relationship between Saint Laurent and Bergé cooled and they split in 1976, the two remained close friends and business partners for the rest of Saint Laurent's life. They maintained separate apartments on the rue Bonaparte and the rue Babylone in Paris, and had homes in Marrakech, Tangier, Deauville and Saint Rémy. They were united by many bonds, but perhaps the strongest was their mutual love of collecting, a passion they pursued in perfect harmony for 50 years.

It is this massive collection that will be sold in a week long spectacle hosted by Christie's under the gigantic glass nave of the Grand Palais. 733 lots comprising treasures in the areas of antiquities, old master paintings and drawings, 19th Century paintings and drawings, modern art, silver, art deco furniture, rococo furniture, bronze sculpture, 16th Century enamels and Asian art. The names are a veritable who's who in art and design - Hals, Ingres, Burne-Jones, Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Leger and Mondrian together with Qing Dynasty, Louis XV, Sèvres, Limoges, Jean Dunand, Jean Michel Frank, and Eileen Gray, to mention just a few.

Given the sheer volume of material and the pre-sale estimate of $233-375 million, one wonders how a sale of this magnitude will fare under the current global economic slowdown. Nevertheless, Christie's is sparing no expense in promoting this event with previews of select pieces in showrooms around the world, a museum worthy installation in the enormous and beautiful Grand Palais, and a catalog weighing in at 44 lbs and the size of a microwave ($400 and sold out in a matter of hours). The previews are open to the public starting today and there is no question that there will be long lines of curious spectators. The auction marathon begins on the 23rd and Christies is promising heater lamps and red blankets to keep potential bidders warm in the chill of the giant atrium. It will be interesting to see how hot the bidding gets! Stay tuned!

February 14, 2009

What's On at The NYPL for the Performing Arts

Feel like going to the theater or the ballet, but don't have a ticket? I've got the next best thing, and it's free!

Head on over to Lincoln Center, follow the blinking lights through the maze of construction, and enter the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This is no ordinary library. Sure, there are plenty of books, and you have to be quiet, and they have a huge selection of audio and video material available to borrow and enjoy, but what is really special about this library are the exhibitions currently on view in the public galleries.

On the main level is "Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance". Produced in conjunction with the League of Professional Theatre Women, this exhibition documents the work of over 140 female designers of costumes, lighting and stage sets for the ballet, opera and musical and dramatic theater with drawings and sketches, mock-ups and models, still photographs and film clips and at least a hundred actual costumes.

Tracing the history of live performance from the installation of electrical lights, the avant garde approach to performance by innovators such as choreographer Loïe Fuller, and society's acceptance of women working both on the stage and behind the scenes, this exhibition covers pioneers from the 19th Century through current Broadway productions. While I was not surprised that women were prominent creators of costumes (and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the original costumes on display), nor that set design has been male dominated until very recently, I found it fascinating that lighting design has been the provenance of women since its inception.

This is almost a sentimental journey though performances from "Avenue Q" to "Turandot" with a sprinkling of Shakespeare for good measure. In fact, it's hard to tear oneself away but I knew there was something else to see on the lower level...

Downstairs in the Vincent Astor Gallery is a brand new exhibition that pays homage to the Dance Theatre of Harlem's 40th Anniversary. Founders Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook could scarcely have imagined how the world would change when they opened the Dance Theatre School in a remodeled garage in the heart of Harlem in 1969. Conventional wisdom at that time held that blacks could not possibly do classical ballet as their bodies and their culture were not suited to the art form. Mr. Mitchell, the first black principal with the New York City Ballet, knew this was not so, and together with Mr. Shook a white ballet teacher, encouraged by the estimable Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, founded what was to become the first truly color blind ballet corp.

The rest of the story is legend with the Dance Theatre of Harlem now recognized world-wide as a major classical ballet company with first rate dancers and productions. It did not happen without bumps in the road and this exhibition traces the development of the troupe with photos, posters, programs, memorabilia, videos, and costumes documenting their performances here and abroad. With interesting anecdotes like Mr. Mitchell's insistence on bucking 300 years of tradition and dyeing the dancers' tights and toe shoes to match the color of their skin, and his creation of the "V for Victory" formation pose now standard in publicity shots for the company, this is a small but all encompassing look at a New York institution with global significance.

2009 Dance Theatre of Harlem Performance Ensemble

One special item on display is an enormous puzzle created by my neighbor, Frank Bara, in commemoration of the first 20 years of Dance Theatre of Harlem's founding. It is an intricate and fascinating documentation of the company and its history all cleverly cut out of wood and painted in Mr Bara's kitchen.

Both "Curtain Call" and "Dance Theatre of Harlem" are on view at the NYPL until May, 2009.

February 07, 2009

Think this is just a taxi? Think again!

New York cab drivers are a species unto themselves. Stepping into a taxi on the streets of Manhattan is often an act of faith, but sometimes one is treated to a little interlude that can reveal outlooks, experiences and passions that open our eyes to the world around us. Tales of new immigrants, struggling musicians, aspiring comedians and life stories as varied as the thousands of men who cruise the streets in their yellow sedans.

Take last weekend for example. It was a bitterly cold day, one of so many we've had this winter. The taxi pulled up and 4 of us piled in with one riding in the front seat with the driver. The cabbie, a middle aged man with a mane of gray hair, rocketed down Ninth Avenue defying buses and other vehicles to impede his thruway. After someone made a comment about his playing "chicken" with the bus drivers, he said "Don't worry, they're big but they're sissies. I've been driving this cab for years and in my spare time I race rallye cars in my native Romania."

He continued, his intensity growing, his driving fast but admittedly skillful, "I dream of cars. I LOVE cars. My daughter loves cars. She's twelve years old! Here's a picture of her. She's beautiful, no? Now, look at these, this is what I am fantasizing about" and he handed back a sheaf of color printouts of exotic race cars that cost in the 6 figure range. We progressed down the avenue, making very good time, as he flipped through a car catalog to show us the latest in race cars. "You see that one," pointing at a vehicle that looked almost like a spaceship, "that one costs $900,000 but it goes like crazy." He waved with his hands as his fervor grew. And then he said "I know I can never afford a car like that. I've been here 35 years and I have a wife and children. So what do I do? I dream. Every day I get in my yellow Crown Victoria and rev the engine. For me, it's my Lamborghini." It was a moment of pure magic.

George Ciorobara, I salute you! Your passion is an inspiration to us all. Please, don't ever give up on your dream.