Surreal Estate

New York

Left: The auctioneer. Right: Hamish Bowles, Vogue European editor at large. (All photos: David Velasco)

While the smaller fry have eBay, Christie’s estate auctions are yard sales for rich people. A bit more personalized than the usual auction, estate sales give you a (highly orchestrated) sense of one individual megashopper, whose accumulation, needless to say, is “significant” enough to merit a one-person show. At once mythologizing the collector (and her stash)—and clinically reducing it to shekels—the auction as ritual strikes a weird balance between a memorial service and a financial autopsy.

For those of you (like me) who didn’t know of María Félix (1914–2002), aka La Doña, the deceased shopper was a Mexican film icon in the ’40s; a celebrated beauty, jet-setter, art collector (mostly fantasias of herself by Diego Rivera, as well as by Surrealists Léonora Carrington and Antoine Tzapoff), and world-class accumulator of furniture, couture, and porcelain (including a massive selection of Jacob Petit—the largest ever to appear on the auction block!). The lavish catalogue documents her bona fides as a full-on “diva at home in high society and with artists on both continents” who “admired the intelligence of Jean-Paul Sartre.” And I continue to quote, because who can beat this? “Her clothes for smart race-going and even smarter parties and balls after the races were designed and made for her by Jean Desses, Dior, Valentino, Chanel, Givenchy, YSL . . . leading her to be named one of the Best Dressed women in the world in 1984.” Another fun fact: “She had inherited from her Swiss banker [fourth] husband a stable of thoroughbred racing horses at Chantilly outside Paris which at its height, had over 100 horses for which saddles and bridles, together with the jockey’s silks, were made for María Félix by Hermès.” Even her horses wore Hermès, OK?

While Christie’s first-floor gallery displayed a mise-en-scène evoking Félix’s lavish abodes, one needs the catalogue photos to truly grasp the over-the-topness we’re dealing with. She lived in a domestic phantasmagoria that was like Elsie de Wolfe meets Salvador Dalí: an exuberant temple of narcissism loaded with surreal beasties; tons of porcelain, ormolu, clam shells, and clawed feet galore; and furniture such as a “Regency polychrome painted dragon form day bed” (lot 267, estimated at twenty to forty thousand dollars) and garnished throughout by portraits of the diva in mythological getups. An amazing artifact in itself, the catalogue exalts Félix’s vanity as both a vocation and an achievement (“She never forgot her mother’s words, ‘It is not enough to be pretty; you need to know how to be pretty’”), juxtaposing glamour shots of La Doña in languid poses (perhaps dreaming of her next porcelain purchase?) with the exhaustive inventory of her stash.

Left: Lots from the María Félix sale. Right: Designer Nicolas Felizola.

In contrast to the catalogue’s paean to one woman’s greed, the vibe at Christie’s was downright Protestant: a demure, repressed-seeming cult of wealth. Like priests and nuns in subdued, irreproachably tasteful office attire, staffers scurried about the hushed paneled hallways, amid mysterious “bid” windows and tellers who seemed part church, part bank. Presiding at the podium, the auctioneer wielded the gavel with a cocky but solicitous air, maestrolike slicked-back hair, and a Windsor-knotted electric-blue cravat, ministering the transmutation of luxury goods into capital with an English accent and gracious hand gestures. He subtly flirted with the bidders on the floor—especially one Nicolas Felizola, a youngish “Mexican designer” in an open shirt and an Hermès belt who bought tons of couture. He was like a conductor eliciting a symphony of bids—from the floor, from the phone banks (absentee bidders calling in from their yachts and helicopters?), and online: the music of sales.

The James Christie Room felt like a sparsely attended conference of not particularly fab-seeming aficionados—with the exception of Hamish Bowles, slumped in the back. New York Times style photog Bill Cunningham was lurking there, too: “His presence always reassures me,” said my colleague, “that I’m at a ‘real’ event.” Indeed, sitting there watching the conversion of luxury goods back into capital became rather tedious. It was like being at a Final Judgment of sorts, where the “truth” of the collection is revealed according to the gospel of money. It took hours—and I attended only one afternoon session out of two days' worth. The fantasia of glamour elaborately conjured by the collector’s ego and celebrated by the catalogue is brusquely ripped away: Tchotchke by tchotchke, its naked truth (i.e., its market value) flashes across the ticker screen. Et voilà. When one of the more “important” lots, a darling Rivera portrait, sold for three hundred thousand dollars hammer (against an estimate of one fifty to two hundred thousand), there was a smattering of applause. Bravo.

“Though she finished her acting career in the 1960s,” discreetly crowed François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Europe, in the postsale summary, “the María Félix magic ran through the salesroom for two entire days.” Total haul: $7,299,640.

Rhonda Lieberman