The Surprising, Precious Antiques in Joan Rivers's Estate Sale
Comedian Joan Rivers famously described her opulent, Horace Trumbauer-designed apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side as “how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money.”
But a comparison to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna might have been more apt: Rivers was a passionate collector of Fabergé, the jeweler favored by the last imperial court in Russia, and acquired dozens of pieces with her husband over the course of several decades.
Now, after her death from a botched throat surgery in 2014, 22 of those Fabergé pieces are included in an auction of her estate at Christie’s New York, and the public is finally privy to the full extent of her collection.
“Jokes aside, there was a serious and passionate interest in [Rivers’] collecting,” said Gemma Sudlow, the Christie's specialist in charge of the Rivers sale, which will take place on June 22 and carries an estimate of $1.5 million. (That estimate includes an online-only sale to be held June 16-23.) “She worked very closely with Wartski, one of the foremost Fabergé dealers, and over the years collected some of the finest pieces in the world.”
Sudlow says that there’s been interest from Fabergé collectors around the globe. “It’s an elite and reasonably small group of people,” she said, “and they all knew Joan had this fabulous collection.”
The top Fabergé lot is a sculpture in the shape of a lily of the valley leaf, made out of jeweled and gold-mounted nephrite, a type of jade. Carrying an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, the leaf is coveted for its rarity, materials, and proximity to Russian royalty. “We know that the lily of the valley sprays were owned by members of the imperial family,” said Sudlow. “And another of the known lily of the valley pieces is part of the Matilda Geddings Gray collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The rarity and esotericism of the leaf indicates, Sudlow said, “her depth of understanding and knowledge of these works.”
Not every work by Fabergé costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cheapest is a small, 3.5-inch-high, silver-mounted enamel and agate frame, which is estimated to sell for $7,000 to $9,000. “Right, that’s one of the interesting things about Joan as a collector,” said Sudlow. “It wasn’t just about the showiest objects.”
Given that this is Joan Rivers, a preponderance of objects would put Liberace to shame: A pair of candelabra are decorated with porcelain “Buddhistic lions” and ornamented with metal flowers and what appears to be stylized grape leaves (estimate: $2,000 to $4,000); there’s a two-foot-tall, silver palm-tree centerpiece with dangling cut-glass inserts (estimate: $800 to $1,200); and an ochre evening ensemble by Oscar de la Renta, replete with leather and sequin “embellishments” and enough fabric to upholster a couch. (Estimate: $1,200 to $1,800.)
Most everything in the sale, Sudlow said, was chosen with care. “There’s a magnificent French ormolu commode, it’s a really serious piece of furniture,” she said. “This isn’t just the sort of thing you buy for decoration; if you’re going to spend $150,000 on a chest, it’s because you appreciate the extraordinary workmanship and craftsmanship that goes into it.”