Mad Dogs, Englishwomen and Nureyev

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Since the last auction I had been to was in Farrington Gurney, Somerset run by Wicks and Pierce, Estate Agents, Christie's Rudolf Nureyev auction in New York was a staggering culture shock. Not only to me; Christie's found themselves similarly amazed by the enthusiasm of buyers of a type no auction house has faced since Njinsky's death. They had naively underestimated not only the prices the items would fetch, but also the ignorance of the buyers, more familiar with the conventions of a stage performance than those of bidding and auction behaviour.

The first night had the drama and sense of occasion of the world premiere of a rumoured smash hit in the theatre, and the audience, I use the term advisedly, behaved accordingly. The auction had been trailed in the press as the best free show in town. With this expectation, fans had queued for hours round the building in Park Avenue to get in, and by golly they were going to enjoy it. There was applause, cheers and laughter after any hard fought tussle of bidding and a buzz of comment and reminiscence from the balletomanes, as costumes and jewellery belonging to the loved one were held up. There were even bids from the gallery, as the overflow room was called. The New Yorker in front of me who had not tuned in to the sense of theatrical performance turned round and barked - hopelessly - 'Auction bids are made in silence!' But this was no ordinary auction where hard headed dealers are capable of wooden calm because it's a job and it isn't their money anyway. The fans present wanted a piece of their dead hero and, even if frustrated by the high prices, they were determined to extract the utmost from the occasion in emotional recollections of performances in which the garments were worn.

The auction room itself was very different from Messrs. Wicks and Pierce's shed. There were television cameras banked against the back wall and lines of telephone bidders down each side. On the facing wall was a board showing the lot numbers and the prices: in dollars, sterling, French francs, Swiss francs, deutschmarks, yen and lira. The figures changed as rapidly as those on a demented petrol pump. The lowest bidding increment was $50, the highest $10,000. I began to feel distinctly just up from 'Zummerzet'. One wall was covered in oil paintings of male nudes, big ones. In the doorway was a shocking great marble statue of a male torso, buttocks towards those entering. Looking through the handsome three hundred page hardcover catalogue, I was not surprised to see that images of the male form predominated. The images of the females were frequently unsympathetic. Nureyev's massive four-poster bed sprouted grotesque female figures with crudely carved jutting breasts on the corner posts.

Images of male power abounded, among them three engravings of the Rape of the Sabine Women, enthusiastically executed by Jan Muller, and in the two representations of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise it is Eve who is about to cop the angel's flaming sword or Ithuriel's lance in a tender portion of her anatomy. The painting by Charles Meynier, 'Wisdom Defending Youth Against Love', spells out the message - Avoid the Woman - even more clearly. Christie's discreetly describe the collection as 'eclectic' and refer to Nureyev's 'fascination with the human form'. The catalogue featured photographs of Nureyev in his New York apartment in the Dakota Building on Central Park West, posing against backgrounds of theatrical grandeur, surrounded by massive paintings, palatial furniture, huge chandeliers and exotic draped textiles. He lived his life permanently on stage, in settings designed to give the maximum visual impact and reflecting his individual and dramatic style. My neighbour observed that there was little comfort or cleanliness behind the scenes, 'It was a mess', he said. So much for avoiding the female; there was no woman to 'look out to him', as they say in Somerset, and keep him up together. …