Photo: Courtesy of Stair Galleries
They made me put on her sunglasses. You know the one – big, dark, Céline, tortoiseshell. How did they make me feel? Great, honestly. Very cool. My first thought: flee. Take them. I imagined escaping the gallery and storming into the street. The staff would have been surprised so I would have had a head start. Then the adrenaline would have started. I’m convinced I could have gotten away with the $27,000 sunglasses.
On Wednesday, Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, auctioned off some of Joan Didion’s belongings, with the proceeds going to Parkinson’s research at Columbia University and the Sacramento Historical Society. Maybe you’ve read about it. Leading up to the sale, when the bidding began online on Oct. 31, each outlet sent a correspondent, and each correspondent dug into the details. Didion died last year at age 87, and the sale may mark the end of a public mourning period, including a memorial at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in September, and an ongoing exhibit at LA’s Hammer Museum through September. through February 2023.
The auction included fine art, furniture, books and trinkets from Didion’s Upper East Side apartment. I visited the week of November 7 and the items took up two rooms of the gallery. Personally, the scale was modest. Certain areas of Didion’s house were recreated, the tableau on her desk, the arrangement of the cushioned couches from her living room. Books were grouped by author or theme: books about New York, books about Richard Avedon, books by women poets.
Lisa Thomas, director of the fine arts department at Stair, said: ‘We took these books right off her bookshelf and they are, for the most part, very worn and used. She read and reread her books from her library.” She told me about the amount of interest the sale had received (a lot), as well as the most popular items (the sunglasses, a group of 13 blank notebooks that went “kind of viral”).
There was a brass Cartier desk clock. It’s elegant, a nice size, though non-operational, and has some “little pits in the metal” that I liked. A small stack of Elizabeth Hardwick books would have easily slipped into my bag. I would have taken Richard Serra’s painting, a black quadrangle on a cream background, pleasantly strict. It would have looked great in my house, and what a story.
She had nice things, Thomas and I agreed. Thomas called her style “part of this kind of ’70s, California, boho, creative thing that was going on. And then you mix it with this New York literary chic.”
I thought, before I came to the gallery, Why bid on someone’s dusty old stuff? It felt akin to owning movie props. The Bat Suit, or something like that. Dorothy’s ruby slippers. It seemed like an impulse from Planet Hollywood, part of our national celebrity obsession. What are you going to do with Joan Didion’s hurricane lamp, I thought, make an altar?
But then I tried on the sunglasses. They were labeled “Lot 5” and by the time I put them up, the leading bid was $3,200. Their final price tag could be $5,000, I (naively) speculated. For $440 you could buy them brand new. You can buy them at any time on the Céline website. But I can’t deny that I felt a load when I put them on. I know it was imagined. I know that none of a writer’s essence sticks to her possessions after death. I know that genius is not transferable through luxury goods. Still.
The auction was held virtually, like all Stair Galleries auctions since the pandemic hit. Thomas told me that they miss seeing customers in person, but the energy of a live auction online is not wasted. When I watched the bidding, I understood what she meant. It took founder and president Colin Stair a few exciting, nerve-racking hours. He took bids from three different online platforms. A handful of people in the room with him called out dial-in bids. It went exactly like an auction of every movie you’ve ever seen.
Things started to go off the rails when the first painting brought in $110,000. Until then, the bidding had been competitive, but somewhat reasonable. Lot 1, a group of Didion’s copies of her own books, sold for $15,000. That made sense, I thought. Hardcore book collectors would want those. Lot 2, a photo of Didion in a black turtleneck, went for $17,000. Well, okay, a beautiful, iconic photo. Lot 3 was where the big spend started. It was a collection of 15 books that Didion loved to read each year, including Joyce Carol Oates WonderlandRenata Adlers Speedboatand VS Naipaul’s Guerrillas. The bid had been only $300 online, but went up to $26,000 in a matter of moments.
Lot 4 was the painting, a portrait of Didion by Leslie Johnson, painted in 1977, and given to Didion as a gift. It is shown in peach, gray and brown. Didion sits up in bed and looks at the viewer with one sad eye. The bidding started and it continued. At some point, it stopped rising in $1,000 increments and switched to $5,000 increments.
Then we came to lot 5, the sunglasses (my sunglasses). Offer open at $10,000. Final price $27,000. I had an irrational feeling, around $20,000, that I’d like to see them go for a million dollars. When we start to lose all sense of proportionI thought, let’s go big.
The rest of the auction went about the same for 224 lots. Two photos of Didion with her famous stingray sold for $24,000 and $26,000. Her desk, made famous in a photo of her with her daughter, Quintana, and her husband, John, set amid walls of books, went for $60,000. The blank notebooks I talked to Thomas about went for $9,000. Some kind of ugly rattan chair went for $28,000. Perhaps the funniest was Lot 50, a bunch of shells and pebbles – literal rocks, out of the ground. For stones from the ground and shells from the sea, an anonymous bidder paid $ 7,000.
Photo: Courtesy of Stair Galleries
When I think of objects in Didion’s writing, I remember: Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants worn without underwear, the record Blonde on blonde, Quintana’s 66 christening gowns. And of course the famous packing list from the title essay of The white album. The popularity of the list irritates me. Women’s publications like to suggest that readers pack this way too (“2 skirts, 2 sweaters or leotards, 1 pullover,” and so on). It’s easy to forget that the essay the list comes from deals with the Manson murders and Didion’s own deteriorating mental health, among other things. She packed up to put things in order in a world gone mad.
Taking the list out of context and emulating it is silly, but I don’t think Didion’s personal style could be dismissed so easily. The auction would indicate that I am not alone. The swirl of signifiers in her writing evokes Manhattan, Malibu, the glamorous heyday of publishing, a mythical and money-worthy American West. In ‘The White Album’ and elsewhere in her work, the objects are irrelevant; they are exactly the point.
Still $27,000 for a pair of sunglasses. $7,000 for pebbles.
Can we conclude from the results of this auction that people care deeply about literature? Can we feel comforted that so much money is going to charity? Or is this a bizarre display of greed? Baited vultures? I have a few friends who were moved by Didion’s writing and placed modest bids before prices hit the stratosphere. Was what they wanted weird or dirty?
Most of us can’t afford to own anything by Didion, but if you’re a fan, you already own a piece of her. You own the most intimate and personal piece of her that a stranger can own. It is your unique interpretation of her work. As it lived in your head as you read it. I don’t know how sunglasses compare to that.