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DO I HEAR … $1,000,000?
In the Top Auction Houses, the Bidding Starts High for the Worldly Goods of Washington Celebrities. By Larry Van Dyne
Comments () | Published February 1, 2002

IN THE RAREFIED WORLD INHABITED BY COLLECTORS OF HIStoric documents, the Declaration of Independence is especially coveted. There are several valuable versions of the famous words written by Thomas Jefferson, though not all were created equal.

The most precious--the fragile draft direct from Jefferson's own hand--is held in public trust by the National Archives.

Next most valuable is a broadside version, created in early July of 1776 by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. There are only 21 known copies, one of which was sold earlier this year by Sotheby's auction house for just over $8 million.

A third version prized by collectors is the "Stone facsimile"--named for William J. Stone, a Washington engraver and printer who created 201 copies in 1823 at the request of the Secretary of State. Copies were presented to dignitaries and institutions--the White House, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, executive departments, governors, universities, and surviving signers. Only 31 copies are known to exist. Nineteen are held by institutions, including the White House and the Library of Congress. That leaves just 12 in private hands.

One of these was owned by Marshall B. Coyne, a collector who owned the Madison Hotel at 15th and M streets in downtown DC. When Coyne died in 2000 in his Embassy

Row mansion at the age of 89, the Stone facsimile became part of his estate, along with thousands of other items--documents, paintings, sculptures, furniture, and decorative art--worth millions of dollars.

Coyne may once have considered donating most of his rare documents, including the Stone facsimile and an extraordinary 34-page letter by James Madison, to the Library of Congress. But that never happened, and the fate of his possessions was left to his executors and heirs. They decided to send most of the items to Sotheby's for sale in Manhattan, where they entered the secretive, sometimes scandal-tainted world of the global auction house.

THE AUCTION BUSINESS, THEY SAY, IS DRIVEN BY THE THREE D's--death, debt, and divorce. The greatest of these is death. In the weeks before the Coyne sale last summer, one could watch the melancholy diaspora of a rich man's possessions carried out lot by lot with the efficiency of a funeral director. It is no accident that Trust & Estates Services--staffed with lawyers on the eighth floor--is one of Sotheby's larger departments.

Like Christie's, its longtime competitor, Sotheby's does its best to camouflage the end-of-the-line realities by generating as much excitement as possible, turning auctions into a kind of celebration of a consignor's lifetime achievement. It has made auctions into global events, creating buzz around the sale of celebrity estates, generating standing-room-only crowds, and putting on a black-tie show that makes for a colorful scene.

The possessions of two famous women with Washington connections--Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Pamela Harriman--packed them in, just like the goods of Andy Warhol, Gianni Versace, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. A 50-year-old fragment of the wedding cake of the Duke and Duchess fetched $29,900, which is nothing like the $53.9 million paid for van Gogh's "Irises" but still something that P.T. Barnum might have appreciated.

Shop Until You Drop

MARSHALL COYNE WAS NO JACKIE KENNEDY, BUT HE WAS A wealthy man known to many Washington insiders. He grew up on Long Island and came to Washington in the 1940s. Like many of the city's wealthiest people in his generation, he made his money in real estate, developing and investing in apartments, office buildings, and shopping centers. Twice married and twice divorced, he had two daughters from the first marriage, both of whom preceded him in death, along with five grandchildren.

Coyne's claim to distinction came from the 360-room Madison Hotel, which he built in 1963, when the city had few luxury accommodations. It was an undistinguished piece of modern architecture, but the interior, furnished with antiques, had an Old World aura that allowed him to charge the unheard-of rate of $20 a night. Guests loved the place, and Coyne boasted that he was profitable within a year.

The Madison became a favorite of visiting celebrities, from David Rockefeller, Armand Hammer, and Henry Kissinger to Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and the Rolling Stones. It did not hurt that it stood facing the Washington Post. Publicists put up authors and entertainers there for the convenience of the feature writers of the Style section.

Coyne must have loved that because he worked hard connecting with Washington's establishment. His office, across the street from the Madison, featured a long table laden with mementos and autographed photographs of himself with Washington big shots and with kings, queens, and other notables from around the world.

One of the Madison's specialities was the state visit. When Blair House, the 19th-century residence on Pennsylvania Avenue normally used to house foreign dignitaries, was closed for renovations in the 1980s, delegations often stayed at the Madison--partly because it had whole floors that met high security standards. The Israeli and Egyptian delegations stayed there during the Camp David peace talks in 1979, and it was declared a temporary foreign mission during a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, with the Soviets occupying the top six floors.

IF IT'S TRUE, AS THE BUMPER STICKER HAS IT, THAT HE WHO dies with the most toys wins, then Marshall Coyne wasa winner.

Collecting seemed to be in his blood, and he never tired of buying things. He loved to visit the shops and galleries of dealers or view their private stock, and he often showed up for auctions at Sotheby's and other houses. He was always stylishly dressed, with a silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his coat. "He loved the objects," says a friend, "and he enjoyed the chase."

His accumulation included French furniture, mirrors, urns, bronze sculptures, European sporting art, Meissen porcelain, pianos, Chinese vases, clocks, Persian carpets, historic documents, rare books. A modernist he was not.

While he wasn't a collector of the rank of the Mellons or others whose taste is on display at the National Gallery of Art, Coyne had some things that museums might like to have. He relied on experts for advice, including several antique dealers who sent things his way and the late Ralph Newman, a dealer in documents whom Coyne provided with an office in his house.

The house, an Italianate villa on Massachusetts Avenue in DC's Kalorama, was the repository of the best of the collection. Paintings were hung close together almost from floor to ceiling--like wallpaper, someone said. Tabletops were loaded with objects, and bronze sculptures lined both sides of the grand stairway. Like an English gentleman who hung pictures of every horse and hound he ever owned, Coyne liked to see what he had.

AFTER HIS DEATH, DECISIONS ABOUT DISPENSING WITH all these possessions fell to Coyne's five grandchildren and his executors, a real-estate attorney named Richard Beyda and tax attorney Sheldon Cohen, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Some decisions were constrained by arrangements involving his will, trusts, and private foundation, but the options were essentially simple: Keep the stuff, give it away, or sell it. The heirs were set up with trusts and allowed to pick a few favorite objects, says Cohen. But there was so much--three warehouses were required for items that did not fit in his houses or his hotel--that most of Coyne's collection would be sold.

Normally the existence of truckloads of saleable goods sets off competition between Sotheby's and Christie's. Both auction houses employ dozens of specialists whose job includes scouting for such consignments. They visit with collectors, gather intelligence on who owns the best stuff, and keep an eye on the obituary pages.

Because many collectors wish to be secretive about their possessions--as do their insurance companies--these contacts require discretion. "It is our job," says Elaine Whitmire, a Sotheby's specialist in 19th-century European furniture and decorative arts, "to know who has the best stuff--and not to breathe a word of it."

In the case of the Coyne consignment, Sotheby's may have had an inside track. Coyne had bought some of his best items at Sotheby's, some at sales in the early 1990s directed by a young auctioneer named Benjamin Doller, a specialist in 19th-century European paintings, drawings, and sculpture.

For the next decade Doller was in frequent touch, trying to interest Coyne in paintings coming up for sale. He also became a friend, often seeing the hotel owner on trips to Washington, lunching at the Madison, dining at the house in Kalorama, or accompanying him to receptions at the National Gallery of Art. He was at Coyne's memorial service at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Sotheby's first task was to send specialists from New York to inventory Coyne's possessions and appraise them, which required going piece by piece through the house, portions of the hotel, a second home on the Eastern Shore, and warehouse space. The appraisals served a dual purpose--to meet IRS estate-tax requirements and to serve as a guide for the sale, where each item is given a low and a high estimate. That was followed by a written proposal on how an auction would be handled, delivered by Doller and a couple of others to the Coyne executors.

This pitch outlined how Sotheby's, in addition to capitalizing on the drawing power of its name, intended to marshal its artistic expertise and marketing savvy to attract as many buyers as possible. Rather than parceling Coyne's things out into several different sales, everything would be sold in a "single owner" sale that would celebrate him as "a gentleman collector" and man of taste.

Sotheby's would publish two color catalogs--one for Coyne's library and one for his furniture and art--that would feature pictures of every item to be sold as well as a photograph of Coyne himself and a laudatory writeup. These volumes, known in the trade as "ego catalogs," would run to 572 pages, and they became part of a promotional effort that included mentions in several Sotheby's newsletters, a magazine, and direct-mail pieces to alert a select list of buyers. There also would be a six-day preview exhibition of the collection in Sotheby's New York showrooms before the three-day auction.

Finally, there was the matter of money. Sotheby's customarily charges a seller's commission as well as fees for packing, shipping, insurance, and other services, but competition from Christie's for a major consignment may make these negotiable. Financial arrangements with the seller are always closely guarded secrets, and neither Coyne's executors nor Sotheby's will reveal them. Nor will anyone say whether the estate received a guarantee--a dollar figure that auction houses sometimes agree to in advance to attract consignments but that puts them at risk if a sale does poorly.

Once a deal was struck, a team from Sotheby's Trusts & Estates Services Department arrived in Washington to begin going through Coyne's mansion and his other properties, listing and packing every item for shipment. With 700 live auctions each year worldwide, it is a task that is routine--selecting the right crates and packaging, getting security guards, arranging insurance, and deploying the right trucks. Several weeks before the sale date, the trucks rolled away from the house on Embassy Row and headed north to Manhattan.

Setting Up the Sale

THE HEADQUARTERS OF SOTHEBY'S IS on the upper east side, at York Avenue and 72nd Street in that very New Yorky world of hell-bent yellow cabs, greengrocers, and impossibly thin women. It's a block from the East River and within a few blocks of several of America's most famous art museums--the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Frick.

The Sotheby's building--ten stories of modernist glass--is more or less new, having been renovated and tripled in size. Out front--beneath the flags of the United States, England, France, Italy, and Ireland--stand two doormen.

On the white marble floor of the lobby--an atrium that rises the height of the building--stand three large metal sculptures to be sold at a Sotheby's auction. They're all modern pieces, by Anthony Caro, Fernando Botero, and the late Henry Moore. The Moore, a reclining woman, is estimated to bring between $2,750,000 and $3,500,000.

Just ahead, down the stairs, sit several cashiers--the credit-card limit is $25,000--and the Property Pick Up Department, where two men are wrapping a set of dinner plates.

They look like they belong in a high-class department store, which is fitting. That's partly because Sotheby's major stockholder is A. Alfred Taubman, a Michigan shopping-mall developer and onetime owner of Washington's Woodward & Lothrop. Sotheby's bears a resemblance not only to a department store but to several other enterprises--something that is apparent as you move over to the elevator and a directory of departments.

It's part art museum arranged by speciality--watches and clocks on the third floor, American folk art on four, Chinese paintings on five, Benjamin Doller's 19th-century European art on six, and Impressionist and modern art on seven.

It's part consulting firm, with departments advising private collectors, corporations, and museums on their collections.

It's part financial-services firm, offering advances on consignments and loans secured by art collections, and it has a "ventures" department that speculates on art objects, sometimes in partnerships with dealers.

It also provides referrals for insuring and restoring art works, offers lectures and a certificate in art history, publishes dozens of catalogs each year, and does appraisals for purposes of consignment, insurance, estate taxes, charitable contributions, and family division. There's also a shop selling books and gifts and an upscale restaurant called Bid.

The museum parallel is most obvious in the exhibition rooms, which cover 75,000 square feet on seven floors. These rooms display the objects coming up for sale, bolstering Sotheby's claim that it has become a "cultural destination devoted to the arts."

The best space, a skylit series of galleries on the top floor with a view of the New York skyline, is showing a drawing of a draped figure by Michelangelo--discovered by a Sotheby's expert at a castle in Yorkshire after 250 years of being lost. It is one of only four of the artist's drawings in private hands, it will be auctioned at Sotheby's in London, and the estimate is so high that it is available only "on request." It later sells for $8.4 million, which compares with $11.5 million for a Leonardo da Vinci drawing sold at Christie's in London about the same time on consignment from J. Carter Brown, former director of Washington's National Gallery of Art.

Some of the choice items from Marshall Coyne's house, like his best paintings, came here to Ben Doller's office, so they could be shown privately to interested bidders. But many of them went to a Sotheby's warehouse on 111th Street, where they got the standard treatment.

Art handlers unpack them and place them on a pedestal or pad, high-powered lights are turned on, and the art specialists examine them for condition and clues to their age and origin. Mostly this confirms what they already know, but sometimes there are surprises: the leg of a chest that has been damaged and repaired or the signature of an object's creator that alters its value. One of Sotheby's photographers then takes shots of each object for the catalog.

MARSHALL COYNE'S POSSESSIONS ARE reassembled in an exhibition room at Sotheby's York Avenue headquarters about a week before the sale--ready for inspection by prospective buyers. The entire inventory is now expected to sell for more than $10 million.

On pedestals in one space stand the bronzes like a field of tombstones--little green tags with lot numbers attached to the leg of a cougar, the neck of a jockey, the foot of a horse, the head of a snake, the wrist of a nymph.

A 19th-century piano once shown at an international exhibition in Paris--decorated with tulip-wood inlays, gilt edges, and Wedgwood medallions--has an honored place, carrying an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000.

Elsewhere, in locked glass cases, are the Stone Declaration, the Madison letter, and the other rare documents.

There is some intrigue surrounding the letter, a 34-page document written in 1832 in which James Madison reflects on the US Constitution. It has been coveted for years by the Library of Congress. James Billington, the head of the library, courted Coyne throughout the 1990s to get him to donate the letter and the rest of his collection, and it was thought that he was close to agreeing. But Coyne never did.

An effort to get the heirs to donate the Madison letter had proved futile. Instead they agreed to allot, from Coyne's private foundation, a sum of money for the library's use in bidding at the auction. The estimate on the Madison letter, the library's top priority, was $80,000 to $120,000, and the library had engaged an agent to do its bidding.

Sotheby's presale exhibitions are open to the public free of charge. For Coyne's exhibition there are a few curiosity seekers, including a father explaining to his little girl: "A man died, and they are selling his stuff." Most of those in the room are collectors and dealers. They inspect items, taking notes in their catalogs and talking with clients on cell phones. Art handlers, in dark-blue aprons with SOTHEBY'S embroidered on them in gold, are available to unlock cases or pick up items someone wants to examine more closely.

A man dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks, and yellow tie peers into a case filled with dainty cups and offers his judgment to someone on his cell phone: "He has 96 pieces of porcelain here. Little cups. All hand-painted. Nicely done."

Among the bronze sculptures, a couple of dealers are concerned that the patina on some seems a little strange. Elaine Whitmire, the Sotheby's specialist, seeks to reassure them that there's no real damage. It just looks as if one of Marshall Coyne's well-meaning housekeepers, looking for dust, may have buffed them with too much furniture polish.

Jackie, Pam, and Global Buzz

THERE IS A SENSE IN WHICH A FINE-arts auction house is itself covered with a patina that gives its surface an appearance different from the market-conscious metal inside. Since its founding as a London bookseller in 1744, Sotheby's has sought to coat the auction business with a gentlemanly style.

Like Christie's--the world's other great auction house, which was founded in London in 1766--Sotheby's made its reputation handling the wares of the British aristocracy and other European notables. The libraries of Napoleon and Talleyrand were auctioned by Sotheby's, and Christie's sold paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia.

Even now Sotheby's directors and advisers include a marquess, a baron, and a viscount. Sales of items from clients wishing to remain anonymous are sometimes characterized as "the property of a gentleman" or "the property of a lady."

But scratch this aristocratic patina a bit and it's obvious that the auction business is far from polite. Underneath is a business where the bottom line rules and the competition for consignments can be cutthroat. The auctioneer--for all his upper-class manners and academic expertise--is still, as they say, "a merchant in a bow tie."

It's a multinational business. Sotheby's has sales rooms in New York and London and operates in 34 other countries as well, stretching from Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands to Argentina, Hong Kong, and Australia. It has a big jewelry sale every February in St. Moritz, the Swiss ski resort, for the convenience of jet setters, and it has held sales in 17 countries, including China, India, and Russia.

The auctioneer's rostrum in the largest of Sotheby's Manhattan sales rooms is flanked by two big video screens, which convert each bid from US dollars into euros as well as the currencies of Canada, England, Japan, and Australia. Its phone system, including international lines, can handle 120 bidders.

The fine-art auction market is dominated by Sotheby's and Christie's, each of which does about $2 billion in sales a year. Washington's two best-known auction houses, Weschler's in downtown DC and Sloan's in North Bethesda, do a tiny fraction of that.

The rise of online auctions may change market share, but what never changes is the extent to which auctions are influenced by economic conditions. Fluctuations in stock markets, exchange rates, tax laws, anything that affects the well-being of the wealthy--all show up at the auction block.

Just as the leading creative edge of the art world shifted from Europe to New York at the middle of the 20th century, so too has the center of the auction world shifted from London to New York over the past three decades. Sotheby's bought out Parke-Bernet, the biggest house in New York, in 1964 and shifted its international headquarters here from London in 1982; Christie's, which recently opened new sales and exhibition rooms at Rockefeller Center, has been in New York since 1977. This reflects the fact that a big share of the world's auction market is in the United States and also explains why Sotheby's maintains offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Palm Beach, Dallas, and San Francisco.

Alfred Taubman acquired controlling interest in Sotheby's in 1983, when it was under threat of a hostile takeover. Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president of WETA and wife of the senator, is on the board, which is chaired by Michael Sovern, a former president of Columbia University.

SOTHEBY'S HAS NO OFFICE IN WASHINGton, but the capital is very much on its radar screen. Washington has enough wealth to support a number of high-level private collectors. ArtNews recently cited three Washington collectors among the world's top 200: Robert and Clarice Smith, Robert and Arlene Kogod, and Jay and Sharon Rockefeller.

Specialists from New York like Benjamin Doller make reconnaissance trips to Washington, both to meet with collectors and museum curators and to attend openings of exhibitions at the National Gallery, the Phillips, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, or the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

Sotheby's hired Charles Moffett, the director of the Phillips Collection, in 1997 to head its department of Impressionist and modern art--the high-dollar territory that encompasses van Gogh, Picasso, and Renoir. David Redden, a specialist in books and manuscripts who would do the auctioneering on Marshall Coyne's library, has served on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Though there is often much secrecy surrounding who buys and sells at auction, word sometimes leaks out about prominent Washingtonians. Joe Allbritton, the owner of Riggs Bank, paid $19.8 million in 1999 at Christie's for van Gogh's "Canal With Washerwoman." The deal for a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, which the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery was able to buy earlier this year from an English owner for $20 million, was brokered by Sotheby's David Redden.

On the consignment side, Sotheby's has sold some of the furniture of Washington developer Morris Cafritz and his wife, Gwendolyn, as well as the jewelry of Polly Guggenheim Logan, whose estate on the edge of Rock Creek Park is now the residence of the Italian ambassador.

The Drug Enforcement Agency and the US Marshals Service used Sotheby's to liquidate the Tiffany lamps and other possessions of an Annandale man, Barry Toombs, who was convicted in a drug case. Sotheby's also recently auctioned furniture and decorative objects from Gunston Hall, the Northern Virginia plantation home of George Mason.

It handled the $10-million sale of much of the art at Haussner's, the legendary German restaurant in Baltimore, which closed in 1999. Mrs. Frances Wilke Haussner, who never paid more than $3,000 for a work of art, told her daughter before her death that she wanted a gigantic auction "to see if I made good buys . . . to see if I was smart." She was: One painting of nude women in a marble bath brought just over $1 million.

SOTHEBY'S EMPLOYS EXPERTS IN 90 COLlecting categories. In the fine arts and decorative arts there are specialists in Old Master paintings and drawings, photographs, Islamic art, contemporary prints, Japanese art, English furniture, Impressionist and modern art, porcelain, and pre-Columbian art. But the human instinct to collect has created many other markets, some ancient, some new: animation and comic art, jewelry, musical instruments, postage stamps, coins and medals, rugs and carpet, silver, sports memorabilia, vintage cars, wine, watches, clocks, and scientific instruments.

Sotheby's is forever searching for new things to sell. In 1993 it convinced the Russians to auction a couple of capsules and other artifacts from their space program, several of which were bought by Ross Perot and are on loan to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Part of the trick, says David Redden, was to convince the Russians that an auction was an occasion to celebrate their achievements in space rather than a liquidation of assets for a country desperately in need of cash. Among the items sold: a research vehicle that was left on the surface of the moon in 1970; it brought $68,500 and carried Sotheby's proviso that delivery was not included.

REDDEN ALSO WAS INVOLVED IN THE 1997 sale of a nearly complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed "Sue." It went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for just over $8 million, with the money going to a Sioux Indian on whose South Dakota land it was discovered.

Beyond that it's hard to think of something that hasn't been sold at auction by Sotheby's or Christie's. Everything's a commodity to an auctioneer: telegraphed distress calls from the Titanic, gold from sunken pirate ships, Annie Oakley's rifle, animation art from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mantle's Yankee uniform. Love letters from J.D. Salinger were auctioned for Joyce Maynard, his onetime teenage lover, and the American Beethoven Society paid $7,300 for a lock of the composer's hair.

Long before public television's Antiques Roadshow, Sotheby's pioneered "heirloom discovery days," encouraging people to bring in items for appraisal, offering to put the best up for auction and buying some outright for resale.

Thousands of items end up being offered online at Sothebys.com, which has a partnership with Amazon.com and also works with smaller auction houses and dealers. While Marshall Coyne's most valuable possessions were sold in the auction room, Sotheby's entered a partnership with Washington-based Sloan's to put another 700 items up for sale on the Internet.

Sotheby's single biggest online sale so far was a Dunlap broadside of the Declaration, which went last spring for $8.1 million to television producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden, co-creator of the Magellan search engine. It had a provenance that made a good story for the press: In 1989 it was discovered behind a torn painting purchased at a country flea market in Pennsylvania for $4 by a man who really just wanted the frame. The sale to Lear and Hayden netted a nice profit for a speculator, who had bought the document nine years earlier for $2 million.

Of the few Dunlaps in private hands, one is owned by Albert Small, a prominent Washington philanthropist and a principal in a successful engineering and construction company. Small bought his copy at auction in the early 1990s and intends to give it, along with much of his world-class collection of documents and Americana, to his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where he also has pledged money to build a library for special collections.

AUCTION HOUSES ARE MASTERS OF buzz, and nothing unleashes this talent so much as the sale of items that once belonged to a celebrity. Sotheby's realizes that buyers tend to go giddy and pay high prices for possessions of the famous that might otherwise seem ordinary, and it is skilled at exploiting what's sometimes known as "the provenance premium." Its press office generates newspaper and magazine articles around the world, and objects are previewed on Larry King Live and other television talk shows.

Selling the property of royalty often provides some of the richest moments. In the 1950s, when Sotheby's auctioned the contents of the palace of King Farouk, deposed potentate of Egypt, the lots included the world's largest collection of antique aspirin bottles, 2,000 gold watches, 10,000 neckties, and 20 rooms of exotica and pornography.

More recently it sold the goods from the Paris villa of the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor--he being the man who gave up the throne of England in 1936 to marry the American divorcée. Besides the $29,900 piece of wedding cake, the items included porcelain statues of their pugs, his wedding suit, 235 pairs of her gloves, his golf trophies, and one of her mink garters. The villa's contents had been acquired earlier by Mohamed Fayed--the Egyptian-born owner of Harrods department store in London and the Ritz Hotel in Paris and father of Princess Diana's ill-fated lover, Dodi.

Pop culture has at least as much drawing power as royalty. Over the past decade Sotheby's has sold off possessions of Greta Garbo, Sir John Gielgud, and Elton John, while Christie's has auctioned items from Barbra Streisand, Princess Di, and Marilyn Monroe, whose form-fitting dress worn the night of her sultry rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Jack Kennedy at Madison Square Garden went for $1.27 million.

Sex, scandal, and violent death add to the allure. Sotheby's sale of fine art, furniture, and fashions owned by the murdered designer Gianni Versace brought in just over $10 million--a sale that included upholstered furniture with leopard-print "Wild Miami" fabric that went for $77,800, far above the high estimate of $8,000.

New Yorkers also flipped out over the stuff dragged in by Andy Warhol, the pop-art painter who died in 1987. The six-volume sale catalog sold in a boxed set for $95, and the preview exhibition attracted 60,000 people, some in limousines and some on bikes, a few of them Andy lookalikes with white wigs and powered faces.

While Warhol had some valuable artworks--Cy Twombly, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein--he'd also amassed thousands of items from flea markets that were properly defined as "junk" (or "bric-a-Braque," as one observer had it). Among the items: plastic plates, teapots, compact cases, cigarette boxes, bracelets, salt-and-pepper shakers, earclips, a tin occulist sign, a Fred Flintstone watch, and 135 cookie jars. The cookie jars attracted 2,200 absentee bids from all over the world and sold for a total of $247,000.

One of Sotheby's celebrity auctions with a Washington connection was its 1997 sale of the possessions of Pamela Harriman, the much-traveled beauty whose last stops included her marriage to the wealthy diplomat W. Averell Harriman, her emergence as a Democratic fundraiser, and a stint as US ambassador to France.

After her death while on duty in Paris, Sotheby's cleaned out her residence there as well as her house in Georgetown and her estate in Middleburg and packaged everything into a three-day sale in Manhattan. The collection included her four-poster bed, a black-lacquer dressing set, portraits of Averell and herself, a John Singer Sargent oil, an English saddle, autographed books, and paintings by Winston Churchill, her onetime father-in-law.

The "Pam premium"--the amount an item brought above its intrinsic value because she'd owned it--proved substantial, though hard-nosed buyers were not universally impressed with her things. "She had better taste in men than she had in furniture," said one.

No Sotheby's auction has ever demonstrated the drawing power of celebrity quite like the 1996 sale of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which also included items owned by John F. Kennedy--an auction in which the myth and romance of Camelot were turned into $34.5 million in cash, nearly $30 million above what Sotheby's expected.

The presale interest was huge. An appearance by Sotheby's executives on Larry King Live generated 110,000 calls to the firm's toll-free line within three hours; a 548-page catalog ($90 in hardcover, $45 in paper) sold 120,000 copies; and 30,000 people who bought the catalog paraded through the exhibition with timed tickets distributed by lottery.

Among the top sellers: a 40-carat diamond engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis ($2.6 million), a triple strand of faux pearls ($211,500), her silver tape measure ($48,875), her BMW ($79,500), one of JFK's rocking chairs ($453,500), a walnut humidor given to him by Milton Berle ($574,000), and a set of his golf clubs ($772,500), which were bought by Arnold Schwarznegger, who is married to Kennedy niece Maria Shriver.

"Fair Warning"

SHORTLY BEFORE TEN IN THE MORNING, a couple dozen rare-documents dealers are drifting into Sotheby's second-floor sales room, partaking of the coffee and muffins. They're here for the first of six sessions of the Marshall B. Coyne sale--morning and afternoon today for the 325 lots in his library, the rest over the next two days for 486 lots of his art and furniture. At the back of the room Sotheby's employees sit at computers, registering those who intend to bid and handing out numbered paddles.

Along one wall are glass cases displaying some of the best items, including the Stone Declaration and the Madison letter. Along the other are half a dozen members of Sotheby's staff waiting at a bank of phones to receive absentee bids.

Benjamin Doller is here, along with a couple of people from the Books & Manuscripts department--Selby Kiffer, who has done the detailed work on the collection, and David Redden, the 27-year Sotheby's veteran who is head of the department and will soon take the rostrum to begin the auction.

All move through the room chatting--in an atmosphere where auctioneers, dealers, and collectors are mostly on a first-name basis, where everyone has been through this many times before and is at ease with the small-world nature of the rare-documents business at the highest level. One prominent dealer, looking over the catalog, plans to spend about $1 million if prices are right.

There are dealers here from all over. Some have flown in for the day, then will hop an evening flight to London to catch a Sotheby's sale there of letters, photographs, and other items that once belonged to Alice Plesance Hargreaves, the model for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Some will be buying to resell, perhaps in joint ventures with other dealers, and some will be acting as agents for private collectors and institutions, which explains all the cell phones and the fact that some bidders have checked out four or five bidding paddles. One of those paddles--unknown to all--carries the hopes of the Library of Congress for that letter by James Madison.

Around the room there's some gossip about the scandal that has gripped the auction world the past couple of years. Sotheby's and Christie's have been accused by the US Justice Department of a conspiracy in the mid-1990s to set identical commission rates for sellers, an anticompetitive practice that cost their clients millions of dollars. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby's, eventually was convicted of the charges, based partly on the explosive testimony of Sotheby's onetime chief executive, Diana D. Brooks, who turned against Taubman in hopes of getting a lighter sentence following her own guilty plea. The chief executive of Christie's got immunity by coming forward early with information about the conspiracy, and its former chairman could not be extradited from England.

There's also speculation about prices, of the same sort you'd hear from a bunch of ranchers sitting around a cattle auction. "It will be interesting to see what that Lewis and Clark brings," says a dealer from Los Angeles, referring to a first edition of their journal. Another dealer carries a Palm equipped with customized software detailing the dollar amounts that letters and autographs by signers of the Declaration or other notables have recently fetched.

Dealers rely for their livelihood on their experience in judging value--whether there's a good chance a certain document picked up here can be sold later on at a higher price.

Lots of factors contribute to a document's value, including age, beauty, condition, historical significance, provenance, rarity, and market conditions. John Reznikoff, a dealer from Connecticut, hands out a business card that rates the rarity of materials from the signers of the Declaration, the rarest being from Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina, George Taylor of Pennsylvania, and Button Gwinnett of Georgia. Marshall Coyne owned a Gwinnett autograph, discovered on the back of a document fragment by his adviser Ralph Newman--offered today as Lot 107.

Auctions also are surrounded by secrecy. Sellers frequently remain anonymous, but there is even more mystery about buyers, some of whom bid through agents or anonymously by phone. The biggest of Sotheby's sales rooms, which accommodates a crowd of 1,200, has a dozen skyboxes where important clients can bid in secrecy on a Picasso, a van Gogh, or a Renoir--all while being served Sotheby's best Champagne by tuxedoed waiters.

Old hands are good at guessing who a buyer may be, says Reznikoff: "It's a small world at the upper echelon, and because this material is unique, we know where most of it goes." But not always: "Sometimes it's a mystery even to us. You're likely to find out where it went if it's an institutional buyer, but not so with private collectors. Things disappear. That's why you have to grab the really great stuff when it's around. You may never see it again."

DAVID REDDEN MOVES AT TEN O'CLOCK to the auctioneer's rostrum, a solid wooden fixture suggesting age, class, and reliability. After a sip of water, he repeats some of the terms and conditions of sale from the catalog, though no one here really needs to be reminded.

The house will impose a "buyer's premium" above the "hammer price" or successful bid--20 percent on the first $15,000, 15 percent on the next $85,000, and 10 percent above $100,000. This charge, first imposed by Sotheby's and Christie's in the mid-1970s, has taken up some of the slack for discounts and guarantees granted to sellers in the competition for consignments. Like it or not, it's the rule: Coming and going, the house takes its cut. Each lot also carries a "reserve," which is a confidential minimum price agreed on between Sotheby's and the seller that allows its withdrawal in case bidding is less than robust.

Everyone's familiar with the bidding system. Beyond sitting here in person raising your blue paddle, there are two other ways to buy. You may submit a maximum figure on a given item in advance by fax, which will be fed into the stream of bidding, or you may stay on the line with someone in the Sotheby's phone bank who will call out your bid to the auctioneer.

The phone offers convenience, and it also guarantees the anonymity that many bidders desire. "In a sales room a knowledgeable buyer will be followed," says one dealer. "If he bids $10,000, other people will assume it's sensible to pay one increment over that. To avoid that, I bid about 90 percent of the time on the phone."

REDDEN BEGINS THE AUCTION WITH A letter written in 1765 by Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, regarding a servant's wages--a document Sotheby's touts as the earliest letter of hers to come to auction in at least 26 years. It's estimated to bring between $3,000 and $4,000, but the hammer falls at $1,700.

Redden's auctioneering style is more restrained than the rhythmic high-holler art form you hear at some auctions, but it is efficient in squeezing every dollar out of the market and in moving the goods rapidly. Given the long run-up to this moment--it has now been more than a year since Marshall Coyne's death--it is surprising how quickly everything is gone. During two sessions of library sales today and four sessions of furniture and art the following two days, most of the 800 or so lots are sold in less than a minute, many in less than 30 seconds. "Fair warning" is Redden's way of signaling the bidding is about to end, then down with a crack comes the hammer--in his case an hourglass-shaped gavel he's used for nearly 30 years.

By the end of the three-day sale, buyers had spent $11,695,485, with more to come later from the sale of Coyne's smaller items on the Internet. Seventy-two lots were withdrawn because they failed to meet their reserve, about 5 percent of the library and 15 percent of the art and furniture.

Tops among the paintings was a 1921 scene of a point-to-point race by Sir Alfred James Munnings ($577,750, including the premium) and a 1771 painting of a horse and jockey by George Stubbs ($324,750). The grand piano fetched $247,750.

All that presale uncertainty about how much various books and manuscripts were worth was met with the precise answer of the marketplace. Someone paid $192,750 for the Lewis and Clark journal; $126,750 for a presidential pardon issued by William Henry Harrison, who served just one month in office; and $110,000 for that signature of Button Gwinnett, the elusive signer of the Declaration. None of the buyers was identified, with one exception. The Gwinnett autograph went to Daniel Weinberg of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, whose late partner, Ralph Newman, had sold it to Coyne earlier.

Some of the most nervous bidders were not in the room but back in Washington at the Library of Congress. They were on the phone to a man sitting quietly in front of Redden, waiting for Lot 215, that letter by James Madison about the Constitution. The library's agent kept matching the competition until the institution's budget, financed in part by Coyne's foundation, was exhausted. They were disappointed when it brought $214,750, the highest-priced document in the sale.

The Stone facsimile of the Declaration started at $30,000 and rushed upward in $5,000 increments to $100,000. Redden then leaped to bigger increments until he reached $170,000, when one of the last active bidders in the room shook his head and muttered, "No sir."

At last it went to someone bidding by phone, at a final figure of $192,750 once the buyer's premium was added. The person was identified only as "anonymous," which is another way of saying it was someone who preferred to keep his pursuit of happiness to himself.

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