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Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
There was Nothing Cold about the Prices for Capote’s Things AntiqueWeek 39 (February 5, 2007), 5 They called him Truman.  The crowd that gathered at Bonham’s on November 9, 2006, spoke affectionately of Truman Capote, whose personal effects were being dispersed at auction, more than twenty years after his death.  He was a familiar figure, even for the many in attendance who were born after the publication, in 1965, of In Cold Blood, his last finished novel.  This was not the first sale of Capote’s possessions. A selection of Victorian furniture was sold by his estate in 1985.   But it was a one-time chance to pour over so many of the private things of one of the last century’s great legends. In a sale of association items, provenance counts for a lot. The consignor was Joanne Carson, who met the writer in the mid-1960s, when she was married to the talk show host, Johnny Carson.   Their friendship deepened after her divorce in 1972, and Capote stayed with her on extended visits to Los Angeles.   What to sell and what to keep was a hard decision for Carson. In the end she recalled Capote saying, “These are only material things.”  She had an added incentive to sell because the proceeds will go, in part, to support an animal hospice in California. The first lots were related to Capote’s career as a writer.  A first edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), his first novel, in dust jacket, sold for nearly twice the high estimate at $1,135. A similar price ($1,016) was paid for the issue of Esquire (1975) that ran “La Côte Basque,” the gossipy story that got him blackballed by New York Society. The magazine was inscribed by the author to Carson.  Capote’s personal copy of In Cold Blood, a first edition, in dust jacket, signed by the author and bearing his library stamp, was knocked down at $8,365. (Without the illustrious ownership, comparable copies typically sell in the low hundreds.) After his death, Capote’s papers were donated to the New York Public Library.  Still, a few manuscripts were included in the sale.  A memoir of a chance meeting with Willa Cather in the 1940s was the most important ($20,000/30,000). It was undertaken, at Carson’s encouragement, in the days before his death.  Carson was philosophical about its failure to sell. “I’ll bring it back home,” she said. Then there were the ephemera relative to the activities and obligations of an eminent writer. He carried out public readings; a poster for an appearance at Lincoln Center, in 1980, went for $538. And he was the recipient of various academic honors, including two Doctorate of Humanities degrees ($388). Despite Capote’s literary importance, the booksellers began filing out after the first hour. The rest of the sale, which proceeded at a steady pace of 60-lots-per-hour, was a mix of special associations, high end knick-knacks, and mail-order banality. During the 1950s and ’60s, Capote led a charmed life, as the confidant of fashionable women. His most cherished friendship was with Bill and Babe Paley, the power couple, who never forgave him for his literary indiscretions. The sabotaged relationship is evoked in the collection of faded snapshots that were taken in happier days aboard the Paley yacht ($143).   The provenance of some objects was convoluted, due to Capote’s mildly larcenous habits.  Indeed, his pilfering became a running joke, with a stir going through the crowd each time the auctioneer announced “more of Truman’s souvenirs.”  An ivory horn, which Capote took from Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, attracted keen interest. That the theft took place in the company of Tennessee Williams was a further spur to bidding; the piece was eventually knocked down at $4,481. A Chinese export bowl, which he somehow carried out of the White House on a visit to First Lady Jackie Kennedy, went for $896. He had a provincial’s taste for the ashtrays ($448) and silver plate ($388) of fashionable hotels and restaurants. The matchbooks also ended up in his pocket; a group of six, including one from La Côte Basque, went for an extraordinary $478. A coffee pot from the Plaza, by contrast, was a gift from the hotel manager, after the Black and White Ball in 1966 ($568). Capote gave a lot of care to the decoration of his homes. There was enough china, crystal, and knick-knacks to supply three or four wedding registries.  The dinner service of 181 pieces of French porcelain, which he used for dinner parties, sold for twice the high estimate, or $3,585.   Many of the Baccarat pieces were given to Capote as a thank-you for hosting the Black and White Ball. A set of four Baccarat liqueur decanters from Andy Warhol, sold for $1,794, modestly exceeding the high estimate.  A set of eight Baccarat dessert plates—a token of esteem from the perfidious Paleys—was a squeaker; the final bid of $1,195 was a few hundred dollars shy of the low estimate.  Equally poignant was the pair of George III style silver plate wine coolers ($4,183).  They were a gift from Slim Keith, another Society lady who later rejected Capote. Although Capote is a symbol of mid-century urbanity, collectors were even more possessive of his early life.  Judging by how far the prices exceeded the estimates, Capote’s beloved cousin, Sook Faulk, enjoys a more enduring literary fame than his swank New York friends. Those austere, peripatetic years are evoked in A Christmas Memory, the frequently anthologized tale of his friendship with Sook.  A later printing of this work (1966), together with first editions of The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967) and One Christmas (1983) started the auction off on a high note; $1,076 was the final bid on a lot estimated to be worth $150 to $200. According to Carson, “More people came up at the sale to talk to me about A Christmas Memory than any other work.”  She added that Capote once told her that it was his “most perfect piece.” A homely crocheted baby blanket was sold to the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Alabama for $3,286.  The blanket was made by Sook in the 1930s. It was treasured by Capote, who often took it with him on his travels. Tom Mason, who was bidding on behalf of the museum, said, “Sook is central to most of Capote’s Southern fiction.  That he kept the blanket throughout his life helps show how important his Alabama roots remained to him.”  The museum also acquired a molded blue glass vase and plate ($359), two family heirlooms that Capote had with him from his early days in New York, and three of Capote’s hallmark caps ($60). It wouldn’t be a real auction without at least one controversial attribution.  A felt gingerbread man was the subject of intense and emotional bidding. At stake was a relic traditionally attributed to Sook.  But some Monroe County skeptics believe that the elderly woman, suffering from arthritis, was not capable of the fine stitching.    The final bid for the humble Christmas tree ornament was nearly $1,000. There were also some strong sales from Capote’s later years, which are recognized as a time of literary and social decline.  His assimilation into the new celebrity culture is evident in the photographic contact sheets, showing Capote at Studio 54 ($2,032).  His Courregès windbreaker, which he was photographed wearing at the famous New York disco, sold for $598; in the pocket was a “VIP Complimentary Drink” ticket.  At the end of his life, Capote was having quite a few drinks.  But before the blighted end, there were the good times and great books. Many collectors took home a part of that golden era. All sale prices include the Buyer’s Premium (19.5%).