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Prices Soar at Final Sale of Serge Lifar Collection

Buyers were on a high at the March 13 sale of the collection of dancer Serge Lifar’s estate, held at auction house Hôtel des Ventes, Geneva.

LONDON—Buyers were on a high at the March 13 sale of the collection of dancer Serge Lifar’s estate, held at auction house Hôtel des Ventes, Geneva. The sale was estimated to fetch CHF 1.5 million ($1.6 million), but realized CHF 7.3 million ($8 million).

The top lot was a set of 40 drawings by Jean Cocteau for his book Opium, which sold for CHF 912,000 ($1 million), nearly ten times the estimate, to Paris book dealer Jean-Claude Vrain. And Cocteau’s manuscript Orpheé, 1925, sold for CHF 462,000 ($502,500), compared with an estimate of CHF 10,000/15,000.

The Musée des lettres et manuscrits de Paris was extremely active, spending nearly CHF 1 million ($1.1 million) on autographed manuscripts and drawings by Cocteau and his friend Raymond Radiguet. One of the most extraordinary results was the CHF 430,000 ($468,000) paid for two inscribed photographs of Lifar with Coco Chanel, and a letter from Chanel. The estimate was CHF 300/500.

Owned by Lifar, the principal dancer of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during its final years in the late 1920s, the collection marked the last remnants of one of the greatest private collections of Ballets Russes on the market. The auction included more than 300 drawings, paintings and prints by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Juan Gris, 3,000 vintage photographs of celebrities from Chanel to Charlie Chaplin, and the rediscovered trove of drawings and manuscripts by Cocteau.

One of the most celebrated male dancers of the 20th century, along with Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolph Nureyev, Lifar was born in Kiev in 1905, and joined the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1923. The company, directed by Diaghilev, revolutionized ballet by merging modern dance, music and art into a dynamic whole.

Lifar’s collection of props, designs and costumes was acquired almost exclusively from such associates. A substantial amount of material came from Diaghilev, either before or after his death in 1929. Lifar was an executor of Diaghilev’s estate and took it upon himself to safeguard many of his possessions.

By 1933, he had acquired enough material to mount an exhibition in New York, where he was touring with his troupe, of more than 200 works of art and costumes, including designs by Léon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, Picasso, Ernst and Joan Miró. However, when Lifar fell short of the return fare to Paris, he sold the collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut for what was then a princely $10,000.

Lifar continued to collect throughout his tenancy as the director of the Paris Opera, which ended in 1958. During the 1960s, he received several dedicated drawings from Picasso, including a portrait. Surprising some observers, the Lifar portrait, estimated at CHF 300,000/500,000, did not find a buyer. However, Picasso’s, La chute d’Icare, 1962, signed and dedicated to Lifar, sold for CHF 97,000 ($105,500), against an estimate of CHF 80,000/120,000. A small Cubist composition by Picasso, Homme à la guitare, sold to a phone bidder for CHF 206,000, compared with an estimate of CHF 70,000/90,000. And a Picasso study for a stage set, entitled Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, went for CHF 158,000 ($171,800), compared with an estimate of CHF 80,000/120,000.

By the 1970s, Lifar’s collection was becoming unmanageable. “He never threw anything away,” says the dealer Julian Barran, who, as a director of Sotheby’s, conducted several sales on his behalf. In 1975, Sotheby’s sold Diaghilev’s library of rare Russian books, which Lifar had inherited, and, in 1984, a further 227 works for £830,000.