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PARIS — The biggest private art auction in history ended at the Grand Palais in Paris Wednesday night as the final sale of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection brought the grand total to 373.5 million euros, or $484.6 million.

With heightened security and a few dozen student protesters handing out leaflets outside, all eyes were on the rat and rabbit bronze fountainheads, which sold to anonymous telephone bidders for 15.7 million euros, or $20 million, each.

This story first appeared in the February 26, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In an impromptu press conference, held in a back area while the auction continued, Liu Yang, the lawyer who has led China’s campaign to reclaim the Qing dynasty heads, which were stolen during the Opium Wars, said he wasn’t surprised the buyer remained anonymous. “I don’t know who the buyer is, but I don’t think the buyer is Chinese,” said Liu, adding he will next meet with fellow lawyers to discuss his next plan of action.

Christie’s didn’t reveal the buyers’ identity at the closing press conference. “I just want to simply say it’s not me who has bought back these heads,” said Bergé to much laughter.

By choosing Paris for the auction, which has broken the most world records for individual works — such as 35.9 million euros, or $46.4 million, for Matisse’s “Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose” — plus records across categories, including decorative arts, Bergé has achieved his goal of putting the city firmly back on the map as an important art center.

“If your business is auctions and your life is spent in the art business, this must surely be the greatest moment in our careers,” said Christie’s chief executive officer Edward Dolman. “Tonight we saw Paris reclaim its position at the center of the world’s art market. The eye of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé throughout made the provenance of this particular collection irresistible to the world.”

Though he had been warned to wait for the crisis to subside, Bergé said the auction’s success showed that when you show quality works, the buyers are there. Only three lots were withdrawn when they didn’t reach minimum estimates.

“Gathering a collection of this importance is a work of art — and I’m sure Yves Saint Laurent and I, we made a work of art,” Bergé said when thanking the media for its support.

When he first saw the 1,800-page catalogue, Bergé admitted he said to himself, “Who are the mad people who did that? Where did they find the time to do that? You know we worked a lot, Yves Saint Laurent and I. The other day in the exhibition, a woman stopped me and asked me, ‘Where did you put it all?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

And the sales continue for Bergé, who said he feels obliged to sell Saint Laurent’s Rue de Babylone apartment. “I’m going to sell the Rue Babylone because it’s empty and too large for me, but I don’t know when,” he said, adding he’s keeping his Rue Bonaparte apartment. “I’m not homeless. Not tonight.”


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