Nureyev - a Last Tribute

Article excerpt

Attentive readers of last year's April issue of this periodical may remember my account of Christie's auction of the contents of Rudolf Nureyev's New York apartment. There has been a further curtain call of Nureyev memorabilia in a second auction, likewise organised by Christie's, of articles from the dancer's flat in Paris. Again, urged on by my balletomane sister and with euphoric memories of the New York trip and my first experience of a major auction house, I paid day visits by train from Bath to Christie's in South Kensington to attend the viewing and sale. It was by no means the same exciting experience. Although I had organised my 'paddle' in expectation of the buying frenzy I saw in the January sale I never felt a sufficient surge of the excitement, the auction fever, that I felt in New York, to trigger a single wave of it.

I realise that this is as riveting as 'Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead'. How can a negative be of any interest? But the reasons for the strong contrasts between the New York and London experiences perhaps show profound differences of national characteristics that are of interest. The excitement generated in New York for the sale led to queues round the block on opening night and a strong theatrical sense of occasion. There was a first night audience of the very rich (and I mean seriously rich) in evening dress, who applauded the bidder who outgunned the rest. There was even a gallery, and an overflow packed with bidders, who watched the action on a huge television screen.

In London the bidders seemed emotionally battened down. They did not queue; they did not dress up; they did not chatter excitedly or applaud. There were even empty chairs. The atmosphere was restrained, as in a British railway carriage. A show of enthusiasm would have been bad form. My taxi driver did not even know the sale was on, merely making the routine comment: 'I 'ad 'im (Nureyev) in the cab once. Nice bloke'. The latter comment created some doubt in one's mind. Press coverage petered out. Television cameras vanished on the second day and there was no coverage on the news that I saw, whereas British television crews were well represented in New York and the film shown back home.

Significantly, the highest prices in London, which generated press coverage on the first day, were paid by an American buyer from Long Island who paid a total of [pounds]79,572 for 21 lots of shoes and boots, rocketing way over estimates. Yet, the next day, costumes from some of Nureyev's greatest roles made only half their estimates. My sister snapped up two: a splendid Prince Florimond outfit, a fairy tale in jewelled fur and pale blue velvet from Sleeping Beauty, and a dashing costume in red and gold from Don Quixote to add to her collection. We cannot work out why they went so cheaply. Sometimes there is a sort of mysterious lull in the bidding or an impatience in the auctioneer and a quick-thinking buyer can reap an unexpected harvest.

My sister has already been asked to lend these costumes to an exhibition devoted to Nureyev this spring in Rome. She also bought three conductor's batons with cork handles - a shrewd purchase at a price I thought comparatively cheap considering their significance. Conducting was Nureyev's last career move. He knew that a dancer had a comparatively short shelf-life, and planned to continue a career that satisfied his theatrical sense and love of music. The batons poignantly represented his hope for the future, the possibility of continuing to perform before an audience into old age.

There may be deeper reasons for the reticence of buyers at the London auction. The New York apartment and its contents were grandly and extravagantly palatial, but it was never really a home to Nureyev, he merely 'perched' as he did in his many residences during his gypsy life as an international ballet star. Although there was an impressive Jacobean dining table overhung with a vast chandelier, there was only crockery for two in the kitchen. …