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VENICE — “François, mon amour,” artist Maurizio Cattelan bellowed to François Pinault across a crowded room as the international social and art set gathered in this lagoon-bound city last weekend to fete the French tycoon’s new museum of contemporary art, Palazzo Grassi. Festivities began early Saturday afternoon with guests arriving by boat to the 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal to view Pinault’s inaugural exhibit, “Where Are We Going?”

Some noticed it was the flag of Pinault’s native Brittany — not the French tricolor — that floated outside in the wind. After all, it was with bittersweet emotions that Pinault took his immense collection to Venice, after administrative snafus in Paris led him last year to junk his ambitious plans for a museum by Tadao Ando on an island in the Seine. “The flag’s our resistance,” joked François-Henri Pinault, Pinault’s son, who treated Salma Hayek to a personal tour of the collection, including the Rudolf Stingel room, where the actress carved her initials in the silver foil-covered walls. “I left my mark — but what I particularly like is the pig,” Hayek said, pointing to Paul McCarthy‘s life-like “Mechanical Pig.” “It’s so cute.”

Hayek wasn’t the only one fascinated with the piece. “It’s like watching my dog sleep,” offered Stefano Pilati after making a glamorous entrance with actresses Kristin Scott Thomas on one arm and Amira Casar on the other.

“The first time I saw it, I went home and had a nightmare,” added Jeff Koons, whose work is among the most prominently displayed in Pinault’s museum. Koons’ “Balloon Dog” sculpture is propped on a plinth in the canal outside.

“It’s absolutely astonishing what Pinault’s done,” offered Pierre Cardin as he meandered through the Cindy Sherman room. “I should have done it myself.”

Asked to name her favorite piece, Stella McCartney said it “has to be one of Jeff Koons’, but I can’t decide which.”

This story first appeared in the May 5, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Nearby, Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran was having a memory moment in the David Hammons room. “This is fabulous,” she said, pointing to Hammons’ basketball backboard decorated with chandelier-like crystals. “I was the captain of the basketball team in high school.”

A few hours later, the water taxis moved on to the Arsenale, where they dropped off guests such as Miuccia Prada, Nicolas Ghesquière, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Isabelle Huppert, Damien Hirst, Christian Louboutin, John Elkann, Azzedine Alaïa and Stephanie Seymour at a black-tie dinner for close to 1,000 catered by three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire. Though guests were asked to arrive at 9 p.m. sharp, it was close to midnight when the entrée of caviar and foie gras arrived. Few complained, though, as the wait meant more time to sip Pinault’s delicious Chateau Latour wine.

“It was an impressive showing,” explained artist Pierre Soulages in the boat back to his hotel. “Paris really missed out.”