Published: November 3, 2020
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy Kaminski Auctions
TAUNTON, MASS. – No matter how many auctions you’ve been to, you’ve never been to one like this. It took eight days, starting October 17, for Frank Kaminski and his partner Cliff Schorer to disperse the furnishings and accessories of New York City’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel. While the sale grossed in the millions, over $1.5 million from the auction will be donated to the hotel’s next-door neighbor, St Bartholomew’s Church, that plans to use the funds for work on its building’s façade and gardens.
The logistics of this sale were staggering. We’ve all been to auctions in galleries or rented ballrooms in hotels, or even drill floors of armories. But I doubt any have been to an auction where the merchandise to be sold required a one-million- square-foot vacant shopping mall to properly display the 15,000 lots, many with multiple pieces. That’s what Kaminski needed for this sale. In 2014 the Waldorf was sold to an Asian insurance company for $1.95 billion, making it the most expensive hotel in the world. In 2017, the hotel closed for renovation and there will eventually be 375 hotel rooms and 375 high-end residential condominiums. Prior to the closing, Kaminski and staff appraised the furnishings room by room, item by item, a project of several months duration during which Kaminski lived in the hotel for a five-week period. All the furnishings were crated and moved to a storage facility in New York state.
Covid regulations postponed the auction and, during that time, the Galleria Mall in Taunton, Mass., was sold at a foreclosure sale and purchased by a friend of Kaminski’s. When it finally came time to conduct the auction, Kaminski, whose main office and auction gallery is located in Beverly, Mass., looked for space to conduct this sale. None of the standard type of venues could accommodate and display the thousands of objects properly. Kaminski’s friend suggested that he consider renting the vacant mall, which is eventually what happened. It was the right decision. The mall had been a high-end shopping destination with 90 prominent retailers. Not only was it large and spacious, the layout was open and skylights made the space bright. Eighty-eight tractor trailers delivered the merchandise from the storage site to the auction location.
The hotel had more than 1,200 individual guest rooms and more than 200 suites ranging from one to five rooms plus more than 100 luxury suites in the “Tower.” Several of the luxury suites were named after celebrities who lived or stayed in them such as the Cole Porter Suite; the Royal Suite, referring to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; the Marilyn Monroe Suite; the Elizabeth Taylor Suite; the General MacArthur Suite and the Winston Churchill Suite, etc. Some of these suites were furnished by well-known designers of the day, often in collaboration with the long-term occupants.
The most expensive suite in the hotel, the Presidential Suite, designed with Georgian-style furniture to emulate that of the White House, was home, at one time or another, to 16 presidents. It was the residence of Herbert Hoover in his retirement for more than 30 years. With the large number of guest rooms, there would be many chests of drawers, sofas, love seats, chairs, tables, etc. The sale also included the contents of the hotel’s three restaurants, plus over 800 framed and identified photos of celebrities and events, taken by a professional staff photographer of the hotel. Some of the photographs were among the most sought-after items in the auction. Some suites were furnished with antiques, most had high-quality antique-styled furnishings. The hotel policy was not to discard furnishings but to refurbish them. If furniture needed repairs, it was done by staff. If reupholstery was needed, it was done by staff. Upholstery fabrics were the finest and much of the drapery was from firms such as Scalamandré. A result of this care was that every item offered in this auction was in fine condition.
Kaminski took on an associate for this sale, Cliff Schorer, well known in the art world and owner of London’s Agnew’s Gallery. He is also an experienced liquidator, having dispersed the contents of the Plaza Hotel and others.
Publicity for this sale was coordinated by Diane Riva, long time Kaminski staff member and BerlinRosen, Ltd, a New York public relations firm. The sale was widely advertised in antique trade papers, New York newspapers, as well as worldwide, in places like London. Extensive use was made of social media. On October 7, Chronicle, a nightly Boston news and events style television show, devoted most of a half hour program to the sale. They spent three days in Taunton filming for the program.
Frank Kaminski is no stranger to high profile auctions, having conducted sales for Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, among others. But prior to the sale, he talked about this auction. “The scale of this one is mind-boggling. There’s never been a sale of this scope that I know of. I’ve been in this business more than 30 years and I thought I’d conducted some major celebrity sales. Those were easy in comparison to this one. This is where I earned my PhD in the business. Our work began over four years ago with the appraisal, and here we are with 88 trailer loads of goods, 15,000 lots, a two-week auction and online auction, and all in one million square feet of space. I use a bicycle to get around the place.”
The take-away from the sale? People all over the world are eager to own furniture or accessories utilized by well-known celebrities. They will pay whatever is necessary for these objects in addition to the professionally taken, often unpublished photographs of celebrities, usually in formal attire, attending functions at the hotel.
One of the surprises is not just the high prices obtained for particular items, but the strength of the sale all across the thousands of items being sold. This was true whether they were selling the hundreds of similar tables and chairs used in the hotel’s three restaurants, the rugs, the table and floor lamps used in each room, the hundreds of chests of drawers, the hundreds of mirrors, the vast array of upholstered furniture, the high-quality draperies, the prints and paintings that lined the corridors and hung in guest rooms, the more than a dozen pianos, and so on. But it was the one-of-a-kind items, especially with known connections to the hotel or its celebrity guests, that amazed with the worldwide interest.
A simple mahogany tabletop podium was probably used when someone was delivering a speech at the hotel and was used again by Kaminski during the auction. It was just a regular podium, perhaps nicer than some, but it had the distinctive hotel logo, along with brass lettering spelling out the name of the hotel. It was estimated to sell for $800 but brought $10,625. Estimates throughout the sale were meaningless as competition was worldwide. A standing brass key drop from the lobby, so identified, estimated to earn $600, sold for $7,188.
The hotel was unique in many ways. It was the only hotel to be the residence of three five-star generals: MacArthur, Bradley and Eisenhower. It was home to royalty from all over the world, political leaders and countless stars of the entertainment world. It also served honey produced by its own six beehives. They were on the 20th floor roof with more than 300,000 bees.
Furnishings and accessories from the well-known suites tended to bring the highest prices. The most expensive suite in the hotel may have been the 2,245-square-foot Presidential Suite, but items from the Royal Suite, home to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, brought top dollar. The suite had been prepared for the 1957 arrival of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. When the Duchess learned of this, she demanded that the suite be hers and the couple lived in it for ten years. It was located on the top floor of the hotel with spectacular views of the city and was the most requested room by guests making reservations when it was not occupied by royalty. The Regency-style canopy four poster bed from the suite, estimated at $800, earned $42,500, the highest priced item in the auction. Bringing only a few dollars less was a 51-by-45-inch photo of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arriving at the hotel in 1957, which sold for $40,000.
Although many rooms in the hotel had paintings, those in the Royal Suite brought the highest prices. Cataloged simply as an Eighteenth Century portrait of a noble woman in a red and ivory dress, in an elaborately carved gilt wood frame, it realized $22,500. The frame was labeled Martin Mytens (1648-1734), a Dutch/Swedish painter. A French-style portrait of a woman with sheet music, not further identified, realized $17,500. The provenance of these paintings was not known. Three blue Limoges covered urns in the style of Sevres, with romantic scenes on the fronts, realized $5,625. Aside from the bed, the prize for the hostess seeking the ultimate in one upmanship would have to go to the five-piece KPM tea set which realized $4,063. What a great way to impress guests, serving tea from a set used by the Queen of England and the Duchess of Windsor! Upholstered furniture did well throughout the sale. An unlabeled pair of sofas from the suite, with pink diamond pattern upholstery and matching ottomans, realized $11,250. A Louis XV-style carved, painted and gilt oval low table with a pink marble top realized $3,750. These are but a few examples of the items from the Royal Suite.
Objects from the Presidential Suite also proved popular, as did the numerous photographs of the presidents relaxing, many of which were sold on the third day of the sale. A Cartier electric tall case clock, made in France of carved burl walnut, brought $10,625. There were two ship models in the suite, and a large, cased handmade model of the USS Constitution brought $7,500. A Boston Chippendale-style block-front secretary desk with panel doors, a bonnet top and original Waldorf Astoria label brought $7,500. Was it used by John F. Kennedy? Possibly.
The Cole Porter Suite was his home for 25 years. Shortly after Porter’s death, Frank Sinatra wanted to live in the apartment and made a deal to perform three nights a week in the hotel’s Wedgwood Room, then regarded as Manhattan’s finest supper club. When an unnamed gentleman learned that the contents of the suite were to be sold, including an inlaid French-style double pedestal dining table with a set of 12 French Empire-style chairs, he arrived at the auction and bought it all for $22,500. He told Kaminski that he and his family rented the suite and had Christmas dinner at that table for 25 years.
In addition to the dining set from the Cole Porter Suite, a large framed photo of the composer earned $2,250, a pair of photos of him mounted with sheet music from Silk Stockings brought $2,625, a pair of small marble top French-style occasional tables brought $5,938, and a pair of Imari-style table lamps brought $1,063.
The multi-day sale day began with items from the Marilyn Monroe Suite and it became immediately apparent how the entire sale would go from there. A brass and black metal floor lamp, that in other circumstances might have been considered “ordinary,” brought $3,375 because it came from her suite. A bookcase from the Monroe Suite brought $5,313, a directoire-style writing desk brought $4,688, and defying estimates, four photographs of Marilyn brought $5,975.
While celebrity photographs were offered throughout the sale, day three offered more than 250 lots. All of these images, going as far back as 1935 shortly after the hotel opened, were taken by professional hotel staff photographers and most were of a uniform size. Frames varied and all were identified with date and function. Many had never been published. In addition to photographs of celebrities, there were photos of scenes in the hotel, its events, its restaurants, lobbies, rooms, exterior views, etc. They were used in guest rooms, hallways, hotel restaurants and lobby areas. As with many other items in the sale, estimates were meaningless as buyers sought rare images of their favorites. A 1976 photograph of Guy Lombardo at one of his nationally televised New Year’s Eve parties sold for $500, one of Ronald Reagan sold for $750, an exterior view of the original hotel sold for $1,125, a photo of Elizabeth Taylor arriving at the hotel sold for $2,375, while a similar photo of Joan Crawford sold for $375. There were numerous photos of presidents, the Japanese Royal family, Prince Umberto of Italy, political figures, stars of stage and screen, military leaders, the Shah of Iran, Gloria Vanderbilt, Ella Fitzgerald, Princess Grace, Princess Margaret and countless others. Some were sold in lots of three or four and some were sold singly. All found new homes.
After the sale, Frank Kaminski commented, “I’ve never had an experience like this one. We dealt with buyers literally all over the world and things will be going to more than 100 countries. We had to sell more slowly than we normally would because of the lag time the online platforms needed to accommodate all those bidders. The first night, we were still selling at midnight and the LiveAuctioneers console showed that more than 1,000 people were still watching. A lot of the credit for the success of the sale goes to my staff, the team that made it all happen. Cliff Schorer, my associate in this sale was amazing and our PR effort, led by Diane Riva, was responsible for generating the level of excitement that we had. I had so many conversations with people who shared their memories of the hotel. First dates, wedding anniversaries, Christmas parties, being entertained by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, rubbing elbows with people like Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and the dozens of other memories were amazing. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I know everyone will be pleased with their purchases and I know that many of those items will become heirlooms in their new families.”
For information, 978-927-2223 or www.kaminskiauctions.com.
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