Published September 23, 2012
NEW YORK – Brooke Astor was the immaculately dressed grande dame of New York City, a philanthropist, taste-setter and host extraordinaire, at ease with kings and queens and world leaders.
She adored animals, especially dogs, flowers and books. Floral patterns and animal sculptures were decorative motifs throughout her two sumptuous homes: a 14-room duplex on Park Avenue and her country estate, Holly Hill, overlooking the Hudson River in Briarcliff Manor, New York.
Sotheby's is offering the contents of both homes, 901 objects in all, including European and Asian furnishings, Old Masters, Qing Dynasty paintings, tea sets, silverware, jewelry, a porcelain menagerie, over 100 dog paintings -- and even the uniforms of her domestic staff -- at a two-day auction on Monday and Tuesday.
Astor died in 2007 at age 105.
In keeping with her wishes and life's motto that "money is like manure; it should be spread around," proceeds from the sale will go to the institutions and causes she supported. They include what she called the city's crown jewels -- the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, plus the Animal Medical Center of New York, New York City's public schools and charities in Maine.
The collection is expected to fetch a total of $6 million to $9 million.
The auction comes after a nasty family feud involving her only son, Anthony Marshall. The five-year dispute ended in March with a settlement that freed $100 million for her charities and cut by more than half the amount going to Marshall, who was convicted of taking advantage of his mother's dementia, partly by engineering changes to her will. He has appealed.
The dispute had threatened to deplete the entire estate.
Astor spent her life putting the fortune that her third husband, Vincent Astor, left to use where it would do the most to alleviate human misery. Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.
Among the items expected to bring one of the highest bids is an Imperial Chinese gilt-bronze lion clock estimated at $180,000 to $220,000.
Astor developed her passion for Asian jade and porcelain and lacquered furniture as a child due to her father's military career that took the family all over the world.
But not everything in the sale is for deep-pocketed buyers. A group of four large white tin-glazed earthenware hounds and a figure of a reclining tiger, for example, carry a pre-sale estimate of $2,000 to $3,000. Two needlepoint pictures are estimated at $200 to $300.
"This is a woman who surrounded herself with the things that she loved," said Elaine Whitmire, vice chairman of Sotheby's single-owner collections. "You can see it in the upholstery, you can see it in the porcelain that she used, floral, animal and Asian-inspired."
"You see not only paintings of dogs, but also sculptures of camels, bulls and pigs. She clearly adored animals, and that passion was reflected not only in her residences ... they were also the passions of her philanthropic legacy," added Whitmire.
Whitmire, who toured both properties in preparation for the auction, said the residences exuded sophistication and elegance but also "put you at great ease."
Her homes were decorated by high-society designer Sister Parish -- the same interior decorator Jacqueline Kennedy hired for the White House -- but it's Astor who comes across, not the decorators, she said.
"You knew instantly you were walking into a home of a woman who was a fantastic host, who was comfortable with the things she lived with, and she wanted her guests to feel that way," added Whitmire. Parish's business partner, Albert Hadley, created the duplex's library, where Astor entertained world dignitaries.
There are 64 pieces of jewelry in the sale, including a magnificent emerald and diamond necklace and earrings for which Vincent Astor selected the stones in 1958. Vincent Astor died a short time later with the jewelry not completed. Nearly two years later, Astor received the finished necklace from the Italian jeweler Bulgari.
Sotheby's estimates the necklace will bring $250,000 to $350,000. The earrings may fetch an extra $30,000 to $40,000.
Astor is pictured in the auction catalog wearing the pieces while chatting with President Lyndon Johnson at a dinner dance in his honor at the Plaza Hotel in 1969.
"A woman who dined with kings and queens and presidents -- that is a provenance that doesn't get much better," said Whitmire.