Within the living room where she entertained heads of state and celebrities, the broadcast journalist Barbara Walters exhibited two pictures in gilded frames. One was a commissioned portrait of herself in a luxurious gown. The other was a painting of a stoic Egyptian woman in a black head scarf — created in 1891 by one of the most beloved painters in American history, John Singer Sargent.
After the iconic interviewer died last year, her family decided to keep her portrait and sell the Sargent as part of an $8 million trove of artworks, jewelry and dresses featured in a charity auction at Bonhams on Nov. 6 with an online sale running from Oct. 29 through Nov. 7. And though the Sargent painting is the marquee lot of the collection, with a high estimate of $1.8 million — another female portrait from his trip to Egypt hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — auctioneers expect fans of Walters to compete in bidding wars for less prestigious items like cutlery and serving plates.
From the sale of Elton John’s artwork and pianos, coming to Christie’s early next year, to photographs of Madonna going on the company’s auction block next month, celebrity memorabilia and estate sales are headlining the coming auction season as major consignors wait to see if the weakening art market will rebound. The prognosis looks grim, according to experts, when accounting for the lackluster performance of spring auctions and the more recent string of disappointments at the September art fairs.
“It’s a market based on confidence,” said Bruno Vinciguerra, chief executive of Bonhams. “And we have a lot of uncertainty because of global tensions and interest rates.”
Natasha Degen, chairwoman of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said that celebrity sales have proliferated in recent years because of their “unparalleled ability to attract attention, and, thus, to boost prices.”
“If auction houses are having a hard time acquiring the kind of blue-chip works that break records, celebrity estate sales can reliably earn press attention and pique public interest,” Degen explained.
So far this fall nothing has materialized that compares with the gangbusters twin estate sales of Paul G. Allen’s art collection in 2022, where Christie’s topped $1.5 billion and where five paintings were purchased for more than $100 million, including works by Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne and Gustav Klimt.
The best to surface comes to Sotheby’s on Nov. 8 and 9. The auction house announced its fall season with a Picasso painting estimated in excess of $120 million, coming from the estate of the philanthropist and art patron Emily Fisher Landau. If that price is achieved for the work, “Femme à la Montre,” it would be the second-highest price fetched by a Picasso at auction, falling nearly $60 million short of another of his paintings that sold in 2015.
Spending sprees in the fall might have left buyers and sellers with a collective hangover. When the spring auction season rolled through in May, there was a noticeable absence of modern masterpieces by artists like Warhol, Picasso and Lichtenstein. Three paintings by Jasper Johns offered at Christie’s that month failed to reach their low estimate, signaling perhaps that estimates were still too high, or that demand was misjudged.
Charles F. Stewart, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, told The New York Times in an interview at the time that the market was experiencing scarcity issues. “Collectors who can hold onto them longer will,” he said. “And when they do come, it will be a relatively small group of people who can afford them.”
With the ultrawealthy benched, the real electricity of this year’s auctions may belongs to the estate sales, in which prices hover within the thousands and low millions of dollars, bringing more bidders into play. And when the consignments are coming from celebrities, the battle for memorabilia gets heated.
A recent auction of the heirlooms of rock vocalist Freddie Mercury at Sotheby’s nearly quadrupled its initial high estimate of $14.2 million to achieve $50.4 million. According to the company, there were more than 41,800 bids placed on 1406 lots. It was the most bidders they’ve had in almost two decades, since the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate sale in 2004.
The star of the show? A silver mustache comb no bigger than a pinkie. The collectible was originally priced with a high estimate of about $760 but soared to nearly $194,000 with buyer’s fees — selling better than some paintings from the musician’s collection. And there were other tchotchkes that vaulted over their estimates, including a neon telephone for $51,000, a group of 29 cat ornaments for $39,000 and a common book of poetry for $89,000.
“It’s about finding stories that people love,” said Gabriel Heaton, a specialist who worked on the sale. “One thing people love about Freddie was his refusal to take himself entirely seriously. And the mustache comb speaks to that, as did our wonderful mustache over the entrance to our auction.”
The sale was a reminder of how celebrity bestows importance on the mundane. Last November when Stair Galleries held an estate sale in Hudson, N.Y., for the writer, Joan Didion, even a group of shells and beach pebbles sold for $7,000. Those sales clearly made an impression; the small auctioneer has since offered other estates, including those of the actors Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, and the collection of the fashion editor André Leon Talley. (A Christie’s sale of Talley’s belongings brought in $1.4 million.)
Earlier this week, the auction house offered Wilt Chamberlain’s golden Los Angeles Lakers’ jersey, which sold for $4.9 million with fee. And the art collection of the French actor Gérard Depardieu also sold at the auction house Ader for $4.2 million.
Despite the relatively low total estimate of $8 million on the Barbara Walters collection, the major auction houses were competing through the summer for the deal. (Christie’s lost the Walters collection to Bonhams, a smaller company that has developed a specialty in estate sales.)
“When it comes to making the most of a celebrated collection, we are good,” Vinciguerra, chief executive of Bonhams, said. “Our salesroom will look like a history book with pictures of Barbara everywhere.”
The company is hoping to replicate the success it had selling the library of the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Bonhams had estimated the collection at $60,000, but the books ended up selling for $2.4 million.
“We are talking about objects that were not necessarily unique, but she was someone respected and loved in this country,” Vinciguerra explained.
Degen, the art market expert, pointed out that “even when these auctions don’t net as much as regularly scheduled fine art sales, they help bring attention to the auction house and burnish its brand.”
Bonhams is hoping Walters fans compete for her upholstered armchairs in a zebra pattern and a commemorative vase honoring the thousandth episode of her morning talk show, “The View.”
Some of the jewelry for sale is deeply personal. That includes Walters’s engagement ring from the television producer Merv Adelson, whom she married and divorced twice between 1981 and 1992. The ring and its emerald-cut diamond of 13.84 carats has a high estimate of $900,000.
“Our home was always filled with interesting and beautiful reminders of her incredible, diverse life,” Jacqueline Danforth, Walters’s daughter, said in a statement. “I know she would find comfort that these pieces she cherished so much will be enjoyed and cared for.”