Yves Saint Laurent Collected Art By His Own Design

The art he collected is an important part of his story, but not in the way the market perceives it to be. I’m no expert, but I don’t think any of his three Mondrians were the artist’s best work–even though one of them, a 1922 painting, sold for a record $27.5 million. His Brancusi is an atypical wooden one, not the iconic marble or bronze “Bird in Space” that a trophy hunter would lust after. But I don’t think any of this mattered to Mr. Saint Laurent. He drew inspiration by surrounding himself with great art­–not only  vetted masterpieces–and curios. He and Mr. Bergé filled their homes with 19th-century silver, a smattering of medieval art, a few Greco-Roman busts of nude young men and Duchamp’s wonderful little perfume bottle called “Belle Haleine” (which sold for $8.9 million). These lavishly decorated homes gave him comfort and a beautiful place in which to hide. Though some of the works broke auction records, they didn’t do so based entirely on their own merits; they did so in large part because he touched them.

Most serious art collectors don’t buy this way. There is no coup de foudre because, faced with the numbers, they put on their green visors and start doing research and analysis. More and more bring a consultant or two, and perhaps a conservator.

Does this make sense? It does if you are about to make a serious investment, but I’ll bet Mr. Saint Laurent never dreamt of such a process. He bought what he loved. When he died, there was no reason to keep any of it: he had no interest in a private museum or even a mausoleum (he was cremated).

I too like to buy on impulse. One year at the major annual art fair in Maastricht I bought a pair of 19th-century porcelain boar’s head tureens, and my art dealer wife scolded me for overpaying. “Sorry,” I retorted. “I must have had an Yves Saint Laurent moment.” Thinking about this film, I realized that Mr. Bergé, the man who orchestrated the sale and knew how to maximize the value of its artworks, had the eye of the collector. He brought his deceased partner’s legacy new life and provided a platform for his private possessions to tell us a story. Mr. Saint Laurent had the eye of the designer, the eye of impulse and inspiration without the constraints of estimates, condition, research and calculation. I don’t pretend to look at art that way most days, but I’ll never lose the emotion and spontaneity of collecting because that would turn the whole endeavor into a pointless exercise in commerce. Yves Saint Laurent may be gone, but the sale has become an important part of his legacy, which lives on.

editorial@observer.com