Going Once, Twice, Sold

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexandra Peers

High-society women give way to glamorous estates.

In the art world, estate-auction catalogs are a kind of history, highly edited. Elizabeth Taylor's featured hundreds of jewels and dozens of photographs--but overlooked three of her seven husbands. Jackie Kennedy's highlighted JFK's golf clubs but largely omitted the name "Onassis." They're sanitized: the story told in the frontispiece, before you get to the goods, is the one most likely to boost the bottom line, cater to heirs, and burnish the reputation of the seller.

So the "Sotheby's: Property From the Estate of Brooke Astor" catalog is absent the sad details of the court battle over whether the socialite's only son exploited Astor's failing mental health in her final years. (The son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of fraud in 2009 and is free pending appeal.) Instead, the sale offers a picture of a dapper woman who lavishly entertained her friends, outlasted virtually all her critics, and, in some circles, seemed to run New York as if Edith Wharton were still chronicling its adventures.

Sotheby's hosts the 900-lot auction of her art, jewelry, and furniture, a two-day affair, on Sept. 24 and 25. Hopes are for a $6 million to $9.7 million total, but it could surpass even that. On Sept. 20, the auctioneer will also sell the jewels and mementos of Kitty Carlisle Hart, the entertainer, hostess of countless charity benefits, and actress (one of her early roles was in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera in 1935). The two were twin high-society doyennes of New York.

But there are other similarities: both women lived their lives in the limelight, made philanthropy an actual occupation--and adjusted their wills fairly radically shortly before their deaths. While Astor's changes of heart were adjudicated in court, Hart's was a model, says one estate attorney, of "a graceful exit." In both cases, their sales capture a moment, perhaps gone, emblematic of 20th-century glamour and formality with all the ladies' glittery treasures on view.

"You can tell a lot when you walk into a house. You instantly know what a person's passions are," says Elaine Whitmire, a vice chairman of Sotheby's who has visited some notable houses over the years on behalf of the auctioneer. They include Jackie O's, Gianni Versace's, and Greta Garbo's. In the case of Brooke Astor, when Whitmire toured her homes at 778 Park Avenue and in Briarcliff Manor late last fall, she says one could tell Astor had a strong personality, enjoyed entertaining, and spent time in Asia. (Indeed, Astor grew up there, as her father served as Marine Corps commandant in what was then Peking.) And you could tell the woman absolutely loved dogs. Dozens of porcelain pugs and poodles dotted the halls, as did numerous dog paintings. An elaborate re-creation of those rooms will open to the public Sept. 17. And on Sept. 20, Sotheby's will host a tiny, private cocktail party for members of the board of trustees of some of Astor's favorite charities benefiting from the auction, including the New York Public Library and Historic Hudson Valley.

The Price of Fame

How much is the Astor name worth? The exponential monetary value of "celebrity provenance," as former ownership by the famous is called, is well-documented. Jewels and items from the Duchess of Windsor's estate, expected to bring about $7 million in 1987, instead fetched $50 million. The Jackie auction had a pre-sale estimate of $5 million and then a $35 million total. And Elizabeth Taylor's estate raised $157 million at Christie's last December. Of course, pre-sale estimates are something of a canard to begin with, since they are set at a "fair market value," partly for tax purposes, that doesn't take fame into account.

Brooke Astor was no royalty, movie star, or Kennedy, but instead came from some of the oldest of old money. Born in 1902 in New Hampshire, in 1954 she married her third husband, Vincent Astor, son of the vastly wealthy John Jacob Astor IV. …