Pablo Picasso's 1914-15 painting Musical Instruments on a Table is seen displayed at the Grand Palais in Paris prior to the auction from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Berge. Bidding did not surpass $26.8 million US and the painting did not sell. ((Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press))

A painting by Henri Matisse owned by the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent sold Monday in Paris for $41.1 million US, a record auction price for a work by the artist, Christie's said.

The sale was part of a three-day estate auction of art, antiques, furniture and other objects collected by Saint Laurent that some are calling "the sale of the century."

A Piet Mondrian painting that had inspired one of Saint Laurent's most memorable dresses sold for $25.6 million US.

Sales reached $263.6 million US on the auction's first day, marked by six world record prices for works by individual artists at auction, Christie's auction house said.

Fierce bidding in the cavernous, glass-topped Grand Palais museum hall put to rest concerns that the global financial crisis might damage the auction's prospects.

"I never doubted the success of this sale," Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent's longtime partner, told reporters after the auction. "When you have a collection of this importance, and of this demand, you stop being an amateur art lover, and you become more or less an expert."

Matisse's 1911 oil painting Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, (The Cowslips, Blue and Rose Fabric) sold for a total of $45.9 million US, including the buyer's premium, Christie's said.

Mondrian's 1922 painting Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black, with rectangles of saturated colors that had inspired Saint Laurent's 1965 shift dress, sold for $24.6 million US, or about twice the pre-auction estimate. A wood sculpture by Constantin Brancusi entitled Madame L.R. went for $33.3 million US. Those prices exclude the buyer's premium.

Christie's officials said they were still working on confirming the identities of the buyers, who mostly came from North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Picasso painting didn't sell

The night's big surprise was that the lot that had been expected to fetch the highest price — a 1914-1915 Picasso titled Instruments de musique sur un gueridon (Musical Instruments on a Table) — didn't even sell.

The painting of a guitar from the Spanish artist's cubist period had been estimated to sell for $35-42 million US, but the bidding never got past $26.8 million US. Bergé said he and Saint Laurent bought the painting from Picasso himself.

"I don't understand" why the Picasso didn't sell, Bergé confessed, before adding: "I hope that I'm not going to surprise you because I am very happy that I can keep this painting."

Provenance of Chinese bronzes attracts controversy

The sale came as the auction sidestepped a legal controversy earlier Monday. A French judge refused to halt the sale of disputed Chinese bronze fountainheads due for sale later in the three-day auction.

The bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat disappeared from the summer Imperial Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860.

The dispute had cast a shadow over the three-day auction of 733 works collected over half a century by Saint Laurent and Bergé.

The Chinese artifacts are expected to fetch up to $13 million US each.

Lawyers for a Chinese association known as APACE sought to block the sale of the bronzes. The group acknowledged that Saint Laurent acquired the bronzes legally but said they should be returned to China or at least displayed in a museum.

Bergé displayed political defiance toward China.

"I'm absolutely ready to give myself to China, with my two heads of the sculpture," he said in English. "The only thing I ask is, for the Chinese government to have human rights, to give liberty to the Tibet people and to welcome the Dalai Lama."

Other lots include sculptures from ancient Egypt and Rome, ivory crucifixes and silver German beer steins that once covered every available surface of Saint Laurent's homes. Also on sale is his Art Deco furniture and his bed.

The sale had been expected to gross $250 million-$380 million US. A portion of the proceeds will go to support AIDS research. Saint Laurent died in June 2008 at age 71 of brain cancer.