To think Colin Stair almost left the Le Creuset behind.
This was months ago, when Stair was on a tour of Joan Didion’s Upper East Side apartment to select items that STAIR Galleries—the house for which he is the head auctioneer—would curate in a landmark auction of the late writer’s treasures. The planned sale would benefit two charities, with proceeds funding Parkinson’s research in New York and supporting a scholarship for women writers in Didion’s own Sacramento. For Stair, the visit was both a thrill and an almost somatic experience: “You could feel the cerebral sort of pulse of the place.” He was ecstatic.
Still, when it came to enameled cookware, he admits he “sort of squeaked a little.” Stair and Lisa Thomas, the director of the fine arts department at STAIR and the co-curator of the auction, had wanted the sale to be focused on items that could speak to Didion’s acclaimed career. The two zeroed in on books Didion loved or photos in which she had been immortalized or furniture referenced in her works.
“Even though there was nothing precious about her apartment, there was this overwhelming sense that someone great had occupied it,” Thomas explains. “You could feel it in the space. It was 10 minutes of goosebumps.” She wanted to do her justice.
Then Stair meandered into the kitchen where a set of unremarkable pots—chipped finish and all—were not quite so breathtaking. The auction would include two storied photos of Didion with her white corvette. It would feature a painted portrait of her—that would sell for an auction-topping $110,000. Who needed used pans? Representatives from the estate urged Stair and Thomas to reconsider. These were not just pots, but Joan Didion’s pots. Stair took them.
Credit where it’s due: Within the first few hours of the auction, the two lots of stained pots and pans sold for a total of $10,500—20 bids between them and about ten times their cumulative estimated value. Stair laughs. “That’s a real trip.”
It’s been eleven months since Didion died and there is still no question: the person best equipped to write about the absolute mania that ensued this week when her ephemera and artifacts hit the market is of course the woman whose collection of blank notebooks sold in said auction for $9,000.
Who but Didion could make sense of the fact that her unremarkable seashell collection netted $7,000. That her non-working desk clock—valued at $100—fetched $35,000, plus a 28% purchaser’s premium. Didion’s iconic and omnipresent Celine sunnies—made famous in an advertisement for the brand—sold for $27,000. A pair of leather waste paper baskets—one of which is splotched with apparent water damage—earned well over a dozen furious bids. The winner will take them home for the price of $5,500. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion once wrote. One wonders what the person who bought 13 of her 19 favorite books—not books she wrote, just books she owned and read—for $26,000 will tell themselves about that. Better be good!
Didion was a sharp chronicler of glamour as a mode of not just expression, but self-declaration. Her sentences oozed cool. Hers is the face that launched a thousand branded canvas totes! So it’s no wonder that when STAIR announced it would show her items in a preview exhibition for two weeks before the sale, the galleries were a crush of devoted Didionites determined to sit at the writer’s old desk or to touch her hurricane lamps. The interest demonstrates what Thomas calls “that emotional attachment that people have to her writing and to her as a person.”
But not all attachments are based in reason; and neither are all auction bids.
The frenzied sale drove prices far above what some once-hopeful shoppers could consider. A few hours after it ended, an acquaintance told me she’d set aside $1,500 to bid. She called the auction a “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to own a piece of one of her favorite writers. It took her about 20 minutes to accept that odds were good she would not score a single lot. (She didn’t.)
Liz Zaretsky—the director of online giving and membership at the New York Public Library—had planned to bid on a pair of medallions that Didion was awarded at the institution’s annual gala. Zaretsky was so intent on winning the medals that she didn’t tell her co-workers about the sale, lest she drum up internal competition.
“I cannot emphasize enough that these medals were not inscribed with her name,” Zaretsky insists. “You would have to have a level of sentimental value about this specific award to even care about these.”
She submitted a pre-bid of $150, crossing her fingers. “Like a fool!” she adds now. The medallions went for $2,300.
At several points during the marathon event, Stair himself seemed astounded as costs rose—a fact not lost on Twitter commentators. After the Celine sunglasses crossed the $16,000 threshold, Stair said what the rest of us were thinking: “These aren’t worth that!” A set of Val St. Lambert glass compotes prompted Stair to declare: “I’m going to fill the large one with vodka and olive juice when we’re done here.”
When bids on a pair of table napkins swelled to $14,000, Stair called it: “This is approaching Onassis” levels, he said, invoking the kind of spending that people associate with the late larger-than-life mogul Aristotle Onassis, second husband to one of the few women whose taste was as fabled as Didion’s. (Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.)
I ask Stair which lots stood out most to him, and the $27,000 sunglasses top his list. The waste baskets were another standout. Stair had waffled on those, but Thomas felt that the fact that the pair was positioned under one of Didion’s desks meant even the more damaged one deserved a showing. When the lot came up, Stair was prepared with his pitch: “Imagine the manuscripts that ended up in these!”
Is there something charmed about even Didion’s trash? Meg Zukin, a writer who placed multiple bids in advance and won a total of zero lots, reasons that if Didion were still alive “she would smite us all for participating” in the circus. But then, who knew better than she did about the talismanic power of stuff? The sale, Zukin thinks, was made all the more “mesmerizing and alluring” because Didion was a private person. For Zukin, the lots “offered up a glimpse behind the curtain.”
Just that—a glimpse. We will never know what drew Didion to a gilded-framed painting of a unicorn . . . with a shell on its back (final price: $6,500). Nor are we guaranteed to find out who scooped it up. Who paid $110,000 for a portrait of Didion that a non-professional artist painted of her? Who forked over thousands for napkins. Fans have their theories, several of which I received when I solicited guesses via Instagram. Patti Smith or Zadie Smith! A Kardashian! Sophia Macris, a creative director, thinks the director and actor Olivia Wilde could have been lurking. “It has to be a cool girl, someone who’s read Didion in college but someone who hasn’t ended up as an English grad student, because this auction was bank,” she writes in an email. “And it has to be a striver.” Macris envisions a home tour nine to twelve months from now in which Wilde tells an interviewer that a slim edition of poems on her shelf belonged to Didion. How’s that for magical thinking?
I ask Stair whether he’s as curious as the rest of us are about where some of these items will end up. He assumes most celebrities who bid—and there have to be some—did so through assistants or dealers. He reports that he saw just four names he recognized on the list of winning bidders. Of the 160 or so people who will get their piece of Didion, 150 of them were new to STAIR. Around 60 percent of them were in California. (Search Twitter for sleuths desperate to unmask online bidder 2000, who went home with several lots and drove up the prices of several more.)
The sale raised over $1.9 million for the Didion clan’s chosen charities. The prices were ridiculous and inflated and shocking, but at least one auction watcher found the totals validating. In a text, she wrote: “She was a genius. Her stuff should be valued as such.”
Stair and Thomas had a ball, although the duo is back to the auction grind. Another sale was scheduled for the morning after Didion’s ended. Stair watched dozens of old televised Didion interviews to prep for the event; he devoured her books. She was unreadable, but unfailing in her graciousness. Those limoges fish forks didn’t belong to some charlatan! Joan Didion was a hostess. Stair has wondered about what she would have made of the hoopla—those prices! He thinks she would have kept it as simple and inscrutable as ever. Perhaps just a warm thanks. Or: “I’m grateful.” Thomas laughs: “I don’t think she would have cared too much.”
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