BY Michael Duncan in News | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Saints' Blood and Pale Ice Pink

Trawling the celebrity auctions

BY Michael Duncan in News | 06 MAR 95

In Christie's January auction of the contents of Rudolf Nureyev's New York apartment, a pink pair of 'considerably soiled and worn' ballet slippers broke a sale price record (estimate $40-60, sold $9200). This almost doubled the amount paid for the previous lot, a blue pair that was only 'slightly soiled and worn.' When it comes to hagiography, sweat makes the relic, and in the case of Nureyev, foot sweat is saint's blood.

Sold to benefit his dance foundation, the auction featured an array of amazing costumes, over the top furniture, and paintings by none less than Reynolds, Lawrence and Fuseli. Cleaning out the closets of Nureyev's lush apartment in the Dakota, the kinkier lots included such items as a Yamaha electronic keyboard (sold $345), a Nehru-collared snakeskin suit with flared trousers and matching knee-high platform boots ($2,300), and - a double diva special - a pair of plush sofas previously owned by Maria Callas (est. $6,000-8,000, sold $43,700). The appeal of these odd lots transcends the ordinary good taste evidenced in the man's antique furniture, Kashmir shawls, and gorgeous kilims. They fill out a richer portrait, one outfitted in - say - 'a pair of raw silk harem lounging pants with floral embroidery' and 'a jerkin of silver fox.'

In the past decade, estate sales have disseminated the armchairs, art, doodles, love-letters, photos and seashells of other gay art-world cult figures including Edward James (Christie's NY, 1986), Stephen Tennant (Sotheby's NY, 1987), Boris Kochno (Sotheby's Monaco, 1991), and Virgil Thompson (Sotheby's NY, 1990). Benefitting private foundations or consortia of heirs, these auctions have divvied up the collections of some of the century's great eccentrics, making it possible for cult followers to auction-paddle their way to their own piece of historical fabulousness. In an auction, anyone who has the cash can 'inherit' something from an estate, with no ungrateful heirs standing in the way. This free market primogeniture suits these self-made gay iconoclasts whose rarefied tastes forced them to seek out the like-minded as substitute family members. Carrying this tradition further, it is left to their spiritual heirs to discern the true value of - for example - Stephen Tennant's 'sugar pink paper taffeta curtains', his 'Bendix auto-washer', or his sympathetic letters from Willa Cather.

For style groupies without means, the catalogues for these auctions serve as instructional manuals, fantasy recipes for the refinement of the outré. In the 30s, Edward James completely redecorated Monkton House on his family's estate, painting it puce and outfitting it with wooden palm trees, dog-print carpeting, and his immense surrealist collection of Tchelitchevs, Dalis, and Leonora Carringtons. The Monkton House auction catalogues are in five volumes, listing the art, decoration, and library of a man who installed painted plaster faux draperies, disguised his medicine cabinet as a bookcase, and commissioned Dali's lobster telephone and sofa in the shape of Mae West's lips.

For someone like Stephen Tennant, collections of decorative objects embody his wilfully extreme sensibility. Like 'objective correlatives', they represent more than material goods; they outline a psychological profile, marking their owner as society's 'other': the Queer, the Hopelessly High Homo. Out of the closet in 'pale ice pink,' Tennant retired to Wilsford with the dissolution of his romance with poet Siegfried Sassoon. As the years passed, the house's decor came to cast its own sexual spell. Tennant's journals describe his Silver Room as reducing his soul and senses to 'swooning, happy, helpless pulp.' His gilded mirrors, bear rugs and ice cream coloured furniture became a kind of mask exaggerating his fey reclusion from the outside world. Now completely dispersed, Tennant's hermetic fantasyland retains its appeal in the manner of a performance - through the documentation of the auction catalogue.

The estate auction of a workaday artist such as Virgil Thomas offers a different, more homespun kind of experience, dividing up arcane and nostalgic mementos from a lifetime of art-making. Utilitarian and sentimental, his modest inventory sums up the cranky and forthright appeal of a man who never lost his quiet integrity and composure. Thomson himself was a collector of relics, and his auction featured perhaps the quintessential cult collectable: a vest with a multicoloured butterfly pattern, handsewn by Alice B. Toklas for Gertrude Stein (est. $400-600, sold $18,000). In words of the catalogue writer, 'The fabric is whimsical and the craftsmanship is fine.'

Celebrity auction open closet doors, selling historically and biographically charged items with a kind of bland indifference. In the auction of Boris Kochno (boyfriend/secretary to both Diaghelev and Christian Berard), lot 384 consists of 23 letters from Cole Porter who fell hard for the handsome Russian; after their parting in 1925 he writes, quoting himself: 'Night and Day, You are the one...' The auction house sells the physical evidence of such secret affairs, thus putting a price tag on an intimate but historical revelation (estimate FF10,000-12,000). The psychological weight of such objects accrues in these catalogues, insisting on the lingering presence of the deceased. Hagiography is a cheerfully greedy and imprecise science, one that depends on the hope that the aura of the saint may be transferable.

In an odd and unusual marketing ploy, Christie's included in the Nureyev catalogue the prices the dancer paid for certain high-ticket artworks. Nureyev made many of these purchases after 1984 when he was diagnosed HIV positive, in a spending spree which included a new home in St. Barts and an island off the coast of Italy. Judging by the Christie's figures, he paid top dollar at the peak of the market for paintings at Agnews, Feigen, and the auction houses, sometimes buying works for double or triple their value today. Reading between the lines of the catalogue, one can see a different aspect of Nureyev's much criticised denial of AIDS. Beyond the superhuman efforts to keep dancing and choreographing to the end, his will to live is apparent in his obsessive drive to keep amassing objects, to fill his walls with paintings, to stretch his closets with more gorgeousess. In retrospect as one flips through the auction catalogue, his denial reads as affirmation.