There was quite a hubbub in New York over the last several weeks among design, fashion, and society cognoscenti (as well as on the blogosphere) about the Sotheby's auction held in late September of the belongings of the thrice-married Roberta Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor (1902-2007), the third and final wife of Mr. William Vincent Astor (1891-1959), also known as Brooke Astor.
|Mrs. Astor's rather tarnished silver (plate),|
just arrived at Darlington House
While the sale at Sotheby's on September 24th and 25th of the contents of Mrs. Astor's Park Avenue apartment and her Westchester country house, Holly Hill, elicited a storm of publicity, was heavily attended, and generated almost $19 million in proceeds (more than two times the high estimate), there was another, lesser-known sale of the dowager's effects on October 5th at Stair Galleries, an auction house in the Hudson River Valley.
I attended the preview of the Astor sale at Sotheby's in New York and was captivated by the elegance of the furniture, porcelains, objets de vertu, and art the society legend collected over her very long life. Sotheby's did a beautiful job of arranging Mrs. Astor's many belongings in room-like settings, which brought to life and provided context for how lovely the spaces they filled must have been in their day. I came away from the preview with the sense that I had just seen one of the last remnants of a fast-vanishing world of supreme comfort and elegance, exquisite formality, and measured order. Mrs. Astor clearly lived a very lovely life. At least until all that unpleasantness at the end, that is.
While there were any number of lots at the Sotheby's preview that caught my fancy, I didn't bother to leave a bid on anything as I suspected everything would go for dizzying prices, given the quality and provenance, and the hoards of souvenir hunters, too. I was correct, as it turned out. It all did.
However, I was not particularly bereft as I knew that I would have an opportunity to bid with greater likelihood of success (and at much more reasonable hammer prices) on some of Mrs. Astor's other effects in a week or two, at an upcoming sale of the society legend's lesser, mostly decorative things at Stair Galleries. And again I was correct.
Stair Galleries is a regional auction house based in Hudson, New York, that does a very good and growing business in antiques, estates, and art. In addition to a healthy business in direct consignments, Stair also partners from time to time with the larger New York auction houses in selling decorative-quality goods that come along with big-ticket estates but which are not the major houses' primary interest. It is not unusual to find groups of objects at a Stair sale that are easily identifiable as coming from a known estate that was recently auctioned in New York.
The Stair sale of Mrs. Astor's effects held on October 5th was advertised simply and discreetly by the auction house as a sale of "Property of a Lady," with no mention made or acknowledgment of who the lady in question might be. However, it was patently obvious from examining the 299 lots in the sale that the unidentified lady could only be Brooke Astor.
The Stair sale of the Property of a Lady was full of decorative goods, including soft furnishings, tables and chairs, lamps, china, silver, bibelots, linens, and clothing. Unlike the heavily publicized Sotheby's Astor sale, most of the goods sold at the Stair sale went within their very reasonable estimates. The lots that went above estimate—and there were several—mostly had some kind of clear association or identification with the Astors, such as a monogram or an inscription.
I was not able to attend the auction at Stair, held this past Friday evening, due to an inconveniently scheduled professional obligation at the Investment Bank where I work. However, Boy and his assistant Nancie Peterson, along with two weekend house guests of ours, did. All were successful in scooping up attractive bargains at the sale, and every one of them was delighted by their successes.
Boy came away with a large, silver-plated chafing dish, a silver-plated wine cooler, and four wine coasters. We agreed in advance that he would bid on these items to add to our collection of silver we use when entertaining. We wanted the chafing dish, even though we already own one, because we find that having more than one is useful when throwing a large buffet party. We certainly could have used it at the brunch party for 35 guests we held at Darlington House the previous weekend. Boy bid on the wine cooler because it is a near-match to one we already own that we use on the bar during large parties. Footed wine coolers are particularly useful because they do not sweat condensation onto one's tablecloths, as do ice buckets.
|The 1938 Astor wine cooler (shown on the right) is similar to the |
early-nineteenth-century one we bought years ago (on the left)
Another reason we decided to bid on the Astor wine cooler was because it is amusingly engraved "For Wince from Minnie and Carlo 1938." "Wince," I am convinced, refers to Vince (as in Vincent) Astor. The "Minnie" is (or was) Mary Benedict Cushing Astor Fosburgh (1906-1978), one of the famously well- (and frequently) marrying Cushing Sisters, including Betsey Maria Cushing Roosevelt Whitney (1908-1998) and Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer Paley (1915-1978). Minnie Cushing became the second Mrs. Vincent Astor in 1940, two years after she and "Carlo" gave the wine cooler to her future husband. I have not been able to identify "Carlo," but Boy suspects that the reason that Vincent Astor is referred to as "Wince" on the cooler is that this Carlo may have had difficulty in pronouncing the "V" in the beneficiary's name. It's all a play on pronunciation, Dear Reader.
|The wine cooler's amusing inscription|
I am quite pleased to have the additions of these Astor silver (plate) objects to our collection of silver for the entertaining household at Darlington House, and I look forward to using them at our next large party. I am confident that they will benefit from a polish quite nicely.
Should anyone reading this essay know the identity of "Carlo," I would be most grateful if you would please share it with me so that I can fill in the missing piece of this engraved puzzle.
Photographs by Boy Fenwick and Reggie Darling