Sales at the old and venerable auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s are often a sort of eulogy, celebrating the life and times of a prominent individual as glimpsed through an art collection. The marketing and promotional rumblings that attend such sales, especially if involving a very famous name, can be noisy and theatrical. And the public exhibition has to be dramatic and dazzling. After all, the auction house is mounting a major production, with special lighting and design of the sort one might associate with a Broadway show.
By way of example one is reminded of the brilliant sale mounted last year for the Collection of the late Mrs. Paul Mellon, a great society figure and tastemaker with many lavishly decorated homes. To evoke the rarified atmosphere of the Mellon residences, with their exquisite furnishings and fine art, Sotheby’s produced brilliant room-like recreations on several floors of their sleek auction facility at 1334 York Avenue, with imposing blow-up photographs of the Mellon interiors to enhance the mise-en-scène. In this manner visitors could wander about the exhibition and feel the dreamy, sumptuous lifestyle of someone rich and famous like Bunny Mellon. Sotheby’s even recreated the Mellon gardens for a lavish reception and dinner for their most elite clientele. Such events are meant to have a selling rather than a spiritual cast. Still, those fortunate to be on the guest list were surely awed by the sublime aura of the Mellon lifestyle.
Sales of this sort, which combine celebrity fascination with high taste and visual drama, have long been a staple of the auction world. In recent years we’ve seen such towering figures of social and entertainment fame as Doris Duke, Brooke Astor, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis eulogized, in a tastefully commercial manner, through the public sale of their possessions. The celebrity sale has thus evolved into an auction house phenomenon, usually exceeding financial expectations wildly and commanding feverish media coverage. Sophisticated online platforms for global Internet bidding have only made the results all the more stunning. One watches the auctioneer at such a sale whirling and reeling about the podium, calling out bids cascading in from the four corners of the earth.
How exciting then to see the latest such celebrity sale take place in March at Sotheby’s in London. The branding for the sale was inspired, and the title used on the catalogue and in all promotion riveted one’s attention: “Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters.” As one of the catalogue essays explained, the seven Mitford sisters “were arguably the most beguiling siblings of the 20th century…impoverished aristocrats who, in sharp contrast to the rapidly modernizing world around them, were simultaneously conservative in their social views and eccentric in their manners.”
Deborah, the youngest, married Lord Andrew Cavendish, who on the death of his father in 1950 became the 11th Duke of Devonshire. The couple took up residence in one of the grandest of all English country houses, Chatsworth; and on the Duke’s death in 2004 Debo, as she was known affectionately, downsized to The Old Vicarage on the Chatsworth Estate. The sale was thus a visual history of Debo Devonshire’s glorious and romantic life in these two houses, the exhibition offering a peek into the rooms at The Old Vicarage in which she displayed her elegant, whimsical collection.
Apart from the many pictures, drawings, English furniture, books, jewels, walking sticks, porcelain, rugs and silver of the sort one would expect, there were quirky surprises that lent much humor to the sale. The Duchess was very fond of animals, especially chickens, pigs and dogs; and so there were numerous items reflecting that passion.
But who could have expected lot number 47 in the Sotheby’s catalogue? It was described simply as “Her Grace’s Collection of Elvis Presley Ephemera.” It encompassed a vast, somewhat cheesy but charming array of playing cards, records, pictures of The King, Christmas tree Elvis-inspired decorations, a jigsaw puzzle of Graceland, Elvis fridge magnets and much, much more. There was even an Elvis telephone with a catchy ring-tone: “‘Jail House Rock’ comes over loud and clear instead of a bell or the more modern noise that announces a call,” as the Duchess explained in a note. The whole Elvis collection had previously been on display in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth House. Talk about provenance!
There is an enduring public fascination for celebrity sales, and they are often the highlight of an auction season. They attract legions of new bidders and buyers to the salerooms, many with no prior auction experience but a keen and acquisitive fascination for anything owned by a famous person.
How else to explain what happened at the auction in 2004 of the Katharine Hepburn Collection? Lot number 467 was a set of hair rollers of varying sizes, handmade by the actress out of old newspapers and used to “give body to her straight hair.” It was a trick she had learned as a young actress in Hollywood, as a catalogue note explained. Lending further color to the story was even a photograph of Hepburn actually pinning up the grimy-looking rollers. One can thus imagine the shock of seeing this curious Hollywood artifact, modest indeed but owned by a four-time Academy Award winner, sell for $3,300.
What a roller coaster ride of nonstop thrills to attend such a sale!
(Image: Photo Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Exhibtion of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitfords)