A view of the room during the “Elizabeth Taylor Collection” sale at Christie’s. (All photos: Andy Guzzonatto)
ELIZABETH TAYLOR has been a legend for so long she’s always been undead to anyone alive enough to read this. So the availability of her actual stuff—for mere millions and millions of bucks—is vaguely surreal. This week, I went to the cult of Liz at Christie’s—on Monday, a “museum caliber” viewing of “The Elizabeth Taylor Collection” (looky-loos could get a ticket for thirty dollars), and on Wednesday, the third of six auctions: “The Icon and Her Haute Couture, Evening Sale.”
I’ve always found Liz fabulous in spite of the ostentation rather than because of it. There’s something nauseating and funny in seeing how the ultra-high-end marketing of the auction house turns stardom into money fetishism (as if record-breaking numbers validate the mythology). “Star power boosted the price into the stratosphere!” says the New York Post. Yes, she was very gorgeous—had a genetic mutation that gave her double-eyelashes (as well as a heart condition, it said in some footnote). She comes across as such a fun broad in the Warhol Diaries—a real boozer! And even her beauty was so human—the champagne chin and “a bit short in the leg,” as Richard Burton commented. (I can sympathize there.) She really should have skipped the hot pants—all too well represented in her 1960s wardrobe. “She was wearing hot pants in the airport?” A lady was shocked by Lot 694, aka the Granny hot pants ensemble, “worn at Heathrow Airport in 1971 where Miss Taylor and Richard Burton had just returned from visiting their first grandchild.” Not her best look.
Elizabeth (don’t call her Liz! we learn again in the Warhol Diaries) was basically a high-end hoarder. She liked rocks: Bulgari, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, even Chinese scholars’ stones and big purple geodes. There was a ton of couture (well cared for: Curator Meredith Etherington-Smith commended the megastar’s “museum-quality packing”). Overall, the sensibility was Boca on steroids: enough caftans to dress the Golden Girls for decades, lots of gorgeous beading. My favorite stuff was from the ’60s. (One of the pieces on fire at the auction was a silver-encrusted Dior evening gown and bag that went for $362,500; expected price: $4,000–6,000.) Fugly Versace from the ’80s and early ’90s. Loads of Vuitton luggage with handy lavender tags that said MINE!, lest they get confused with someone else’s ton of Vuitton bags. (Two sets went for $110,000 each.)
“What was so amazing? Those pocketbooks, those pocketbooks,” raved a fellow “viewer,” as we moved in pack formation through “The Collection.” It was hilarious to overhear the cult of Liz commentary, mostly very “done” ladies and honorary ladies who came to gawk at the legendary movie star’s stuff. André Leon Talley was impossible to miss, towering a head above the pack, looking pensive. There was a hubbub at the Lucite barrier keeping us out of the bag shrine—a darling white chamber lined with shelves filled with designer purses in every cracked-out color you could imagine. Lots of feathers. I wanted to move in. (“Just one Judith Leiber?” sniffed a champagne blonde helmet head.) This was a fraction of Elizabeth’s actual purse room in Beverly Hills, as seen in a photograph. In the next gallery, paintings by Van Gogh, Utrillo, Pissarro, Frans Hals, Renoir, and an early self-portrait by Degas were passed by unremarked.
To know Elizabeth was to give her baubles: gifts from pals Michael Jackson (a cute elephant-shaped onyx minaudiere) and Malcolm Forbes sparkled along with offerings from the husbands. (The diamond “Ping-Pong ring” was a little nothing from Richard Burton for winning a game. Went for $134,500; estimated: $5,000–$7,000.) There was so much jewelry, one marveled she found time to even wear it all.
Indeed, the gods of jewelry also help those who help themselves. There’s a funny anecdote in Bob Colacello’s Warhol memoir Holy Terror: In the ’60s, Elizabeth did a movie for producer Franco Rossellini “expenses only”—no salary. But “expenses” for Elizabeth included shopping at Bulgari every day! She popped in there the way I go to Duane Reade. She was “believed to have continued buying dresses, gowns, blouses, and jewelry even as she lay stricken in the hospital last year before her death,” said the New York Post. She literally shopped until she dropped.
There was so much of it—but she wasn’t off-putting, like other greedheads. I reflected with a glamour-maven pal, who observed: “Well, she was up-front about” her greed. “There was a kind of innocence, childlike—she was a child star. And she was so generous, raised millions for AIDS. And if she weren’t so generous, it might be offensive.”
At the end of a purple carpet, the famous thirty-two-carat Elizabeth Taylor diamond, a highlight of The Collection, was regally displayed (estimate: $2,500,000–$3,500,000; sold: $8.8 million). A bored guard stood next to the vitrine where the crowd gushed over the rock nonstop: “OMG!” “Did she wear it?” “She wore it all the time!” “It almost hurts your eyes!” “Richard Burton!” one helmet head hollered to her friend.
It was fabulous. Who did I run into outside but Liz-ophile Kathe Burkhart? In a black fake fur chapeau and heavy Liz-inspired eyeliner, she assessed the Icon’s duds: “Most of that shit I wouldn’t wear to a dogfight.” We watched the cult of Liz as they exited Christie’s into the fresh air of Rockefeller Center: “I’ve never seen so many noses that look exactly alike,” commented the artist. “It was like a nose festival. It’s like there are one or two doctors, they all have the same one: the ski jump model, the button nose model. The obligatory highlights [in the hair]. It’s a place to wear your mink coat—that’s what this is!” As if on cue, a mother and daughter walked by: both blonde, in identical nose jobs and minks. “What can did you two come out of?” Burkhart guffawed, “They live. It’s a glamour show of the 1 percent. There are so many of them. There are more, though, of us. The 1 percent gives me the butt willies!” she cracked herself up. “Write that down!”
Left: Fern Mallis. Right: A view of the room during the Christie’s sale.
IN CONTRAST to the high spirits of the viewing, the auction had the clinical gravitas of a fashion autopsy via big bucks. The sober wood paneling struck a note midway between a church and a bank. Befitting the fabulosity of the merch, the staff was tootsed up yet sedate in tasteful black cocktail attire. Killer heels on the younger lady staff, black tie for the fellows, and one chap inexplicably buzzed around in a kilt and white knee socks. (Was it the Christie’s ancestral tartan?)
The crowd was Upper East Side high-maintenance with a sprinkling of crazy bag lady. In general, if you’re going to an auction like this and you can’t get it together to look polished, just wear crazy shoes, a giant necklace, or something sequined. You’ll blend right in. I noticed two youngish women who looked like they worked in a resale shop: a slim redhead in a gold sequined skirt and bondage heels; her curvy pal in a knit dress under a lumpy feather-trimmed coat that bobbled as she walked. To my surprise, they were bidding away over $20,000 for couture. They never won, but who are these people? I spotted mavens Fern Mallis and Robert Verdi. Fashion model Coco Rocha bought something (she tweeted: “I am now the proud owner of an amazing 1980s yellow and pink Givenchy suit worn and owned by the legendary ELIZABETH TAYLOR!! WHAT!?”).
Over the paneled phone banks, giant head shots of Elizabeth at the height of her glamour haunted the room like a guardian angel of fabulosity and surplus value. She looked like a million bucks, sporting the “Mike Todd Tiara” and the chandelier earrings. This was Christie’s time of reckoning: rendering fantasy into cold, hard cash. Auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski was mesmerizing. (“I love Andrea,” gushed a Christie’s staffer in black tie. “She looks like an Yves Saint Laurent mannequin from the ’70s. So powerful.”)
She kept things hopping with her mellifluous voice and her poise, with her gestures a cross between a musical conductor, a flight attendant, and a firm disciplinarian: “Fair warning . . . Hammer down!” Her metallic silver frock seemed to twinkle with approval as the bids flowed in (Italy, China, Minnesota came through online. “Grazia, Italia!” she enunciated über-precisely. “Coming back in here in New York?” she scanned the room. “It’s online at $48,000 . . . ”)
In the afterglow of the record-breaking sales she presided over—like a human eBay interface—she mingled with a small group of press.
“You’re the star!” Pat Frost, Christie’s Head of Fashion, hailed her.
“No, Liz is the star,” Andrea replied. Close up, I noticed TV-caliber pancake makeup.
I made like Joan Rivers and asked her who she was wearing. The preternaturally poised auctioneer seemed abashed.
“Was that a not-kosher question?” (I feared the hammer.)
“Not at all. I wish I had a fabulous answer. I don’t know the designer. I just picked it up yesterday at Saks.”
Left: Stylist Robert Verdi and designer Mckenzie Liautaud. Right: Auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski.
Curator Meredith Etherington-Smith, who’d also organized sales of Diana’s and Marilyn’s stuff, said the record-breaking numbers tonight ($2.6 million) were “the highest for [a] fashion auction anywhere” which “shows [fashion] is part of our culture and is to be taken seriously. Wait till tomorrow when we get to the handbags. It’s going to be very serious.” “Serious” is my new favorite way to say “pricey!”
I repaired to the ladies room. A big gal in a vintage, thrift-shoppish maxi with a “tribal” necklace à la Liz, black eyeliner, and a black bob looked a bit verklempt, sitting on the counter dabbing her eyes.
“Nice frock,” I said. “You’re dressed for the occasion. I feel underdressed.”
“I’m always overdressed. My name is Elizabeth Taylor. Last night was really intense. Stuff started at $150,000 and it would go up so fast.” The numbers “seemed like nothing. But tonight was mellow,” she sniffled, still seemingly overwhelmed. She was a real fan who “came both nights just to say I was here.”
Were you bidding?
“Play bidding! I’m all about online,” (where over nine hundred more lots were being auctioned). “I’m eyeing a caftan. But if I don’t get it, that’s OK, my name is still Elizabeth Taylor,” she said poignantly. “You know her son was here tonight. I was too afraid to speak to him—didn’t want him to think I’m a stalker.”
On my way out, I passed a lavender wall with an Andy Warhol quote on it: “Ohhhh, Elizabeth Taylor. Ohhhh. She is so Glamorous.” (The top seller of the evening was an Andy Warhol lithograph, Liz, dedicated “to Elizabeth with much love.” Purchase price $662,500; estimate: $30,000–$50,000.)
“Elizabeth Taylor” walked by: “You just want to stay here,” she said dreamily. “Don’t you?”