Seriously overselling Joan Didion’s real estate

Image source: Stair Galleries

They let me wear her sunglasses. You know the ones – big, dark, celine, tortoiseshell. How did they make me feel? Honestly great. very Wonderful. My first thought: run. Take them. I imagined myself running away from the gallery, rushing out into the street. The staff would have been surprised, so I had a head start. Then the adrenaline will kick in. I’m sure I could have pulled off the $27,000 sunglasses.

On Wednesday, Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, was auctioned off Some of Joan Didion’s possessions, with proceeds going to Parkinson’s Disease Research at Columbia University and the Sacramento Historical Society. You may have read about it in the lead up to the sale, as online bidding opened on October 31st, All Director I sent A reporter and every reporter scrutinizes the details. Didion died last year at the age of 87, and the sale may mark the end of a period of public mourning, which included Memoriato at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan in Sept., and on-going Show At the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until February 2023.

The auction included fine art, furniture, books, and bric-a-brac from Didion’s Upper East Side apartment. I visited the week of November 7th and the items occupied two rooms of the exhibition. In person, the scale was modest. Certain spaces from Didion’s home, the tableaux on her desk, and the design of the slipcovered sofas from her living room have been recreated. The books are grouped by author or subject: books about New York, books about Richard Avedon, books by women poets.

Lisa Thomas, director of fine art at Stair, said, “We took these books straight from her bookshelves and they are, for the most part, well-worn and well-used. She has read and re-read books from her library.” She told me how much attention the sale got (a lot), and what items were her hottest (sunglasses, a set of 13 blank notebooks that went “kind of viral”).

There was a Cartier brass desk clock. It’s sleek, a nice size, though it doesn’t work and has some “slight pitting to the metal” that I liked. A small stack of Elizabeth Hardwicke books could easily have slipped into my bag. I had picked up a Richard Serra painting, a black quartet on a cream background, delightfully intense. It would have looked great in my house, and what a story.

She had nice things, Thomas and I agreed. Thomas described her style as “a bit of that kind of ’70s, California, boho, creative thing that was going on. And then you mix it up with this literary New York chic.”

I thought, before I went to the show, Why bid on someone’s dusty old stuff? It felt akin to owning a movie prop. Bat suit, or something. Dorothy’s ruby ​​slippers. It seemed like a Planet Hollywood impulse, part of our national obsession with celebrity. What are you going to do with Joan Didion’s lamp, making an altar?

But then I tried wearing sunglasses. They were labeled a “set 5” and by the time I put them in the main bid was $3200. I speculated (naively) that their final price could clear $5,000. For $440, you can buy it brand new. You can buy them at any time on Céline website. But I can’t deny that I felt charged when I wore it. I know it was imaginary. I know that nothing of the writer’s essence clings to her possessions after death. I know that genius is not transferable by means of luxury goods. And yet.

The auction took place virtually, like all Stair Galleries auctions since the pandemic hit. Thomas told me they miss seeing customers in person, but the energy of a live auction isn’t wasted online. While watching the bid, I could see what she meant. Founder and President Colin Steyer has run it over many exciting and nerve-wracking hours. Take bids from three different online platforms. A bunch of people in the room with him shouted at the recall shows. It went just like the auction from every movie I’ve ever seen.

Things started to go awry when the first painting sold for $110,000. Until then, bidding was competitive, but fairly reasonable. Lot 1, a collection of Didion’s copies of her books, sold for $15,000. I thought that made sense. Hardcore book collectors want these. Lot 2, a portrait of Didion in a black turtleneck, went for $17,000. Well, okay, pretty iconic image. Group 3 was where the big spending started. It was a collection of 15 books that Didion loved to read every year, including books by Joyce Carol Oates wonderlandRenata Adler speedboatand VS Naipaul’s guerrilla. Bidding was only $300 online but it rose to $26,000 in a matter of moments.

Lot 4 was the painting, a portrait of Dion by Leslie Johnson painted in 1977, and given to Didion as a gift. It is presented in peach, gray and brown. Didion sits up in bed, looking at the viewer with a sad eye. Bidding started and continued. At a certain point, it stops increasing in $1,000 increments and turns into $5,000 increments.

Then we got to group 5, sunglasses (my sunglasses). The bid opened at $10,000. The final price is $27,000. I had an irrational feeling, around the $20,000 mark – I’d like to see them go for a million dollars. If we would lose all sense of proportionI believed, Let’s go big.

The rest of the auction went pretty much the same way with 224 lots. Two photos of Dion with her famous Stingray sold for $24,000 and $26,000. Pictured with her daughter Quintana and husband John, amidst walls of books, her desk famously fetched $60,000. The blank notebooks I spoke with Thomas about went for $9,000. Some kind of ugly rattan chair went for $28,000. Perhaps the funniest was Lot 50, a collection of seashells and pebbles – literal rocks, from the ground. For rocks from the ground and shells from the sea, an anonymous bidder paid $7,000.

Image source: Stair Galleries


When I think of the things featured in Didion’s writing, I’m reminded of: Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants without underwear, the record blonde on blondeQuintana’s 66th Christening Dresses. And of course, the famous packing list from the title article for white album. The list’s popularity bothers me. Women’s publications love to suggest readers pack this way, too (“two skirts, two shirts or dresses, one pullover,” etc.). It’s easy to forget that the article the list came from is about, among other things, the Manson murders and Didion’s declining mental health. I packed up like this trying to bring order to a world gone mad.

Taking the list out of context and parodying it is absurd, but I don’t think Didion’s personal style can be dismissed so easily. The auction will indicate that I am not alone. The swirl of functions in her writing evokes Manhattan and Malibu, the glamorous heyday of the publishing industry, the legendary American West and money. On The White Album and elsewhere in her work, things weren’t beside the point; They are the exact point.

Still, $27,000 for the sunglasses. $7,000 for the gravel.

Can we take the results of this auction to mean that people care a lot about literature? Can we take comfort that a lot of the money is going to charity? Or is this a strange display of greed? Vultures with carrion? I have some friends who were influenced by Didion’s writing and made modest bids before prices hit the stratosphere. Was what they wanted strange or disgusting?

Most of us can’t own a thing of Didion, but if you’re a fan, you already own a piece of her. You possess the most intimate and personal piece of it that a stranger could have. It is your unique interpretation of its action. The way it lived on in your mind as you read it. I don’t know how a pair of sunglasses can compare to that.

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