Behind the Warhol and Liberace estate auctions Andrew Solomon finds much glamour and sentiment.
These days the auction houses are making a big play for estates that are hot more because of the charms of the person who collected the material being offered than because of the nature of that material itself, and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are becoming expert at orchestrating these sentimental sales, and at pumping value into the objects offered. From 23 April to 3 May, Sotheby’s are selling off the spectacular estate of Andy Warhol in New York, for an estimated $10 million, and from 9 April to 21 April, Christie’s are selling the astonishing Liberace collection in Los Angeles, for an estimated $3 million to $5 million.
The idea of taking material of significant inherent value and adding to it a sense of occasion based on the glamorous identity of the previous owner reached its height, of course, with the sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery, held by Sotheby’s last April in Geneva.
In the ecstasy of studying Mrs. Simpson’s diamonds, the world mysteriously forgot that she was a shrewish, mean-spirited woman who had wreaked havoc on a war-torn nation because she was unable and unwilling to suppress her selfish and vain ambitions, and who, defeated in her final goal, carried on for the remainder of her life with a lack of dignity that all the perfumes of Arabia could hardly obscure. Instead, nostalgia ran high for the most stylish woman in the twentieth century, whose story of love on the rocks and among the gemstones brought tears anew to our eyes, and whose brooches, covered with virtually pornographic inscriptions, were the great, emblematic symbols of modern love. The well-tempered publicity that Marcus Lynell at Sotheby’s gave to the Duchess of Windsor as a personality, and the introduction to the catalogue he commissioned from John Culme, explain why the jewels brought in a total of £31 million.
Christie’s foreshadowed such activity with the Nanking porcelain sale of the contents of a ship found submerged in the South China Sea; the cargo of not unusually distinguished export porcelain had been preserved in near-perfect condition. One would have expected the appearance of so much of this porcelain to signal a decline in its value; but in fact the Nanking material sold for prices beyond the previously established market value of such work, not because it was of better quality, and not because it was really better preserved, but rather because the idea of material rescued from a sunken ship caught the imagination of a public which had only a few months earlier spent good money to see Raise the Titanic. Once more, price records were set for material not lacking in inherent value, but certainly not previously held to be of value even close to the prices it fetched.
Sotheby’s have become steadily more courageous on this front, and this autumn sold the property of Stephen Tennant at the much-vaunted Wilsford sale. Stephen Tennant was one of the bright lights of the Twenties, a beautiful young man of uncertain artistic talents who was photographed by Cecil Beaton a lot and then withdrew to his house in the country, to live out his days among sea shells and animal skins and dust and memories of the other bright lights of the Twenties. Sotheby’s threw an elegant luncheon with an impeccable guest list at the house, the last Wilsford party, at which Lord Gowrie assured the assembled guests that they were “those who had been invited to Wilsford in its prime, and those who would have been invited had they been there.” There was a beautiful catalogue for the sale, with another luminous introduction by John Culme. People who had always disliked referring to television could finally stop saying that everything was “terribly Wilsford” with a significant glance. And once more there were extraordinary prices paid; some rather tatty red velvet curtains, first hung in about 1938 and last cleaned shortly thereafter, exceeded their estimate of £50 to £80 when they sold for £770.
The two sales that are coming up this month make an extraordinary pair. The Andy Warhol sale includes much really first-rate material; in with the eccentric and popular there are collections that show great knowledge and impressive taste in almost every area of the arts. The sale will include approximately 4,000 lots. John Culme will edit the catalogue, though he is not writing an introduction, and his gentle venerative gloss has already infused the sale with the delicate nostalgia so vividly manifest in the Windsor and Wilsford sales. Andy Warhol can emblematise a forgotten version of the fabulous as easily as can Wallis Simpson or Stephen Tennant; 1988 is just far enough away from the Sixties to tint them with charm.
Warhol collected everything and was fascinated by everything; his six-floor New York town house was filled to the brim. His house is like a bizarre dream, magnificent rooms letting on to other magnificent rooms, all painted in unappealing shades of Wedgwood green and highlights of gold and olive drab, all filled with exquisite objects, and all strangely vacant, barren, unoccupied. Though Sotheby’s are exploiting public obsession with Andy Warhol by turning the sale into an important event, they are also, perhaps in spite of themselves, recognising a truth about Warhol: that by dint of over-projecting a public image he was able to maintain an impenetrable privacy, and that the release of all he kept around him, his barrier against and secret from the world, will force us to reassess him as an artist and as a man. This sale is, in a way, the last important event in Warhol’s life, and art historians and social historians alike will have to make reference to it as they assign Warhol his place in the twentieth century.
The values of the “art” pieces can be easily set; a wonderful Roy Lichtenstein oil painting of a cat, for example, has been estimated at $200,000 to $300,000, and a Picasso Head of a Woman has been estimated at $60,000 to $80,000; both of these items are included in the London exhibition of the collection, at Sotheby’s until 28 March. But what is to be done with the collection of high school rings? What is to be done with the collection of carrier bags? How do you assign value to a limited edition Roy Lichtenstein carrier-bag inscribed to Andy? The questions are much more complicated than they were for the Wilsford sale, because Andy Warhol’s art is really all about the value of the mundane materials of daily life; he might well have professed to feel more strongly about the importance of the carrier-bags than about the importance of the Fantin-Latour painting of roses estimated at $80,000 to $100,000. Since the sale does not include any of Andy Warhol’s paintings, his odds and ends become his art.
But there, of course, is the irony. Though Warhol always suggested that the past should be destroyed to make way for an irreverent present, he emerges as a self-conscious collector of the stuff of the past, crazed with beauty and good taste. The unpriceable carrier-bags are no surprise; but the elegance and taste of the furniture and art collections points to a very real concern with living like the society figures with whom he surrounded himself, and they are a surprise to those who did not know Warhol well. The irony, we find, is perhaps that he did not treat the glamorous world around him with as much irony as he pretended to. Like the rest of us, he preferred eggshell-lacquer vases to soup cans.
Unanticipated simplicity and elegance of taste do not distort our time-honoured vision of Liberace. But here too, the collection is of a much higher calibre than one might expect. Everything glitters, but some of it is gold. There is a late-nineteenth-century cut-glass table composed of 66 pieces of Baccarat crystal, and originally built for the Maharaja Bahadur Shah II, which is estimate at $30,000 to $50,000. There is an extensive Capo di Monte dinner-service estimated at $10,000 to $15,000. There are hundreds of other objects of great inherent value like the untold numbers of Liberace’s hallmark candelabra and the customised cars and the Sèvres urns. But here, as with Warhol, there are objects whose value is hard to determine, those which will sell because they have what Christie’s call “the L Factor.” Who can say that the estimate of $20,000 to $25,000 placed on a Baldwin mirrored grand piano is fair for the piano on which Mr. Showmanship played? And who can begin to place values on what Liberace called his “Happy-happies,” those objects he collected with his own particular whimsy because they seemed so very much in character? Or the collection of miniature pianos?
The Warhol house, of course, was packed to the gills, and it was a large house, but Liberace’s estate includes five homes, and the sale contains more than 2,000 lots. The houses boggle the mind; in the bedroom of the Las Vegas estate The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Ceiling is reproduced in a ceiling lunette, around the edges of which well-muscled youths of Michelango-esque aspect lounge and battle. It is in a way rather a shame that much of this material loses the fullness of its dazzle when it is taken out of context, as it will be after the sale. But in the meantime Christie’s will make the sale a spectacular event: the opening festivities, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, will boast displays of Liberace’s costumes (most of which are not in the sale, as they have been placed in the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas), and guests will be entertained by young musicians who have received scholarships from the Liberace Foundation. Everywhere, the L Factor will be at work, glamorising this sale of the finest in glitz.
Both of these sales are of the outsize estates of Americans born in the simple world of the American midwest. Early photographs of each man show him naïve and shy and unsophisticated. But both managed to burn like the brightest of flames for generations, refusing to fade with the earliest great successes — only to have their lives snuffed out prematurely. Both sales benefit foundations to help young artists, and each foundation bears the name of its benefactor. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Liberace Foundation for the Performing and Creative Arts are the beneficiaries of these magnificent collections, accumulated, one cannot help feeling, by people too lonely to have heirs. Their progeny is their own work and their hodge-podges of objects, and if these sales are glamorously sentimental, they are also a bit sad.
The directors of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are eager to assure the public that these sentimental sales will never become the rule, and that we ought not to expect every collector who dies to be made into a public figure designed to provoke our love. but there are certainly lots of old or dying personalities ripe for such exploitation, and the houses will not shy from presenting them in the most fascinating light they can. What of the obsessiveness this provokes? “It’s like comedy,” explains John Culme, with a canny smile. “It doesn’t work if you don’t play it straight.”