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PARIS (Reuters) - Crowds stretching around the block lined up on Saturday for a look at the huge art and furniture collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent before it is sold next week in the biggest auction Paris has seen in years.
The collection, created over five decades by the designer and his business partner and companion Pierre Berge and housed in their sumptuous Paris apartments, has been described as one of the most important in private hands.
More than 700 pieces range from paintings by artists including Picasso, Matisse and Degas to 17th century German silverware, ancient Roman sculptures, Chinese bronzes, Art Nouveau furniture and 18th century cameo brooches.
"I've rarely seen a such a varied and diverse collection of objects which nonetheless make up such a coherent ensemble, that's what's so exceptional," said Francois Du Vivier from Brussels, who said he was considering bidding in the sale.
On display in the Grand Palais museum on the Champs Elysees, the collection is to be sold by auctioneers Christie's over three days next week, with the estimated proceeds of up to 300 million euros ($377.3 million) going to medical research.
The shy and reclusive Saint Laurent, whose clothing designs revolutionized women's fashion, died at the age of 71 last year and left his share of the collection to the charitable foundation he set up with Berge.
The two men were avid buyers, seeking out works that were often little known at the time and which their own interest and influence helped to promote.
"One relives that period in the '60s and '70s when all that was being rediscovered and was also fuel for Saint Laurent's own creativity," said Philippe Garner, a specialist in 20th century art and design at Christie's.
The financial crisis which has hit many rich investors has made the result of the sale difficult to estimate although Christie's and Berge remain publicly confident that it will be a success given the interest generated in the sale.
"There are still plenty of collectors at different levels who are going to be competing, in some instances very aggressively," said Garner.
The event has certainly been massively promoted, with lavish magazine spreads and television specials which may boost interest as a similar wave of publicity did when the estate of the late Andy Warhol was sold in 1988.
"These celebrity auctions can lead to certain prices being paid for sentimental value that they might not get ordinarily," said one veteran collector who declined to be named. "I've had that experience myself and paid the cost."
A controversy over the fate of two Chinese bronze sculptures, taken during the Opium Wars of the 19th century and which Beijing has said should be handed back, broke out earlier this month but Berge has dismissed the claim.
"I acquired them and I am completely protected by the law, so what the Chinese are saying is a bit ridiculous," he told Reuters, adding that he would be prepared to return them if China allowed the Dalai Lama back from exile into Tibet.
Whatever the result, Berge has said he has no regrets about breaking up the collection.
"So goes the life of works of art: they pass from hand to hand, from house to house from one continent to another. That is their destiny," he said in the exhibition guide.