After 22 hours of bidding, the blockbuster Sotheby’s auction live-streamed by the design faithful over lunch, dinner and late-night cocktails came to a close with a final gavel. The personal collections of Mario Buatta, the “Prince of Chintz,” brought in $7.6 million.
Prices for the 922 items ranged from $125 for a quirky wooden sign that says “Mario Buatta/Dr. Ruth Westheimer” to $212,500 for a 1928 painting of Paris by Russian-emigre artist Yuri Annenkov. A stash of Dodie Thayer lettuce-ware dishes sold for $60,000, and the 18th-century red Japanned bureau cabinet from Buatta’s New York living room went for $52,500.
A Dodie Thayer lettuce-ware service totaling 107 pieces sold for $60,000. (Sotheby's)
“It was one of the longest decorative arts sales in recent memory,” said Dennis Harrington, Sotheby’s head of English and European furniture. “There was a lot of excitement in the room, and for some of the items such as the dog paintings and the tulip cups, it’s a bit of a stereotype to say, but there was a sort of proverbial gasp in the room with the final price.”
The 1,200 bidders spent about 2½ times the sale’s high estimate; 4,000 visitors attended the week-long presale exhibition. The most competition came for a 174-piece set of Buccellati silver and bamboo flatware that was estimated at $5,000 to $7,000. Twenty-six bidders pushed the final price to $93,750. The flatware had sat unused in Buatta’s Manhattan apartment for several decades.
It was like the Super Bowl of the chintz and china set. New York designer Nick Olsen dubbed it “Buattacon.”
Social media was flooded with posts from designers and collectors rejoicing that they had scored something or dejected that their bids did not cut it. (Olsen was outbid on all of his choices.)
This Japanned bureau cabinet sold for $52,500. (Sotheby's)
Designer Charlotte Moss set up a war room in her office, where she laid out catalogues, bid sheets and cellphones as she and other decorators on her staff streamed the Sotheby’s proceedings. “It all adds up to so much fun,” said Moss, who was bidding for herself and her clients. She ended up with several-dozen Buatta treasures. One of the things she got for herself Friday, her birthday, was a 19th-century American painting ($6,000) of carnations, one of her favorite flowers. She plans to hang it by her bedside table.
Designers Jason Oliver Nixon and John Loecke of Madcap Cottage in North Carolina kept up with the auction by phone as they drove through Tennessee to meetings. They nabbed two lots: a set of four black and gold side chairs for $3,125 and the bargain of the sale, the Buatta/Westheimer sign. “We had to keep pulling off the road,” Nixon said.
The duo “love celebrating people who had interesting lives,” and they own items from the auctions of Bunny Mellon, Joan Rivers and Zsa Zsa Gabor. “This event was such a unique camaraderie of people coming together and sharing stories and texting their favorites,” Nixon added. “I don’t ever remember an auction that had this much effervescence.”
When Buatta met New York designer Young Huh, he handed her a plastic cockroach in a box, a gag he was known for on the design circuit. Now Huh has a piece of Buatta memorabilia from the auction. She got Lot 534, a pair of Louis XV painted chairs upholstered in Colefax & Fowler chintz. Huh, who paid $5,250 for the pair, says she plans to keep them “for a very, very long time, if not forever.” She added: “It was kind of a splurge, but I thought, I’ve just got to grab these. I really appreciate what these chairs mean.”
This eight-panel Chinese “Birthday Celebration” screen sold for $56,250. (Sotheby's)
Emily Evans Eerdmans, who organized the sale and had sorted through Buatta’s Upper East Side apartment, his Gothic-revival home in Connecticut and five storage units, was in the room observing the action to the end. The sale had exhausted eight auctioneers, and at 11 p.m. Friday, when the last item was gaveled “sold,” Eerdmans joined in the clapping but begged off the champagne toast. “People kept texting and DM-ing me all through the two days of the sale about the crazy prices,” she said. She was ready to go home.
It’s not over. On March 13 and 14 and April 23 and 24, Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y., will auction “The Collection of Mario Buatta”: 1,400 dog paintings, porcelains, painted furniture and botanical engravings that were not part of last week’s auction. Some of these are expected to go for a few hundred dollars, according to Jo Olsen, Stair Galleries’ head of marketing, making them more affordable to a larger audience.
“Will there be a saturation point?” Eerdmans said. “How much love is there for Mario?”
Stay tuned. Stair is having a custom-made chintz flag sewn for the occasion to hang outside its front door.
Online bidding in Stair Galleries upcoming sale, “The Collection of Mario Buatta” will be available on Bidsquare.
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