Published: June 15, 2004
Sotheby’s two-day auction of property from the estate of Katharine Hepburn on June 10-11 brought a stunning $5,856,100, with every one of the 695 lots offered finding a buyer.
Avid fans and collectors from around the world flocked to Sotheby’s New York salesroom and competed with bidders on the telephone and over the Internet for the opportunity to own a piece of Hollywood history. The most sought-after piece was the bronze bust of Spencer Tracy that Hepburn created in the 1960s. The audience cheered when the 3-inch sculpture that had been estimated at $3/5,000 sold for $316,000 to an anonymous bidder on the phone following a fierce bidding battle.
The portrait head of Tracy was featured on the set of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? “Miss Hepburn declared this to be her most prized possession, and after Spencer Tracy passed away, she kept it with her always,” noted Leila Dunbar, director of Sotheby’s collectibles department. Additionally, an oil on canvas board portrait of Tracy reading the newspaper sold for $78,000.
Also impressive was the $90,000 paid for a charming sculpture titled “Angel on a Wave.” Hepburn created this piece in 1960 and the bronze angel floats playfully upon a sculpted piece of green glass in the shape of a wave. An interior of her Los Angeles bedroom brought $66,000, a signed oil of the hills in Beverly Hills sold for $42,000, and a group of five watercolors of figures by the ocean brought $33,000. Hepburn declared “Fenwick Gulls” to be her masterpiece and fondly referred to it as “Me and Phyllis” after her longtime assistant and friend Phyllis Wilbourn. It sold for $36,000 to a bidder in the salesroom.
Collectors also competed for rdf_Descriptions representing Hepburn’s long and successful career in film and on the stage, including an American silver presentation cigarette box engraved, “For Katharine With Love From Her Company ‘The Philadelphia Story,'” which brought $57,000. In 1951, Hepburn earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as Rose Sayer in The African Queen opposite Humphrey Bogart.
Also featured was a director’s chair with Hepburn’s name on the seat back and an engraved plaque on one arm, which also sold for $27,000, and Gertrude, the canoe from the film On Golden Pond, sold for $19,200 to entertainer Wayne Newton.
Hepburn was a favorite subject of studio photographers, and the sale offered nearly 100 gorgeous black and white images of the young star. Again, prices soared as collectors vied for the photographs, including two gelatin silver prints of the actress by Cecil Beaton that brought $19,200, a group of three prints by George Hurrell that sold for $18,000 and a group of seven by A.L. Whitey Schafer that sold for $15,600. Other notable photographs were two gelatin silver prints of Spencer Tracy by Irving Penn that sold for $45,000.
The sale included many personal rdf_Descriptions owned and used by Hepburn over the years. Chief among them was the beautiful diamond and sapphire brooch given to Hepburn by Howard Hughes in the 1930s. It sold to a bidder on the phone for $120,000, far above the $15/20,000 estimate. Hepburn was introduced to Howard Hughes by Cary Grant in 1936. Also included was a group of telegrams sent between the two from 1937 to 1939. These sold to an anonymous bidder on the phone for $18,000.
Also of note was the group of Louis Vuitton luggage that Hepburn used for many years, which featured her monogram in red and also bore many travel labels. Highlighting the group was a wardrobe trunk that sold for $16,800 to Louis Vuitton, who successfully outbid several other collectors. It will be exhibited at the company’s private museum in Asnieres outside of Paris as part of the house’s permanent collection.
Hepburn’s inimitable style was reflected in numerous pieces of clothing, including two brown Burberry vests. Each was estimated at $400/600, and they sold for $2,100 and $9,000, respectively, to Burberry, which plans to place them in its company archive. A much earlier piece, her crushed white velvet Babani wedding dress from her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith in 1928, sold for $27,000.
Another highlight was an American carved and painted wood figure of a swan that Hepburn bought for the Los Angeles home she shared with Spencer Tracy. Numerous bidders battled for this piece, driving the price to $48,000.
Furniture highlights included Hepburn’s Victorian mahogany armchair and gout stool from her New York townhouse, which she fondly called “her throne,” that sold for $15,600 and a Chippendale-style mahogany slant front desk from her Fenwick home, which sold to a bidder in the room for $36,000.
The enthusiasm from collectors continued up to and including the final two lots. Hepburn’s manuscript from her 1991 best-selling autobiography Me: Stories of My Life sold for $20,400 to a Latin American client who was a great fan of Hepburn, and the New York City proclamation declaring May 12, 1997 “Katharine Hepburn Day” sold to Flxx Chaparro-Pitre, a collector in the room.
Prices reported include buyer’s premium, which is 20 percent of the first $100,000 and 12 percent thereafter.
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