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The Treasures of Radziwill

THE LATE LEE RADZIWILL is quoted as having said something that resonates with me: “I’m constantly falling in love with objects, and they follow me around the world.”

Radziwill—New York socialite, real-life princess and, of course, younger sister of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—died in February of this year, just shy of her 85th birthday. A collection of her furniture and decorative accessories was auctioned off on Thursday (October 17, 2019), in the Manhattan auction rooms of Christie’s, whose story about Radziwill included the quote above. (Though, of course, my beloved objects, of which there are too, too many, don’t have to follow me around the world. I don’t have homes in London, Paris, New York and the English countryside. But never mind.)

Over time, all of Radziwill’s residences were featured in books and magazines. So Radziwill fans would find some familiar pieces of furniture and precious bibelots in the sale. The splendid ormolu toucan on an ebonized base (estimate $2,500 to $3,500) was displayed in Radziwill’s Paris apartment and later in New York. A Napoleon III ormolu-mounted writing table from around  1850 (estimate $1,500 to $2,000) has a velvet inlaid writing surface instead of the more common leather; this piece could live quite happily just about anywhere.

I think the smart money would be looking at the upholstered chairs, sofas and loveseats on offer. These are custom-made pieces whose estimates are lower than the prices you’d find for lesser pieces in contemporary store catalogues (estimates ranged from $500, for a pair of button-tufted armchairs upholstered in Le Manach fabric, to $3,000, for a pair of two-seat sofas upholstered in cream silk wool).

But of course the item that called out to me was a frivolous one, Lot 1026, “A Partial Set of Design Maquettes Supplied by George Oaks of the Design Firm of Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler, 20th Century.” Yes, that Colefax and Fowler. What the watercolor-on-cardboard images show are the “elevations,” each wall of the bathroom, dressing room and sitting room contemplated for one of Radziwill’s UK residences. The little bathtub and sink are wooden and affixed to the appropriate walls of the bath. Watercolor renderings of curtains and wallpaper show how the rooms would be laid out, complete with stand-ins for paintings on the walls.

In other words, Lot 1026 is similar to the doll houses I used to make, on rainy summer afternoons, out of shoeboxes and random bits of paper and paint. Only slightly more refined.

The maquettes, the auction description says, were preliminary drawings and the designs were not executed as shown. The auction estimate for the maquettes was $20,000 to $30,000 (although “name brand” items often sell for far above their intrinsic value).

That price range alone should make those of us without the cash and cachet of a Lee Radziwill feel better: For that kind of money most of us get a real bath or at least a basic kitchen.

—Nancy McKeon


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