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. The -elder Astor famously went down with the Titanic, gallantly surrendering his seat in the lifeboat, some historians claim, to a child. After Vincent’s death in 1959, his wife administered his considerable fortune, collecting Louis XV–style objects -exuberantly, and died in 2007 at the age of 105. In an interview in 1982 with Architectural Digest, Astor said of her collection of objects, great and small, “I hope it will be many years before they find their way into the auction rooms.” She got her wish.
The material she owned, “it’s kind of high-WASP taste, grandparents’ taste. Times have changed,” notes one auction-house official. “Not that I wouldn’t want a lot of it,” he adds. Largely culled, by hook or by crook, of its masterpieces over the years (the Metropolitan Museum of Art lost out on a Childe Hassam painting of New York City that had been promised to it when Marshall sold the work privately in 2006), the estate still has in terms of great art “serious drawings ... a wonderful Tiepolo, Canaletto,” the official says.
There’s a decent bit at stake here for -Sotheby’s. It’s been losing some ground to Christie’s, with the British-based rival winning the Taylor sale (the No. 1 sales position in 2011) and the Warhol Foundation’s blockbuster consignment last week of virtually its entire inventory of works by the pop artist. And Sotheby’s is out on a financial limb a bit at its big art auctions in November. While it did win a $100 million trove of abstract art for those sales, it has guaranteed, it disclosed in an Aug. 15 SEC filing, a trio of unnamed paintings for $50 million in total. That means that, -regardless of what bidders offer, Sothe-by’s has promised the seller that amount. (Sotheby’s says it will attempt to reduce its exposure before the sale through third-party deals.) Since the house is taking its usual commission—about 15 to 20 percent—on the Astor sale, auction fever kicking in would certainly help.
The Other Doyenne
What’s being sold by the Kitty Carlisle Hart estate, on the other hand, is just a handful of things. She also passed away in 2007, but now her estate is parting with a Verdura ruby and diamond brooch, an art-deco-period diamond necklace valued at around $70,000, and two gold Cartier cigarette cases monogrammed “MH,” estimated at about $10,000. The initials stand for Moss Hart. In 1946, the actress married the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who collaborated with George S. Kaufman on such Broadway hits as You Can’t Take It With You. The couple-about-town was at the center of New York’s theatrical life until Moss’s death in 1961, at which point his wife became better known as a stylish panelist on What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth.
Hart had two children, but her bequests to them were as studied as Astor’s proved stormy. In January 2007, less than three months before her death, she added a codicil to her will, notes estate attorney Herbert Nass, author of Wills of the Rich and Famous. It boosted a bequest to her housekeeper to $50,000 from $10,000, forgave any indebtedness on the part of her children, and added an elaborate clause to ensure they would both inherit equally. “It was classy,” he notes, and the “equal” provision shouldn’t be as rare as it is in wills of the wealthy.
Meanwhile, the Astor estate was in court as recently as this spring. Indeed, the -Sotheby’s auction was originally set for April, but the sale had to be canceled, which is virtually unheard of. There were just too many items to catalog in time, outstanding claims by the IRS on potential proceeds, and various opinions on which of Astor’s revisions of her will represented her true feelings. (These matters were largely resolved in March in Westchester County Surrogate’s Court.) The sale was eventually rescheduled to dovetail with Sotheby’s Asia Week auctions this month. There has been surprisingly strong interest from Asian bidders in her property, Whitmire notes.
According to Harold Holzer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a principal beneficiary of Astor’s largesse, the philanthropist “funded and personally hosted a staff holiday party every December—and attended until she was 100, greeting and shaking hands with everyone from [the] director to ... guards.” He adds: “Thanks to an endowment she left to continue the tradition, the party goes on—forever.”