PARIS AND MADRID — Beneath the cupola of a Parisian palace in the shadow of a worldwide economic crisis, the world's top art buyers gathered Monday for a historic auction: the sale of 733 pieces of art owned by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent, valued at as much as $380 million.
An Henri Matisse painting of a vase, titled "The Couscous, Blue Carpet and Rose," went for $40.6 million, the highest amount paid for any of the French artist's works. And overall, the total sales of $261 million for the day topped the previous record for a private collection, according to a spokeswoman for Christie's auction house, the organizer of the three-day auction.
But there was at least one sign of restraint. Nobody opened their wallet for a Pablo Picasso painting from his Cubist period, "Musical Instruments on a Table," considered the most valuable piece in the collection, with an estimate of $38 million.
More than 1,500 high-powered collectors packed into the Grand Palais, a glass-and-steel exhibition hall built in 1900, for the opening session. They were drawn by the extraordinary quality and quantity of the collection amassed by the French fashion icon and his partner, Pierre Berge. Saint Laurent died last year at 71.
"Giant!" declared art critic Beatrice de Rochebouet of Le Figaro newspaper on the eve of the auction. "The word is not too weak in the mouths of those who have witnessed the preparations for the sale of the century."
Nonetheless, a mood of uncertainty prevailed over the festivities because of the international economic meltdown that has inflicted heavy damage on the art market.
As Christie's prepared for the huge event, the firm announced layoffs of 300 employees. Elsewhere, galleries have closed and masterpieces have gone unsold. The auction this week is seen by experts as a key test of whether the wealthy will embrace or shrink from prodigious purchases.
With media heat building in recent days, Christie's sold out all 6,000 copies of the auction catalog. At the small Le Bourget airport north of Paris, authorities attributed a 35% increase in traffic by private jets over the weekend to dealers arriving for the bidding.
"This happens once every 100 years," said Misako Takaku, a Japanese collector of proto-Impressionist Edouard Manet, to Agence France-Presse. "It's like a dream."
The proceedings took place under chandeliers and the glass roof of the palace off the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. About 1,500 elegant chairs were set up for buyers who had reserved them long in advance. Bianca Jagger, ex-wife of the rock star, and an assortment of European business and political figures were there. Several hundred people who could not find seats stood off to the side.
Before the arrival of the limousine crowd, Parisians endured long lines in a cold drizzle Monday morning for a public exhibit of the works.
Michele Robin, a retiree, waited two hours to glimpse the epic convergence of art and commerce. She said she was impressed by the Art Deco furniture and a Francisco Goya painting to be donated to the Louvre. But she expressed some disdain for the commercial aspects.
"These people are like today's politicians: They are completely out of touch with reality," Robin said. She described the buyers as "people who have more money than they need."
Berge, the fashion designer's partner in business and personal life, predicted recently that the sale would reaffirm the value of art as an investment refuge. But Berge, 78, said that they had "never bought for that reason."
"We were absolutely crazy about art in general, so we bought it. And without bargaining over any prices."
Berge plans to donate most of the profits to HIV/AIDS research. He has told journalists that a sale will best honor the compulsive energy of Saint Laurent, who filled his sumptuous apartment on the Left Bank with eclectic treasures. Berge quoted the writer Edmond de Goncourt's sentiment that he did not want art ending up in "the cold tomb of a museum."
The previous auction record for a private collection had been set in New York in 1997 when artworks belonging to collectors Victor and Sally Ganz fetched more than $207 million.
The big-ticket items snapped up Monday included a Piet Mondrian painting, "Composition With Blue, Red, Yellow and Black," that went for $24 million, and a rare sculpture by the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, a work titled "Madame L.R." dating to between 1914 and 1917, sold for a record $36 million.
As with the buyer of the Matisse "Couscous," the identities of the other new owners remained unknown.