OLEG’S SELLOUT CROWD: Even 13 years after his death, Oleg Cassini’s name managed to create a sellout estate sale at Doyle on Thursday. The all-day event ran for nine-and-a-half hours and the lots sold for more than $1.3 million, according to Louis Webre, senior vice president of marketing and media for the auction house. That final tally was well above preauction estimates of $578,185 to $884,260.
Some of the international bidders turned up at the Doyle East 87th Street sale room, with others phoning in their bids or placing them online. Many of the designer’s fans associate him with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose White House style Cassini was instrumental in cultivating. A nine-page handwritten letter by Kennedy prior to her husband’s administration clearly defined what she expected from Cassini as her designer and confidante. That piece of history sold for $16,250 — above the $10,000 to $15,000 estimate.
Thursday’s event was far from a run-of-the-mill estate sale. The 750 lots were gleaned from what was once Cassini’s Oyster Bay Cove 43-acre estate and the neo-Gothic Gramercy Park town house that he lived in at one time. Cassini’s widow Marianne Nestor Cassini has been entangled in years-long legal battles with the designer’s descendants. Her legal team had tried to stop the auction in recent weeks. The items from the East 19th Street town house were sold by the New York County’s Sheriff’s Office after a property seizure. Art, furniture, automobiles and other property from the Oyster Bay Cove manse were sold on behalf of Oleg Cassini Inc. and Oleg Cassini Parfums Ltd. per attorney Rosalia Baimonte, a court-appointed receiver.
More than 1,000 people passed through Doyle’s three-day preview last weekend at the Long Island, N.Y., estate.
In the end, Kennedy-philes or Cassini devotees plunked down $7,500 for 130 sketches (estimate $800 to $1,200) drawn in the Nineties for Cassini’s book “A Thousand Days of Magic.” Eighteen Kennedy-era sketches sold for $3,437 and a detailed ledger from 1960 to early 1964 with fabric swatches and descriptions of Kennedy-approved ensembles sold for $2,812 — considerably more than the $500 to $800 estimate.
But the sale’s real rainmaker was a composite suit of plates armor in the Maximilian style that sold for a whopping $262,500 — setting a new American auction record for European armor. The suit, which was one of six sold Thursday, was from the collection of Lord Astor in Hever Castle in the U.K. Another standout item was a a George I gilt-gesso side table attributed to James Moore that fetched $75,000 — more than double the opening estimate of $30,000.
A bright red 2004 Mercedes SL 500 convertible with the Cassini crest was won with a $34,375 bid. That amount was also what one client paid for a composite suit of three-quarter etched and gold embedded armor. Another high-ticket item was a Constantin Makovsky portrait of Countess Marguerite Cassini, the designer’s mother, that sold for $31,250. It had been estimated between $1,000 and $3,000. The designer’s nephew Alexander bought that painting of his grandmother, according to Marianne Cassini.
She took issue with the auction before and after the fact. She said Friday, “Everything was marked down exceptionally cheap. They didn’t have the right provenance for many of the items. For example, there were two paintings from Jenny Legrand (“The Go-Between”) that I bought from a gallery that I served on the board of directors for. They were $70,000 in 1971. They were listed for $4,000 to $6,000.”
Cassini claimed that many of the items belonged to her, to her sister Peggy Nestor or the Cassini companies. “It could be from a house that we shared – for sure – but it was not his property. When I look at this catalogue and the prices that things went for, it’s just really truly shocking.”
Cassini also said she was considering legal action against Doyle. “Also, selling somebody’s clothing is so cheap and crappy. It’s a third-rate gallery.” Cassini said. “And all these letters – Oleg never would have sold any letters. He kept them because he liked to look at them from time to time.”
In the aforementioned nine-page letter to Cassini in December 1960, Kennedy was specific about the magnitude of the commitment she was looking for from him. She asked, “ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE UP TO IT OLEG?” Suggesting he put his brilliant mind to work, imagining what she would wear if her husband was the president of France — très Princess de Rethy — mais jeune…” She also indicated how familiar she was with the hazards of “PUBLICITY.” “One reason I am so happy to be working with you is that I have some control over my fashion press, which has gotten so vulgarly out-of-hand. You realize that I know that I am so much more of fashion interest than other First Ladies,” before adding that she refused to have her husband’s administration plagued by fashion stories of a sensational nature — “to be the Marie Antoinette or Josephine of the 1960s.”
As for “COPIES,” she told the designer to make sure that no one has exactly the same dress — the same color or material. “I want all of mine to be original and no fat little women hopping around in the same dress,” she said.
Doyle senior vice president Peter Costanzo said the sale exceeded expectations in terms of the number of participants. “We had hundreds of buyers — new buyers, old buyers and people who had never bid at an auction before. We had local people, international people. It was really a success in terms of spreading the word. The prices were phenomenal — we exceeded estimates by several hundred thousand dollars. We sold every item, which is known as ‘a white glove’ auction in the industry.”
From his point of view, it all came down to quality. “The draw, in the end, was quality. Cassini’s archives, his antiques, the clothes that he owned, and designed, the furniture, the suits of armor – everything that he chose was of a very high level. That transmitted to the auction crowd. Even the things that he designed — the housewares, the cut-glass desk ornaments and things like that were of high quality. And they all sold quite well.”