I’m sitting here with the invitation to “A Private Gala & Preview Party” for the auction of Phyllis Diller’s estate. Bob and Dolores Hope’s estate is also being previewed. With a few nudges — and a couple of actual shoves — from friends, I realized it would be silly to not accept the invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime event. So this morning I called Julien’s Auctions and RSVPd. Susie, my catsitter, has agreed to watch after my fur family for the night. Now all I have to do is figure out what to wear. “Casual Attire,” it says. That means not formal attire, right? But not something you’d wear to mow the lawn, either.
I’m glad that this is just a preview and not the actual auction. When I lived in England several decades ago, I went to an actual, real live auction at Sotheby’s. I’m pretty sure my friend and former Foreign Service roommate, Barbara, was visiting at the time and am pretty sure it was she who suggested it. This was the kind of thing Barbara liked to do. Barbara was also the one who discovered Malyard. Malyard made hats. Malyard made hats for Important People. Sophia Loren, for one. How it came to be that Barbara discovered his little shop in SoHo, I have no clue. It was the kind of thing Barbara did. How either of us could afford hats from Malyard is something else again — oh yes, I remember. We were living in London on an American salary. That’s how. But I digress …
So off we went that time to Sotheby’s auction. It was jewelry which means that it was safe for me because jewelry has never much interested me. Which is good, because I can’t afford it anyway. But oh my, it was wonderful. We sat in a salon on gilded chairs just like in the movies. I had a catalog — still have it, as a matter of fact. I leafed through the beautiful pictures of the magnificent necklaces and tiaras and bracelets. The diamonds and emeralds and rubies and stones that I’d never even heard of. Many were described as “property of a lady.” Someone of high social standing, no doubt, who had perhaps fallen on hard times — or perhaps had just tired of that ruby and diamond necklace with the matching ear-clips and decided amethyst and smokey topaz would be her next fashion statement.
I remember the hushed atmosphere, the almost casual bidding. Trying to figure out who was making the bids was like a little mystery. A slightly raised hand, a discreet cough, and the bid was increased by another £50. I sat very still and told myself to not sneeze or scratch.
At that time — and even now — I loved opals. I had found a sweet opal necklace in an antique store in Johannesburg and I’d bought an intricate and delicate opal pin at a store in Venice. And there, on one page, was a magnificent opal brooch. It was studded with large flashing fire opals. It was breath-taking. Oh! I was in love. I do not remember what the bidding started at. I did make a note to myself right next to the picture: “NO!” it said. (As if I would ever have the nerve — let alone the resources — to bid on such a thing.) I watched the price soar, the bidding went on for several minutes. When the gavel finally came down, this stunning piece of jewelry had brought a price of one million pounds. A Million!!
I had been jotting the sales prices down in the catalog with the little pencil that was provided. I started to write the price. I got as far as £1, and then paused. The lady sitting next to me leaned over and very quietly said, “that’s six oughts, dear.” Okay. I was 26 years old and a million of anything was way beyond my ken! I dutifully wrote it out: £1,000,000. One million pounds.
Auction fever had certainly taken hold, I realized. Was it worth that much money? Well, it was to somebody. Which is WHY I’m glad I’m not going to the actual auction. I know how those things work — you get caught up. Something that seems somewhat interesting becomes quite desirable and then irresistible and soon you discover you’ve depleted the bank account and ended up with a mounted wild boar’s head to put over the fireplace. Wait! What fireplace? Yes, auctions are best viewed at a distance.
However, just for kicks, if you think you might — just might — want to bid on that painting of Phyllis by Andy Warhol, you can register to bid on-line or by phone. Just go to www.juliensauctions.com OR — if you’re in the U.K., try www.juliensauctions.co.uk.
And now, back to my dilemma of what to wear…
Shameless plug: To learn more about my time working for Phyllis Diller, check out my book: “Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller,” available at: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Spotlight-Road-Phyllis-Diller/dp/0985972882