I WAS LIKE the proverbial kid in the candy store. That was last Thursday as I wandered through Sotheby’s auction house in New York to view items from the estate of decorator Mario Buatta:
There, over there on that wall painted acid green, were some of the Cavalier King Charles spaniel portraits that featured so prominently in Mario’s interiors! Oh, that 18th-century Venetian rococo child’s chair! At least eight pagoda-shape hanging
lanterns? Seems like a lot, but they were outnumbered by . . . 49 ceramic vases and ice-cups in the shape of tulips, and how many asparagus serving “boxes”? And pieces of an early-19th-century Coalport dessert set? And don’t forget the dog statues. And pillows embroidered with cheeky sayings. The esteemed, even beloved, designer died in October 2018, and it has taken this while to sort through some 5,000 fabulous decorative objects he owned.
Yes, in addition to being funny, charming and talented, Mario was . . . a hoarder! He had his Manhattan apartment chock-a-block with objets, plus a house in Connecticut that friends and colleagues say was little more than a storehouse. According to industry statistics, one in every 11 Americans has a storage unit; well, Mario had five. Actually, reflecting on how much stuff he had, I guess this sale was pulled together at lightning speed. And it contains only about 1,000 of Mario’s belongings; lesser items will be sold elsewhere.
Sotheby’s has gone all out to inject the public exhibition of Mario’s possessions with the designer’s decorative flair. While
auction viewings generally have glass vitrines lined up and filled with the items for sale, or paintings hung shoulder to shoulder, in this case the auction house set up housekeeping, Mario Buatta-style: Separate “rooms,” complete with prewar crown and wall moldings and high ceilings and Mario’s paint colors, embraced and showed off the extraordinary wares Mario bought for himself, sometimes with potential clients in mind.
Wandering through the rooms was like walking into pages from Architectural Digest magazine or, even better, World of
Interiors, and discovering that everything you find tempting is . . . for sale! To the highest bidder! And, yes, therein lies the rub: Items in celebrity auctions such as this tend to sell for more than their estimates and often way above their “true” value.
However, it costs nothing to stroll through the room settings and vignettes in the days running up to the two-day auction itself and fantasize where you might use, say, a kind-of lived-in-looking little 19th-century pagoda-form black-and-gold japanned étagère (estimated to sell between $2,000 and $3,000, but as of Sunday night, online bidding had already taken it to $3,500). Or a knee-high wood sculpture of a poodle (or perhaps English sheepdog, hard to tell) that holds a wood salver to take your house keys when you walk in the door (twinned with a cast-iron greyhound doorstop, the two of them with an estimate of between $600 and $900).
Back in the 1980s, when the English country house look was all in vogue (or at least in decorating magazines), Mario was known as the Prince of Chintz; he’s now being touted by Sotheby’s as the Prince of Interiors. Maybe that reflects the way this lush, layered style of interior decoration has taken a back seat to more streamlined visions. Or maybe it’s that just one touch of Mario, one item from this glorious hoard, would enhance any interior anywhere.
Mario Buatta: Prince of Interiors, Sotheby’s, 1334 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021; 212-606-7000, sothebys.com (where the auction lots can also be viewed). Auction, Thursday and Friday, January 23 and 24, 2020; public viewing of the items, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, January 20-22, 2020, 10am to 5pm.