NEW YORK — Bill Blass was never shy about his affinity for mixing the high with the low when it came to decorating his homes, as evidenced by his fondness for displaying rare Roman antiquities alongside a rack of deer antlers.
This is the designer who delighted in presenting his highbrow guests with a meal of meatloaf and ice-cream sundaes, after all.
In his memoirs published shortly after his death last year, Blass said, “One of the most critical aspects of judging a room is whether it belongs to the person in it,” and he certainly fit into the wonderful surroundings of his Sutton Place home in Manhattan and at his country house in New Preston, Conn. One of his last wishes was that his belongings be sold to benefit the New York Hospital AIDS Care Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sotheby’s landed the lucrative auction that will take place over three days from Oct. 21 to 23.
As a teaser to the show, which has already generated unprecedented interest, even before its catalog hits the presses next week, the auction house is opening an exhibit of about 150 significant pieces from Blass’ homes in its 10th-floor galleries at 1334 York Avenue. The exhibit will run through the close of fashion week next Friday. A full exhibit of some 800 lots and more than 1,500 items — some shown in vignettes designed to reflect their original placement in his homes — will open a week before the actual auction on Oct. 14.
The preview exhibit is in itself a window into Blass’ taste for items with an architecturally visual appeal, including his collection of model staircases, dramatic period furniture, cases of mounted butterflies and black-and-white Pablo Picasso drawings. And, of course, antlers. Some of Blass’ better-known pieces, such as Picasso’s 1932 work “Nu couché,” estimated to be valued at $5 million to $7 million, are also included in the preview, but will be auctioned in later shows.
“This is a collection where everything was about the merit of the object,” said Elaine Whitmire, senior vice president and the specialist in charge of the sale, which exceeds the Sotheby’s sale of Gianni Versace’s belongings in 2000 by about 200 lots and is expected to raise $10 million.
The collection ranges from Blass’ first acquisition, a whimsical silver tree trunk that he used as a nightstand, estimated at $7,000 to $9,000, to a sublime early-19th-century bronze statue of Napoleon, which held a special place in Blass’ Manhattan bedroom, estimated from $50,000 to $70,000. The Russian onyx vase from the early 19th century from his entryway stands at the front of the exhibit, estimated from $30,000 to $50,000. One of his prize possessions, a marble portrait of a man dating from the Julio-Claudian Roman imperial period of the late 1st century B.C. to early 1st century A.D., is expected to fetch from $80,000 to $120,000.
Blass’ more accessible side will be on display, as well, in a tortoiseshell lamp priced from $3,000 to $5,000; six wooden staircases circa 1900 for $6,000 to $8,000, and French tobacco jars that can be had for as little as $400. Some lots are downright bargains, packaged in groups, as the value of many of the individual items is only sentimental because they were once owned by Blass. For $800 to $1,200, for example, is a lot made up of 10 pieces, including two framed butterfly cases, a pair of candlesticks, two vases, a retractable telescope and a brass shoehorn.