The Price of Inheritance
It starts in my ears. A slight ringing that fades in and out like a faint Morse code signal. Then my heart takes off. It beats and thumps and pounds so loudly I’m sure the people next to me can hear it. I smile and laugh nervously. I think about reassuring the worried-looking man to my right that I’m sane; it’s just a little heart murmur and I’m not in need of a Xanax or an EKG. But nothing can stop the rush of adrenaline, anxiety, and animal-like sweating. My palms start to clam up, from the tips of my fingernails to my wrists. They become damp, soaking even, as the bids in the auction room start low—low in billionaire-speak—and soar up in minutes. I want to join them, calmly dishing out seven figures for that Chippendale armoire handmade by craftsmen in the eighteenth century, like it’s as routine as buying a latte. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to get the super-rich to buy, and as the room buzzes with the sound of moneyed voices, I know my job is almost done. But that doesn’t calm me down.
The bids rise as a waterfall of sweat swims down my back. I’m so sticky I could keep a fish alive in my shirt. I’m sure I look crazy, but I try to smile through my adventures in perspiration. The auctioneer’s sophisticated voice works its way rhythmically through the crowd and hands go up and down like a rich person’s version of Whac-A-Mole. Then, finally, only the most determined bidders wave their paddles in the air—some tentative, some powerful, others unnaturally relaxed as they bid with someone else’s money. Then, a pause. A single hand rises in the crowd, the auctioneer acknowledges the final bidder, and the hammer hesitates, then firmly falls. The mahogany hits the podium. And just like that, someone very rich and rather sentimental has spent millions of dollars, dirhams, yuan, or pounds on a painting, a table, a coin collection, dueling pistols, or an old pair of Kennedy underwear.
After ten years of the money-fueled adrenaline fest, I knew what to expect when I walked into the Christie’s saleroom in New York on September 13 at 6:30 P.M. As soon as my leather soles squeaked through the institution’s glass doors on the periphery of Rockefeller Center as a nineteen-year-old intern, I vowed to never leave Christie’s, and I hadn’t. For the last decade I’d been assisting, and then appraising and finally acquiring lamps in the shape of boats, clocks in the shape of birds, and desks made by men who loved powdered wigs. And all that—along with a few good connections—had led me to today.
The last time the famed Nicholas Brown Chippendale Mahogany Block-and-Shell Carved Desk-and-Bookcase sold at auction was in 1989 and it went for $12.1 million, a world auction record for American furniture. All the art journalists wrote about it. And everyone agreed that the desk, crafted by the Townsend-Goddard School of cabinetmaking in Newport, Rhode Island, was worth the astronomical price. There was plenty of buzz around the sale, and no one thought it would sell again for decades. But they were wrong.
Thanks to a tip about a family’s failed investments from a collector whom I’d worked with for years, I’d made two trips to the Cayman Islands in six months and one to Boston to convince Jack Davidson, the fickle heir of an old Massachusetts family, that yes indeed he should sell his prized desk to help pad his bank account. And I convinced him that only my distinguished place of employment, Christie’s, could get him a higher price than the eight figures he’d paid five years ago.
To keep Jack from contacting rival Sotheby’s while we wined and dined him, I’d immediately made a $12 million guarantee. Every dollar above $12 million that the piece brought in would be split by Jack, the seller, and us, the auction house. I’d also promised him prime placement on the cover of our September auction catalogue, skybox tickets to the Boston Red Sox, and a ninetieth birthday party for his father at the Christie’s headquarters in New York. I assured him that he and his third wife would be put up at the Plaza in the F. Scott Fitzgerald suite for the weekend, and that I’d personally take his youngest daughter to the American Girl store and to lunch at Delmonico’s. “Around strangers, she only eats condiments,” he’d warned, pushing back his dapper mop of brown hair and giving his diabolical seven-year-old daughter a wink and several packets of ketchup before heading back to the hotel.
Before I showed Jack the mockup of our catalogue—which I’d had the graphics department put together in twenty-four hours—I tied it with a linen bow handmade in Nantucket and spent thirty minutes starching and ironing it until it could barely be knotted. American furniture is mostly bought and sold by Americans. But this cabinet was a record breaker. I knew collectors in Russia, Asia, and the Middle East would be interested; it was something we had to have.
The courting we did in the American furniture department to woo estates was nothing compared to what went on in the bigger departments—Old Masters, Impressionist, Contemporary. I wanted Jack Davidson to build a relationship with Christie’s, and as soon as his beloved father, Paul Davidson, died, I wanted him to think of no one but Christie’s when he sold his estate. So a big-dollar promise was made and now I had to deliver on it. We both knew there was no guarantee I could keep my word. Worst-case scenario, it wouldn’t sell for $12 million and Christie’s would own the piece. I would be branded a failure and the next decade would see me selling plastic chairs in church parking lots.
I woke up on auction day in my tiny apartment on East Fifty-Ninth Street and pushed back the covers an hour before sunrise. I went through the same ritualistic motions on every big auction day as I tried to steady my racing mind. I picked up the New York Times and the front-page headline read: “Economy in shambles. Never spend another dime! Move to burgeoning New Delhi,” or something like that. But I was ignoring the pessimists. Those grizzly economists always saw the champagne glass half empty and there were lots of rich people left counting Bentleys and Picassos between their spoonfuls of fish eggs. I knew it was wrong to ask God for large sums of money to be spent on ludicrously expensive furniture, so I didn’t pray. Audibly, anyway. Instead, I walked. It was the same every time my department had an auction. My alarm went off at 5:30 A.M., I ate an entire bar of dark chocolate and three organic breath mints, and then I hit the pavement for an hour.
The morning of the desk auction, or Chippendale Day, as I’d been calling it during nervous phone calls to my therapist, I headed toward the park. I would start by strolling around the edge, the empty streets full of historic buildings inhabited by the extremely wealthy, and then, when the sun started to rise, I would turn into the park, watch the orange rays cover Manhattan, and sweat out a tiny portion of my nerves in the city’s cloud of green.
I walked twenty-three blocks, watched the yellow cabs race by, and climbed up and down the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All I could think about was money. Specifically, $12.2 million. I’d be happy with that. Not thrilled, but happy. I sat down on the steps, letting the morning wind slap my pale face, and stretched out my arms. In the next hour, I would wash, dry, brush, powder, and paint myself into someone who looked like she knew what she was doing. I’d appear polished and intelligent. Someone who deserved to have the job title Senior Specialist, American Furniture and Decorative Arts; someone Christie’s was proud to have associated with their venerable name.
I thought back on the first full day I worked at Christie’s as an employee instead of an intern. I was twenty-one, I was terrified, but I knew much more about American furniture than your average college student. I was a little obsessed. I thought about getting a tattoo of a Chippendale drop-leaf dining table on my inner forearm. To me it said, Passion, Old World, Awesome. To my parents, it said Lunatic, Criminal, Antiquities Freak, so I never did it. But I was ready to. That’s how much I loved what I was doing. And maybe Christie’s had seen my obsession, which, combined with the fact that my grandparents were once a pretty big deal, led them to slap a secure entrance card in my hand and give me a desk and access to very expensive things.
In the nearly 250-year history of Christie’s, I was the youngest senior specialist ever to be employed by the American furniture department. And as much as my parents were disconcerted by the way I wanted to express my passion, it was a job that was in my bones.
All through my childhood, my mother, Laura Everett, taught American art history at Salve Regina University in Newport, and my father was an architect specializing in nineteenth-century restoration. My family liked old things. Most of the time we liked old things more than we liked each other. But no one was in Newport anymore. We were just three, my parents and me. My grandmother, Virginia Everett, lived with us until I was thirteen years old. My parents had me far too young, when they were just getting ready to devote their lives to PhDs and academia, and quickly concluded that they weren’t kid people. So my grandmother beckoned us from Boston to Newport and raised me while my parents focused on what really mattered to them—things without a pulse. It was clear to all of us by the time I could walk that I was happiest when I was in my grandmother’s arms. When she passed away from liver cancer the void she left was something even teenage freedom couldn’t fill. Our house, once booming with the sound of her thick Rhode Island accent and determined matronly ways, became very quiet. At thirteen, I was considered an adult by my parents, and they didn’t bother to fill the silence.
When I finished boarding school and was about to become a very nervous college freshman, my parents shipped back to Boston, home to a whole host of nineteenth-century buildings for them to have fits over. They abandoned our history and our little house with the green glass roof.
My heartbreak pushed me swiftly into studying nineteenth-century American architecture and decorative arts, which turned into my first job at Christie’s as a summer intern in the Valuations department. I got to handle not only American furniture but Renaissance art, Chinese scroll paintings, South American and Asian pottery, Middle Eastern artifacts, and a lot of massive diamonds. Before I had my Princeton diploma, Christie’s officially hired me in April of my senior year. As I was allowed to become more of an expert, everything else faded away until I was surrounded only with what I loved most, American history. I became a junior and eventually senior specialist in the American Furniture and Decorative Arts department. I loved old things, but I really loved old American things. And if they had been pieced together in Newport, I went into joyous cardiac arrest.
On the unseasonably chilly morning of the auction, the wind ripped through my thin jacket as I watched the vendors set up their carts. The summer’s ice cream and soda stands were slowly turning into New York’s fall street food—roasted nuts, salted pretzels—but everything else was the same: the I Love New York T-shirts, the mass-produced wall art, the mini plastic versions of the city’s iconic buildings. Mementos for normal people to enjoy.
I took in the five-dollar price tags as I thought about the hours in front of me. Was having an auction this close to the summer holidays a good thing or a terrible idea? Terrible idea. Was the senior director of my department going to have me done away with if I didn’t keep my $12 million promise? Absolutely. Death by old-world hands and an antique butcher knife was predicted. But I had to give a price guarantee to lure the cabinet out of a handsome house in Boston and onto our showroom floor. Everything we sold had a reserve price—we were never going to let Édouard Manets sell for a nickel—but pieces or collections we really wanted to acquire and keep away from Sotheby’s we gave a guaranteed price to. That’s just how it was done. Sometimes we even gave half the guarantee in advance so the seller could buy more porcelain dogs or whatever oddity they were coveting. My department knew that the $12 million I had given was very high, but collectors liked records, and it wasn’t going to break a record again unless it went past $12.1. There was money in the world and people wanted to spend it on well-crafted mahogany, I was sure. Funds from blood diamond sales, arms dealers, drug cartels—surely someone wanted to own the most expensive piece of American furniture in the world. And we weren’t picky! Money was money.
I needed to rope up some confidence. This was not doomsday, even if my central nervous system seemed to think so. This was a day I had worked very hard for. At one time, my family had an astronomical amount of money. When I was born, most of it was gone, but I grew up around enough millionaires to feel comfortable with wealth. That was the key to working with the extremely rich. They couldn’t intimidate you, scare you, or disgust you. You had to sit down to dinner with them and declare, “You paid eight hundred dollars for that haircut (that looks like it was done with a fork and gardening shears)? What a bargain! Your (pot dealer) child is taking seven years to graduate from Choate? There’s no hurry! You have a Queen Anne Carved Mahogany Armchair and want fifty thousand for it? Of course, totally possible, more than happy to discuss.”
It wasn’t normal life. The people were rich and crazy, the men were pompous, the women were vain, and everyone wanted to win in front of an audience. If no one was watching then it wasn’t worth it at all, which is why the filthy rich always bought at auction. I absolutely loved it.
I had reached my salary high at Christie’s this year: $85,000. Many of our buyers made that in a day, but I would have done my job for much less. When I started at the auction house, thanks to connections and solid grades at an Ivy, I made $20,000 a year and had to live in a friend’s home office. My bed was so close to her power shredder that I slept with shoes on, just in case. But I’d moved up quickly by consigning the right collections. During non-auction weeks, I spent my workdays putting together catalogues, researching provenance and doing appraisals, sourcing pieces, working on client relationships, and trying to stay on the winning side of our duopoly with Sotheby’s.
Now, even when the art market, especially American decorative arts, was shaky, I was still managing to bring in big collections, and that was partially because my late grandfather was Marlin Everett, whose grandfather first came to Newport for the summers after his father made a pretty penny in New York working in steel manufacturing. He, along with Andrew Carnegie, was a key investor in the mass production of American steel through the Bessemer process, brought over from Britain. My grandmother, Virginia Everett, served as chair of the Red Cross Ball three times in a row. I liked to think it wasn’t the only reason I was at Christie’s, but I knew it helped. At all the major auction houses, your relationships mattered enormously. They cared about your last name, your mother’s maiden name, your parents’ bank accounts, how many millions your grandparents had, and where your biological tentacles reached all over the country. They asked you about private club memberships, university club memberships, and when they were done grilling you, they did it all again in French, and maybe Italian or Mandarin, too.
Just before my first day of work, when I was deciding on which black dress out of fifteen nearly identical black dresses to wear, a family friend who had worked at Christie’s but had left to run a gallery put her hand on my shoulder, pointed to the plainest one, and said, “It’s not Vogue. It’s brain wars.” She sat down on my bed—thin, polished, a patrician profile and professionally straightened hair—and kicked off her Prada loafers. “People don’t collect bags; they collect foreign languages, dialects, degrees, and academic papers. They know everything about their collectors—their favorite foods, their birthdays, what perfume they wear, how their parents died, any diseases in the family that might kill them off and when. I can tell you the projected life expectancy for every cancer diagnosis. You have to know which collection could move when and be in front of it. At Princeton you were very smart, but at Christie’s you’ll feel awfully stupid. Good luck.” I had eaten three Sprinkles cupcakes and cried that night. And she had been right, in a way. Every person at Christie’s had gray matter for days. They argued in Russian, coaxed clients in Japanese, and did interviews for Le Monde while walking around the Met with former spies who were now premier experts on Fabergé eggs. But that wasn’t all. Your academic knowledge of art was important, but equally important was your ability to get close to the right people and schmooze. Some hated that reality, but I thrived on it. Except for right now.
On my way home, I tried counting how many auctions I’d attended since I started at Christie’s. My department, American Furniture and Decorative Arts, was small, but going to auctions of any kind—numismatics, weaponry, wine, ceramics—was encouraged and I’d been slipping in and out of them for a decade. Auction day should no longer be intimidating, but when it was mine, it was—every single time.
My professional integrity, and possibly my career, was on the line. If the desk didn’t make the guarantee, the sale would become known as the greatest missed opportunity our department had ever had. If it went past $12.1 million, it would be our most important sale in the past twenty years. I felt strangled by the pressure but there was nothing I could do now but chew handfuls of Klonopin, freebase espresso, and cry in the fetal position. The catalogues were printed, we’d shown the works, the sellers were ready to buy, and all I had to do was carry on getting dressed, dry my hair, finish putting on makeup, and pray for my anxiety to fade away. Holding on to the towel rack, I looked at myself in the mirror and flashed a big fake smile. Why were my teeth so small? I looked like someone who only ate candy and had rotted away her bicuspids. And my eyes were very brown, a unique shade of polluted swamp brown. I picked up my brush and straightener and ironed my blond hair to near perfection. My hair was long and extremely light, which was good for being spotted in a crowd or attracting men with a love of Renaissance fairs or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I once went out with a photographer who loved to take my picture and yell, “You’re so elfin! A woodland sprite goddess!” He didn’t seem to mind that my coloring was Children of the Corn, and neither did anyone at Christie’s. I did everything that I could to stand out, to be memorable, the one people called when they wanted to break records. I’d even had a perfume mixed by the most famous nose in Grasse, which was partially made from ground money in several global currencies. “You will actually be wearing the smell of money,” he’d announced, and I’d been spraying it on religiously for a decade. Some might call it over-the-top; my boss deemed it ingenious.
Twenty Rockefeller Plaza: the intimidating address where Christie’s has ruled the auction world since it moved out of its smaller Park Avenue offices in 1997. My workday, getting ready for the evening sale, was going to be hell. But at least hell was located in a very nice building. At first, I had trouble associating Rockefeller Plaza with anything but ice-skating in December and the country’s best Christmas tree, but after I first walked into the Christie’s office in 2004, a nervous college intern, Rockefeller Plaza would mean nothing to me but Christie’s. I was destined to become one of those high-powered, brilliant women who threw out words like “figural marquetry techniques” before heading off with my fellow artistic geniuses to the Waldorf Astoria to drink highballs and discuss the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. “It’s awfully awful!” I’d say before handfuls of millionaires stopped by our table for fashionable tête-à-têtes.
“Good evening, Carolyn. Happy Chippendale Day,” John, the building’s head of security, whispered to me with a smile as I finally made my way from our offices to the auction room, checked in, and tried not to faint directly into his arms.
“Yes! It’s going to be exciting,” I said, unbuttoning my blazer.
“You’ll be fine and it will be exciting,” John replied, and I tried to smile in agreement. He was right, it would be exciting, because I was going to die. “It was art that killed her,” they’d declare before speedily donating all my organs to people with apartments full of West Elm bookcases.
Deciding not to check in with our chairman, but go straight to the auction, I walked inside and headed for the very back, where it was standing room only. My colleague Nicole Grant, a direct descendant of Ulysses S. Grant and junior specialist in American furniture, was already there, leaning nervously against the wall. She waved me over with a polite twist of her thin wrist.
“Carolyn, it’s time,” she whispered as I made my way through the crowd. “Your crowning moment! You look beautiful. Like you’re made of snowflakes. Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous, because I’m nervous for you. I’ve been scoping the crowd for half an hour and there are some major players here. Victor Wong. Peter Rensselaer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I think I saw Bridget Donahue, too. How come you didn’t come down early?”
“Because I would have marched up to every single person and demanded to know their net worth. I am not sane right now. I can’t be trusted in a public place.”
Nicole smiled supportively.
“I think you’ll at least match. Twelve-point-one million.”
“You know I can’t have it just match,” I said, trying to keep from shrieking. Nicole was the most junior person in our small department but she understood the stakes. If the price for the Chippendale didn’t exceed its previous selling price of $12.1 million, my brilliant moment would be stained forever with the words “Americana worth nothing. Sell immediately. Economic downturn proves fatal. Carolyn Everett to blame. Will be beheaded at dawn.” And all those trips trying to rationalize with a very eccentric seller would be for naught. Though we’d been preparing this auction for months, each lot would get only thirty seconds to five minutes of bidding time—an exceptionally short amount of time for someone to spend $12.2 million—and the whole evening sale would last just over two hours.
I stood motionless next to Nicole as the remaining potential bidders filed into the room. The noise of the crowd swelled as we approached the start of the auction—the chatter and air kisses, the adrenaline increasing everyone’s pulse. The first lot of the day, a sideboard built in Newport by the school of Thomas Howard Jr., went on the auction block and Nicole and I listened as the lower-dollar bids rose past the reserve and then finally neared an end. We always packed the front of an auction with some of the more valuable pieces, then moved to lower-priced objects before the high-dollar pieces. The prices rose and fell like a heart monitor, but you had to warm people up and get them ready to empty their wallets with a little help from the civilized thrill of the chase.
One more sideboard, an end table, three desks, and two sets of priceless side chairs, which suddenly had prices, were sold. Eight lots down, twenty-one left, but suddenly no one cared about anything except the Super Bowl of American decorative arts, Lot 30.
The esteemed Olivier Burnell was calling the auction, something he’d been doing for Christie’s for the last twenty-three years. I half listened to him as he finished Lot 29, and then I sucked in my breath and held on to Nicole’s wrist for support as he announced either the apex or downfall of my career, lot number 30.
“Lot number thirty is the Nicholas Brown Chippendale. The Mahogany Block-and-Shell Carved Desk-and-Bookcase,” he said calmly, his perfect British accent pronouncing each word as precisely as a translator. “Showing on your far right and as described and illustrated in your catalogues. Lot thirty,” he repeated. Without pausing for breath, he started the bidding.
“Now five million dollars to start. Five million. Five million dollars.” I crossed my legs so tight that my right ankle started to seize and I accidentally kicked a bald man in front of me so hard that he jumped up like he’d been launched out of a cannon. Olivier almost mistook him for a bidder. “So sorry,” I muttered quietly just as the auctioneer’s voice rose and sped up like a posh version of a man selling a pig at a county fair.
“Five million five hundred thousand . . . six million now. Six million dollars . . . six million five hundred thousand. Against you here at six million five hundred thousand . . . now seven million dollars. In a new place with Michael now.”
Olivier pointed to one of the Christie’s employees taking phone bids on the far right-hand side of the room.
“The gentleman in the center. Now on this telephone here. Now in the room, this side,” said Olivier, pointing. “New bidder now in the room at eight million five hundred thousand, against the telephones now, gentleman’s bid here,” he said, moving his eyes expertly across the crowd.
“Against you Agnes now,” he said, looking toward the phones at one of our Russian speakers, who was covering her mouth with paper to make her conversation totally anonymous.
“In the saleroom, and against you here,” said Olivier as Agnes’s bidder kept going against the room. “Now yours here up front at eight million five hundred thousand,” said Olivier as the bids sailed past $9 million.
Olivier swept his arm across the space where two different men in the center left of the room were bidding. Another phone bidder went up with a colleague who spoke Mandarin, and then the bids moved quickly back to the crowd. While some governments had strict laws about keeping their country’s heirlooms at home, the United States didn’t care. If you had money, you could buy our stuff and take it out of the country, even if you lived in Sichuan Province.
“In the room now at nine million five hundred thousand dollars,” Olivier declared quickly, scanning for new hands. I needed just three million more. A tiny, paltry little three million. I closed my eyes, praying that when I opened them a passionate billionaire with five black AmEx cards and tears of joy in his eyes would appear and announce his love for eighteenth-century American furniture. Instead, I opened my eyes and felt like I’d developed cataracts. Nicole looked at me like I was taking my final breaths.
“Are you okay?” she said, leaning over and gripping my right hand. “Are you always this hot?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Poor circulation due to childhood illness. Polio,” I whispered back.
“You had polio?” she said, clearly imagining my painful childhood spent as a clone of FDR.
“Sorry, not polio, I meant pox. Like chicken. Chicken pox.”
My tongue now had a mind of its own. Next I was going to declare myself the illegitimate ruler of France. I felt one step away from a supersonic meltdown. And, as Nicole soon pointed out, a real problem with hives.
“You look like you have enormous hickeys all over your face,” she said, physically recoiling.
“I know, I know,” I said, reaching in my bag and taking out my foundation. “It will go down as soon as this auction’s over.” I opened my purse again and popped three Benadryl and did a few of the breathing exercises that I’d learned in my Virgin Airlines Flying Without Fear class during a work weekend in London. When I’d paid the £300, the teacher said I would learn lessons to carry me through all the stages of life, and he was right. Now was I supposed to hold my breath and puff up like a bird? Or was it slow and rhythmic stomach breathing? I tried both and the result made me gasp for air like a scuba diver with the bends. Nicole grabbed my hand again and I began to calm down and itch less, but it all started again when Olivier reached $10 million, and there was silence in the room.
I held my breath until Michael’s phone bidder bit on the bid.
“Raise your hands, raise your hands!” I quietly pleaded to everyone in the room as the bids went just past $11 million. I needed to shatter records. I wanted my name in the papers and on the pages of Art in America. I’d even had a new head shot taken last week by one of Annie Leibovitz’s minions.
The Chippendale had to break $12.1 million, a sum so insanely high that I didn’t actually grasp what it meant. Except that at minimum wage, you had to work for more than 1,600,000 hours to have enough money to buy it, which is about sixteen lifetimes.
Olivier’s voice coming from his elegant form behind the rostrum snapped me back into the present and I touched my face to make sure my hives were still covered by my industrial-strength foundation. I heard $11 million from the phones, then $11.3 million in the room. When $11.5 million rose to $11.9 million, I froze.
Without showing any trace of emotion, Olivier said, “Did I hear twelve million?”
Did he? Was someone bidding twelve? It was Michael’s phone bidder. I wanted to leap over to him, steal the phone, and pledge all my white blood cells, future children, and savings bonds to that person. But I still needed it to climb.
“Twelve-point-one, please,” I silently begged. Someone! Bill Gates! The Zuckerberg man-child. A corrupt Vatican official. Kanye West. Anyone! I needed some heavy testosterone and ego proving to start pumping through the air.
And then, as the sweat from my palm actually dripped onto my gray dress, someone did. I saw it, from the left corner of my eye. Paddle 79 went up and no one gasped.
“Twelve million one hundred thousand from the gentleman in the middle,” said Olivier, looking at a man who had dropped out until now. Michael flicked his hand up, the arm of his suit falling ever so slightly.
“Michael, yours now on the phones for twelve million two hundred thousand,” said Olivier. He quickly took the bid up by another one hundred thousand. The man in the center of the room in the navy suit with silver hair lifted his paddle again and Olivier declared, “Here in the room at twelve million three hundred thousand.”
The bidding had just hit $12.3 million, then $12.4 million, and a second later, $12.5 million. I looked out at the sea of white hair, the bald spots, and the slightly hunched shoulders in yards of Madison Avenue tailoring, and got ready for my heart to explode. Olivier looked to the phones again but Michael’s bidder had backed off. Olivier scanned the room quickly and then declared to the former bidders, “Not yours, or yours, Michael, but here in the room at twelve million five hundred thousand dollars.” Olivier pointed again at the phones for one last second and declared, “Selling this time at twelve million five hundred thousand.”
The gavel went down and Olivier repeated, with a flick of his pen scribbling the bidder number on the thick Christie’s embossed paper in front of him, “Hammer price of twelve million five hundred thousand.” The crowd clapped, the price flashed on the large screen to his left in several different currencies, and Olivier got ready for the next sale, making no indication that he, with a lot of help from me, had just completed the highest sale for a piece of American furniture ever.
Nicole put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed as tightly as she could and we didn’t say a word, which was good because I didn’t know what to say. I was barely twenty-nine years old and professionally I would never top this moment. Everything I’d done to make this happen was suddenly worth it.
I stood through the last lots with Nicole, unable to react, unable to do more than smile and watch Olivier do his job, until the last table sold and Nicole steered me out the door to the auction prep room, where I was greeted with dignified cheers, hugs from everyone in our department, and a handshake from Christie’s CEO, Dominick Swansea.
“We have to celebrate,” declared Nicole as we walked out of the room an hour later with our two American Furniture and Decorative Arts colleagues. It was just past 8 P.M. and I had never been happier. Not when I lost my virginity to the cutest sixteen-year-old in Newport, when I graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, or when I’d been asked to do an appraisal on Antiques Roadshow. This was my moment. I had antihistamines coursing through my veins, burn victim makeup on my face, and beads of sweat evaporating on my neck, but none of that mattered now.
“You just changed the course of the entire auction world,” Nicole continued. “No one ever thought a piece of American furniture could hit the twelve and a half million mark, even the Nicholas Brown, but it just happened. And you helped make it happen. Everyone thinks you’re the best and you just proved them right. It’s time to raise a glass, or five, to your success.”
It was? Of course it was. We walked outside, through Rockefeller Center, taking in the fresh night breeze. It was September in New York and the air was filled with the last traces of summer. I inhaled deeply, something I hadn’t done for six months, and felt like everything in my life was going right. Better than right, it was perfect. Sure, I was technically single but occasionally sleeping with Alex, my ex-boyfriend from boarding school who was only balding on his left side, and both my parents had actually called me by the wrong name last week, even though I’m an only child, but all that seemed completely irrelevant now. I’d get Alex some Rogaine and buy my parents a few bottles of ginkgo biloba. I, with a little help from a 250-year-old company, had just gotten someone to spend $12,500,000 on a desk.
The Price of Inheritance
I didn’t head home after celebrating that night. Instead, I went downtown to Alex’s apartment on Lafayette Street. He had one of those super-fancy elevators that drops you in the middle of the living room and his doorman knew me, so he didn’t have to come to the door to let me in. I walked into his place, took off my shoes, and let my cold feet touch the shaggy white rug that sat like a docile animal under his coffee table.
I was about to wrap it around myself when my phone started to buzz in my pocket. I reached into my coat and smiled when I saw Jane Dalby’s name on my screen. Of course she was the first to call and congratulate me, because the Dalbys were first at everything.
During my childhood in Newport, the Dalby family lived in the much larger house, the parent house to my family’s carriage house, on Bellevue Avenue, Newport’s most famous street. “Dalby in miniature,” my grandmother used to say of our house, but it was more like Dalby in minuscule. Like most of Newport, they spent much of the year outside of Rhode Island (in the Dalbys’ case it was in Boston, overlooking the Charles), but from June to August and many weekends on either end, they were in Newport. There were two Dalby girls, very pretty and smart, with thick brown hair with blond streaks framing their faces and Irish Catholic roots. I went to Princeton with Jane, though she was a year above me, and her sister, Brittan, was a freshman when I was a junior. I told my parents I went to Princeton because they were alumni, but it was really because Jane was there. I could leave Rhode Island, but there was no way I was leaving the Dalbys.
I pressed accept on my phone and Jane’s voice pulled me out of my reminiscing.
“You did it, Carolyn! I just heard!” Jane screamed into the phone from her palatial house in Newport. This year, she was spending the winter there with her husband, Carter, and a partially blind Labrador who won best in breed at Westminster a decade ago.
“You were so worried, but I was right, of course.”
I smiled. She was right. Just like she’d been right when she said I should dump that prick Chris Walters at Princeton because he was cheating on me with a slutty cross-country runner who ate breakfast in a sports bra and when she said I shouldn’t dye my hair red because I would look like a lost Irish dancer.
“Are you thrilled? You better be.”
“I am happy,” I said, laughing. And I was.
“What did Alex say?” Jane asked. She had gone to high school with us, too, and we’d boarded in the same dorm for the three years we had overlapped at St. George’s. I was one of two kids who lived in Newport year-round who boarded. Alex was the other.
“I haven’t told him yet,” I admitted, not disclosing that I was currently doing snow angels on his rug.
“But I did have a big celebratory dinner with my colleagues and I even got a text from my mom that was three whole sentences long.”
“Amazing!” said Jane, knowing full well that from my mother, not exactly a verbose or supportive woman, that was equivalent to a ten-page letter, salty tears, and a dozen roses.
“Now go wake up Alex and tell him the news. He’ll flip. Love you, and congrats,” Jane said before hanging up the phone. I missed having a house full of Dalbys next door.
I put my phone and keys on the table, took my blazer off, hung it in the hall closet, and walked over to the bedroom. Alex was covered in blankets and I could only see a few strands of hair sticking up from under the quilt, refusing to be hidden with the rest of him.
I took my clothes off, folded them, put them on the leather armchair next to the bed, and got in next to him. He didn’t budge. It wasn’t until I put my arms around him and started tugging at his thick chest hair that he woke up.
“Alex. Alex . . . ,” I whispered, trying to get him to look at me. “It sold for twelve million five hundred thousand dollars. We broke the record for a single piece of American furniture. I’m so relieved. I can’t even explain it. I can finally take a deep breath again. There is oxygen left despite what I kept telling you about fraudulent science and our impending doom. All those nights chewing my nails—my hands really—until my fingers looked like strips of bacon. It was all worth it. I was terrified, but it actually happened. Twelve five. I’m in shock. But happy shock.”
Without turning around, Alex kept his eyes closed and mumbled, “I’m so happy for you,” then fell immediately back to sleep. I wasn’t going to try to wake him up again. His snores, which sounded a little fake, signaled he was in deep hibernation, but I wasn’t about to sleep. So he didn’t have a marching band to congratulate me. Or even a hug. Anything really except some garbled sleep talk, which I forced out of him. I wasn’t the kind of person who needed her ego stroked and handed enormous gold trophies and monogrammed cakes. But still, a little congratulatory screaming and fainting with pride would have been nice. I grabbed his iPad from his nightstand and googled “Nicholas Brown Chippendale.” It was already on Twitter and the important art blogs. I knew that on Sunday, it would be somewhere in the New York Times Arts section. I would scrapbook it, laminate it, and possibly sleep with it under my pillow for the next decade.
The next evening was Saturday, and quickly noticing that I was a tad pissed by his nonreaction to my big life-changing news the night before, Alex promised to take me to a celebratory dinner at my favorite restaurant in New York, Daniel, on East Sixty-Fifth Street.
During our first few years in New York, Alex and I tried hard not to be together. He had dated a series of emaciated blondes who worked in marketing or magazines and he found them all fascinating. Or so he would always tell me when I’d run into him with someone I was considering dating. But no one ever really stuck besides me, and vice versa. We’d try dating the right people, spending a few months imagining them as our better halves, and then call each other after we realized they weren’t up for the challenge. Even when we weren’t officially together, Alex was always there for me as the essential New York plus-one, or if I just wanted a warm bed to sleep in, with clothes on or off. Were we crazy about each other, or were we just used to each other? It was a question I thought about a lot, but it didn’t keep me from calling him in the middle of the night, wandering to his house when I’d had too much to drink, or opening my door for him when one of his dates got a little too excited about his parents’ money. “State school gold digger,” he’d say pouring himself a scotch, which he’d brought with him. Sometimes I chided him, sometimes I ignored him, and other times I went to bed with him because it was what I’d been doing since high school. We had ease, and that often mattered more to me than romance.
When Alex came up, he gave me a kiss and an Edible Arrangement, which I much prefer to flowers because flowers are just elegant vessels for bugs to enter your home and stay forever. I once had giant red ants invade my kitchen and I swear they rode in on a large, comfortable sunflower.
I was happy. Happier than I’d been in months, years maybe. When we were outside, I started to do an adult version of skipping down the sidewalk. I had energy, life, joie de vivre.
“What are you doing?” said Alex, speeding up to keep up with me, his stiff brown leather dress shoes creasing slightly at the toe.
“I’m walk jumping,” I explained between bops along the sidewalk.
“Good Lord,” said Alex, clearly still entrenched in his conservative New England ways. “Isn’t there some ADD medicine you can take?”
The thing about Alex was that he wasn’t exactly comedian funny. Or funny at all. Actually, I once presented him with a drawing of a funny bone and suggested that he have it inserted by a doctor. He did not heed my advice. But he was very successful, was kind when no one was looking, and was incredibly sexy. Take-your-underwear-off-with-his-teeth sexy. We’d met when we were fourteen, when we were both at freshman orientation for boarders at St. George’s. Though we’d grown up in Newport, we didn’t know each other until we went to school together. Alex had kissed me three weeks into the year and declared that I looked like a fragile rose. That won me over a little and when he whispered in my ear that his mission in life was to give me an orgasm, that won me over entirely.
It’s not that Alex didn’t like going a little bit crazy. He did. We were once reprimanded in Vegas for jumping into a lazy river while wearing wooden shoes after a “going Dutch” party. But sometimes he didn’t like my extremes. My nerves around auction time, my need to be very successful at everything I gave a morsel of energy to. I knew he wanted me to be steadier, more stable, just like him and his emotionless family.
I looked at Alex, still so perfectly handsome. His skin and his hair and his eyes all matched, almost an identical golden taupe, which didn’t make him striking, but he was very good-looking without the shock value. He was a bulky six feet tall with muscles that refused to be well defined but were somewhere under there. He ran track in high school and college and told me he always liked sports better when you didn’t have to rely on idiots. “I’m not a team player,” he’d once said after he won the 400-meter dash. “That’s why I always win.” He was pleased with the way he looked, and the haughty way he acted, and so was everyone else, including me.
When we got to Daniel we both forgot that he actually wanted a different version of me, the me that existed before I had my dream job, before I understood what real pressure was. Instead we ate, talked about people we knew from home, and kept floating down the line of shared experiences. We would always be connected because of school, because of Newport and falling in love there when we were very young, and for now, that was good enough.
After dinner, Alex suggested that we go back to his apartment, take off our underwear, and drink heavily. I thought that sounded like an exceedingly good idea. It took us a few minutes to grab a cab and I hid my face in Alex’s navy blue blazer, letting the soft material rub against my made-up face.
“After you, star of the art world,” he said, opening the cab door for me; I swooned just a little as the air caught his brown curls and they fell across his forehead. Well, on the right side of his face, anyway.
“Star, you say?” I asked him, trying to keep the conversation on the topic of my life-changing accomplishment. “So you’re proud of me, then?”
“You sold a twelve-and-a-half-million-dollar table,” said Alex, whistling under his breath. “And frankly, it’s not even attractive. I’m impressed. You should be a criminal. People will buy and sell anything when they see that angelic face,” he said, squeezing my cheeks like a lemon.
Maybe he could tell I was annoyed by his comment and he wanted me to calm down, or maybe he just knew how to turn me on after fifteen years of turning me on, but he put his lips next to my ear and said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I want you naked for the next twelve hours.” The cabdriver was thrilled to get rid of us.
When I woke up for work that Monday, I was ready for compliments and cheers at the office, but instead I got a call from Louise DeWitt, department head of American Furniture and Decorative Arts, at 6 A.M. sharp. She demanded that I meet her for coffee in thirty-five minutes and that I better have a bag packed because her assistant had just booked me a flight to Texas and I might have to stay for a few days. I didn’t ask any questions. I assumed that someone very rich who had important pieces of American furniture had just died. I packed a bag full of completely impractical items and jumped in a cab to the Starbucks on Lexington Avenue.
Louise had on a brown, asymmetrically cut blazer and so much jewelry I was surprised her head wasn’t weighed down. She looked like a beautiful giraffe wearing necklaces. “Carolyn, here I am!” she called out, waving both her hands, though it was perfectly clear to both of us that I could see her. Louise was in her late fifties, but she carried her age beautifully, like a woman who had always been told she was attractive, and always would be, even when the words “for your age” were tacked on to the end of the compliment.
“Thank goodness you found me,” she said, patting the seat next to her. “This place! It’s so crowded.” I had an odd feeling that this was Louise’s first trip to Starbucks, but I just smiled and murmured something about the chain being somewhat popular with New Yorkers between the ages of .001 and 110.
“I took the liberty of ordering you three coffees.” Louise informed me that none of them were decaf because decaf was for people who lived in California and ate grass. “I like what you’re wearing,” she said, eyeing me approvingly. I was wearing an outfit that I called “expensive shades of beige.” Every ensemble in my closet bore a descriptive label: “deal-making black dress tailored in Rome, the Chanel that New Englanders like, the St. John for deals with southerners, backless shirt to wear with clients under forty.” I made a mental note that Louise liked the beige.
“Carolyn Everett. A beautiful blade of wheat. That’s what you look like.” She took a sip of her coffee and looked at me with her deep-set eyes. “Did you get the plane ticket emailed to you?” She started flipping through a leather file that she’d placed in the middle of the table.
“Yes, a few minutes ago. Houston, eleven A.M. I got it, it looks great, but I’d love to know why exactly I’m going to Texas today.” I didn’t ask why there wasn’t a return flight booked.
“I figured you might!” said Louise, snapping her fingers rhythmically. “Two words. And try not to faint when I say them.”
She paused for what seemed like a full year of my life before eventually whispering a name I thought I’d never hear.
Elizabeth Tumlinson. I immediately felt faint.
“Elizabeth Tumlinson is thinking about selling her estate? Through us?” I asked incredulously.
“Right you are!” said Louise, lifting her espresso in triumph.
Elizabeth and her late husband, Adam Tumlinson, had the best collection of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century American furniture in the country. Adam had made most of his money by being born to the right parents, early real estate moguls on Maryland’s eastern shore, and he’d padded it out nicely by being one of the first to see the potential in Baltimore’s many dilapidated warehouses. He flipped the old buildings into ultramodern lofts bought up by Johns Hopkins doctors. The Tumlinsons lived for many years between St. Michaels, Maryland, and the Roland Park historic district of Baltimore, then moved to Texas, where they solidified their status as the top Americana collectors. When Adam Tumlinson died last fall, my department started courting Elizabeth like she was debutante of the year. But she told us, and we knew she’d told Sotheby’s, too, that she wouldn’t think about selling even a sliver of her collection while she was still breathing and we’d have to move on from courting her to wooing her children after she passed away.
“Wait. Are you sending me to value the estate of Elizabeth Tumlinson?” I asked in disbelief. Louise couldn’t just be sending me. She never sent just one person from our team to assess an important estate. I was sure she must be coming, too. Unless Louise was having open-heart surgery at the Starbucks, there was no way she would send someone in her stead to meet with Elizabeth Tumlinson.
“I’m not sending you just to value it. I’m sending you to acquire it as fast as you can. Nicole will be going, too,” she said, reading my mind, and noting that Nicole would meet me in Houston since she was currently in Washington, D.C., looking at an early nineteenth-century Hugh Finlay table. Why would Louise send Nicole and me? We were the two most junior members and she was the department head. Surely she wanted to meet with Elizabeth and explain that Sotheby’s was a bunch of cocaine addicts who would take a 99 percent commission.
“You need to work on your poker face,” said Louise as I pulled my hand away from my mouth.
“You want to know why I’m sending you and Nicole and why I’m not going myself,” Louise offered up, pushing another coffee in my direction. Heat and speed were the last things I needed, but I drank it anyway, afraid that Louise would change her mind about my trip if I couldn’t drink two grande coffees in ten minutes.
“I suppose I’m wondering a little.” What a lie. This was more interesting than Bigfoot or the Shroud of Turin.
“She requested you. She somehow knew—and liked—your grandmother. She knew her in Baltimore, I believe. Did your grandmother live in Baltimore?”
She knew my grandmother? How had I not figured that out? I had gone through my grandmother’s address book eight times when I first started at Christie’s, contacting everyone who might have some American-made object to sell, but I had never seen the Tumlinsons’ name. I took immense pride in always knowing a connection before Louise did. When Adam Tumlinson died, I was aware of his death before the obits were written, before the body was even cold, thanks to a doctor I knew in Texas. Louise had been the one who contacted Elizabeth, but she had been mighty impressed by my ability to hear about the death even before close family members.
“My grandmother did live in Baltimore, but not for long,” I explained to Louise. “It was for a year in the early sixties. My grandfather was having some health problems and was being treated at Johns Hopkins.”
“I mentioned your name and the Nicholas Brown Chippendale and Elizabeth asked if you were related to Virginia Everett. When I said you were, she said she wanted to work with you, so there you go. I also put Nicole on there because everyone knows Nicole’s family and I have a lot of faith that you, with some help from her, will handle yourself just fine. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever had in the department, and I don’t say that lightly. Sometimes you’re even smarter than me.”
I smiled in thanks at Louise and thought about what she said. Elizabeth Tumlinson was friends with my dead grandmother? While she was living, of course. I doubt she’d developed a close relationship with the late Virginia Everett via voodoo. I was mad at myself for missing that connection and was glad Louise didn’t seem upset by my oversight. The name Elizabeth Tumlinson meant nothing to me until college and by then my grandmother had passed away, but my parents were American furniture freaks, too. Had she never felt compelled during one of our solemn family dinners to drop the fact that she was friends with the grande dame of American decorative arts collecting?
“I don’t know how to say this without just saying it directly, but we need this sale,” Louise acknowledged, her left hand over mine. “I don’t want her to meet with any art dealers. If she hasn’t met with Sotheby’s yet, I don’t want her to set something up. We need this estate and we need it . . . well, I don’t want to say desperately, but it would be an appropriate word. Last year, Sotheby’s American furniture department outsold ours for the first time in nine years. Nine years! Dominick is putting so much pressure on us to reverse that damage.”
She looked at my face, my embarrassment, and patted my hand. “You know that, of course, and you know that that’s not happening again this year. Your historic sale. The Nicholas Brown Chippendale. It did so much for the department, but I still worry it’s not enough. But if you could get this estate—”
“Louise,” I said, interrupting her. “If I need to slice open my arm and give the woman my bone marrow with a teaspoon, I’ll do it. I will not leave Texas without a signed contract, I swear to you.”
“Good, good,” Louise repeated. “Her collection will determine the American furniture market for the next few years. If it sells well, there will be no more talk of a flat market . . . and Sotheby’s, they would just . . . it would be amazing. I can’t take another year like last year. I can’t. Just get it signed.”
I really felt the weight of what I’d been asked to do as my plane started its descent over the dry plains of eastern Texas. This wasn’t just me going to chat with someone about one table. I was doing an estimation of an entire estate and making an immediate offer. I was taking on the operation of wooing then selling the very charmed life of Elizabeth Tumlinson, and I had to be successful.
When I saw Nicole at the baggage carousel waiting for me, I ran up to her and gave her a huge hug. I was suddenly so appreciative of her friendship, her expertise, and her ability to keep a level head.
“I am so, so glad you’re here,” I said as I finally let her go, untangling her softly curled dark hair from my watch.
“You’re going to kill it,” she said, hugging me back. “I’m just happy to observe your genius.” I let her comment flood me with confidence and smoothed the tiny wrinkle in my fitted blazer. I wasn’t free of nerves, but I knew how to look and live the part.
I’d spent the whole plane ride reading a biography of Elizabeth, sent from the same Houston contact who had told me about her husband’s death. She had grown up in the quaint coastal town of St. Michaels, Maryland, and had met her very rich husband through a mutual friend during a political fund-raiser in Washington, D.C. They hadn’t moved to Texas until he was semiretired and she was in her mid-fifties. Now Elizabeth was heavily involved in everything a very rich older woman was expected to be involved in: the Houston Ballet; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Texas Children’s Hospital; the other children’s hospital; and the Houston Historical Society—her money was sprinkled all over the city. Nicole and I wondered why the Tumlinsons had abandoned the life they had built in Maryland for sprawling Houston, but none of our contacts had been able to give us a hint, so we assumed better weather and less crime.
As I turned away from the traffic on Texas Avenue, I kept my foot steadily on the gas pedal and headed toward Willowick Road in the very wealthy River Oaks area of the city.
Before we went to Elizabeth’s, Nicole and I stopped in the country club near her house, which one of Nicole’s sellers had gotten us access to, and went over the final details of our proposal.
“Well, this isn’t Baltimore, now, is it,” said Nicole, looking out at the nearly fluorescent green golf course and women in tennis whites.
“I would meet that woman in a back alley in Newark if she wanted to. I just hope she hasn’t contacted Sotheby’s,” I said, sitting down at a somewhat secluded table overlooking the golf course. “Or if she has, that we’re going first.”
“I know,” said Nicole, looking at the women next to us eating what looked like heaven in a breadbasket. “Christie’s is almost always first, but I’m still terrified. I actually dreamt last night that she had us do a Hashiyama.”
I sucked in my breath and nodded understandingly. It was one of those stories that was legendary in the auction world. In 2005, Takashi Hashiyama, the president of a big Japanese company, couldn’t decide if he wanted to sell the company’s eight-figure art collection with the help of Sotheby’s or Christie’s. So instead of going with his gut or flipping a coin, he had the head of Christie’s Tokyo and the head of Sotheby’s Tokyo play rock, paper, scissors. Christie’s won and we suddenly all started practicing playground games in the office.
“Of course, in this day and age, she’d probably make us play something more timely, like Angry Birds.” Nicole stared at me, checked her high score, and then we both laughed nervously.
“Okay, so if she doesn’t make us have some sort of video game contest with Sotheby’s, we stick with our twelve percent buyer’s premium.”
“Yeah, we probably have to,” I said, making little check marks next to the proposal I had typed up on the plane. “And we waive seller’s commission and we give our guarantee, half of which can be paid out to her upon signing.”
“Yes, thirty million. That’s high, but it’s doable.”
“I’ve made a list of possible extras,” said Nicole, looking at her list. “Her oldest son, Gordon, he’s the one who spent a little time in rehab, he’s a huge Ravens fan. I can get him a meet-and-greet in the locker room.”
“You can? How?”
“Don’t ask, but I can. As for Elizabeth, I can’t pinpoint anything she might want that she can’t already buy, so we’ll just feel it out.”
I could see the words “American Ballet Theatre, Clydesdale horses, space aviation, and Duke of Gloucester” on her list but didn’t ask any questions.
“I also looked and saw that Olivier Burnell was at the rostrum for every New York sale her husband attended in the past fifteen years. We can put it in her contract that he will conduct the auction and if he can’t, she can withdraw.”
“Olivier has never missed an auction. Even that time when he sliced open his thumb with a steak knife . . .”
“And just wore cashmere gloves,” Nicole said, finishing my sentence. “I know he never misses an auction, but she doesn’t. Let’s write it in. I think she’ll appreciate it.”
“Okay,” I said, mentally preparing the baskets of Airborne and vitamin C that I was going to start bringing Olivier on a weekly basis.
“Louise said she wants high estimates.”
“They all want high estimates,” I replied, rolling the corner of the piece of Christie’s embossed paper in front of me. “It can backfire, but sellers never seem to care.”
“I know, I know, the reserve prices can go too high and then there’s the risk it won’t sell. But if we don’t go high, you know Sotheby’s will give her the high estimates she wants.”
“You’re right.” I sat on my hands so I would stop fidgeting and looked at our papers—our talking points, the proposal, everything we had laid out before even seeing any of her collection in person. We typed up our final proposal, used the club’s business center to print it out, and paused in front of a wall-to-wall window overlooking a manicured lawn.
“I feel ready,” said Nicole, standing up.
“Me too,” I replied, placing the new contract in a leather Christie’s folder.
Elizabeth’s house was roughly the size of Belgium and got bigger as we noticed a back wing and then a separate guesthouse. I pressed the button on the loudspeaker next to the gate of her ivory brick mansion, it clicked open, and Nicole motioned to an area on the stone driveway where I should park.
The first thing that surprised me was that Elizabeth opened her own door. I was absolutely sure she would have a dozen Downton Abbey–style footmen who called her “your grace” and brushed her hair with boar bristles, but no. And the next thing that surprised me was how beautiful and healthy she was at seventy-six years, five months, and seventeen days old. I expected her to be in declining health if she was thinking of selling a large part of her estate. But here she was, ready to compete in the Mrs. Grandmother of the Universe pageant.
“You must be the women from Christie’s,” she said, her cream bouclé suit resisting a crease as she reached her thin hand out to us. “Louise warned me that you were young.” She moved out of the way and let us through the heavy, wooden, double French doors.
“As you both know, youth is not the word of the day. We’re dealing with old things here, including me.”
Nicole and I started gushing—she looked amazing, sensational, her house was stunning, her collection unparalleled, we were thrilled, no, elated, to get a chance to see it, to meet her, we were bursting at the seams, what an honor—and through our gushing, she just kept a tight smile on her face and ushered us inside her house.
She led us to what looked like the first of eight living rooms. She pointed to a beige high-backed sofa for us to sit on, which was placed next to a beautiful piece, which I recognized as the work of eighteenth-century Annapolis cabinetmaker John Shaw.
We spent the first hour at Elizabeth’s not up to our elbows in mahogany looking for signatures and hidden drawers in precise places to authenticate the pieces, but listening to Elizabeth tell us about her late husband, Adam.
“You can’t imagine how lonely it is to be a widow,” Elizabeth said, bowing her head slightly, her tight gray chignon unmoving.
Really? But didn’t she have six children?
“Death is terrible,” I said, solemnly bowing my head to match hers. What was I saying? How did I know death was terrible? I had never died.
“Loneliness is terrible,” I said, backtracking.
“It is,” she agreed, patting her eyes with a handkerchief she seemed to have pulled from the couch cushions.
“Loneliness is killing me. My bones are shaking. I need a change.”
She needed a change, did she? Well! I had a change for her. Minimalism! Was it time for me to pull up pictures of Le Corbusier buildings on my iPad? Tell her that stark white walls with nothing on them were this decade’s Thomas Eakins paintings? Or maybe I’d suggest the naturalist route. This woman should kiss all this Texas gaudiness away and move to Walden Pond. Really find herself in her final years. She needed to shed the shackles of wealth and make like a Buddhist.
“There are, of course, my six children. I always thought I would leave it in their hands.”
Heartless worms! All children were. They didn’t even come visit her, by the sounds of things. They didn’t deserve her furniture. What was I supposed to say? Screw your children? Yes, that’s what I was supposed to say, just not in so many words.
“It’s possible, if they’re not passionate about American antiques, that they would immediately sell your collection and spend the money on other things,” I said, talking about how so many young wealthy people wanted private jets and private islands.
“The values are different,” I continued. “They don’t want Chippendale and Queen Anne; they want fast money, fast cars, Swedish furniture made of metal.” She physically recoiled when I strung that last phrase together. I could tell she was having visions of her huge house filled with IKEA furniture with impossible-to-pronounce names covered in umlauts.
I wanted to tell her that Bjøoïrniger sofas were sure to be the downfall of the next generation of Americans, but I didn’t want to push it.
“I know they don’t really care about all these things,” she said, motioning to her end tables and armoires. “But my children aside,” she said, sighing, “sometimes the thought of selling everything, watching my collection, Adam’s collection, being torn apart and sold off bit by bit . . . well, it might just send me to an early grave.”
Was seventy-six an early grave? It wasn’t my place to ask. And I didn’t want this elegant woman to actually die. It’s just that I wasn’t allowed to walk away with nothing.
“We have a very good offer for you,” said Nicole, cutting the small talk. “We’ll of course need to take a look at everything, but I know that the number we are willing to put on the table will exceed your expectations.”
“I need a guarantee,” said Elizabeth, her voice suddenly turning firmer.
“Of course,” we both said in unison.
“And I’d like you to set up a trip for my children to attend the auction. They quite like the St. Regis.”
“Will you want to attend?” I asked, writing notes and knowing that Louise would put her entire extended family and their pets up at the hotel if we could sign Elizabeth.
Just as I was about to stand up and start gently flipping over furniture to find signatures, she shook her head and declared, “All this talk is rattling me. I feel like I’m at a car dealership with Slick Rick and I don’t like it.”
What? How was this like a car dealership? We were trying to get her to sell, not buy, and who in this scenario was Slick Rick? I caught Nicole’s eye and she mouthed, “You.”
“Maybe I’ll just donate everything to my alma mater, the University of Maryland,” Elizabeth said, starting to smile as she reached for her soda water.
The University of Maryland! Why? So that frat boys could puke on cushions that once held the posteriors of the American settlers? While I was thinking about our next move, Nicole was playing the friendship angle, telling Elizabeth all about her recent trip to Maryland. She was also peppering her stories with ten good reasons why Elizabeth should sell her estate.
“The Baltimore Museum of Art has expressed a lot of interest,” said Nicole. “Think about how much of your furniture would return to Maryland if you sold it through us. We have a very high percentage of buyers from museums in the mid-Atlantic.”
Elizabeth smiled and declared, “Good people come from Baltimore.”
What did she mean good people came from Baltimore? Had she never seen The Wire? And Edgar Allan Poe was from Baltimore. The original Goth!
“Everything I’m considering selling is in these eleven rooms,” she said, making a dramatic motion with her arm. “Now, I said ‘considering,’ so don’t start mentally writing up your catalogue yet. And no fast talk and shouting out numbers. I like to live a civilized life.”
Well, it was a good thing I hadn’t done my usual routine of appraising things in a loincloth.
There were one hundred twenty-seven pieces in the eleven rooms and we started in the very last drawing room, taking pictures of each piece from every angle, including inside the drawers and underneath the legs. We looked at the inlays, the mother-of-pearl detail on some, the tongue-and-groove joinery, ran our hands across the claw-and-ball feet of the Chippendale works, inspected the scallop shell mounts on the Queen Anne pieces, made sure the cabriole legs had no splits in them, same for the pierced back splats on the side chairs. We looked for visible saw marks on eighteenth-century pieces and then almost lost it when we found a companion piece to a side table already owned by one of New York’s most prominent collectors of Newport-built eighteenth-century furniture.
“We didn’t know you had this,” I said to Elizabeth, running my hand across the wood.
“Well, one’s life can’t be totally public,” she replied. “It was one of Adam’s last purchases. It came from a dealer in New York. I have the papers.”
Tracing furniture was very straightforward. We could easily determine the precise time period when a piece was made, the region where it was constructed, and the creator, just by looking at the wood. Certain woods were in vogue at different times and the handmade screws of the past centuries and the oxidation they left behind on the wood helped a great deal. It was possible to forge a clay pot, and at a certain level, it was possible to fake furniture, and could be lucrative, but it was extremely difficult and expensive to do it well.
When it was nearly nine o’clock and Elizabeth seemed rather sick of us manhandling her possessions, she suggested we pick it up again the next day.
“I appreciate you ladies coming, and you’ve made excellent arguments for why I should sell with Christie’s, but all this . . . I don’t know. As you’re aware, Adam was always the one who did all the actual buying and selling. Maybe I should just wait until I’m older to sell, because right now, it still means a lot.”
“We understand how difficult the selling process can be, but the wonderful thing about selling your estate instead of letting your children handle it later on is that you have control. If you work with Christie’s you will have the right individual collectors, museums, universities all bidding on the wonderful collection that you and Adam procured. And if you would like to use the financial returns to build another collection, we would be thrilled to assist you. Maybe you would like to start your own collection. Something you can be known for alone, without Adam.”
“What do you suggest I collect, Miss Everett? Gold boxes? Sporting art? Islamic artifacts? Maybe musical instruments. Do you think this house would look nice lined with rusty tubas?”
“We try to avoid selling rust,” I answered with a smile that was getting very strained.
“Will I see you both tomorrow?” she asked.
She would indeed.
I wanted to remind her that she was the one who contacted Louise. We hadn’t shown up at her doorstep unannounced with a contract.
“She’ll sell,” said Nicole after we walked outside. “She asked if we were coming back tomorrow and no mention of any other auction house. She’s ready. But she certainly doesn’t need the money. I can’t figure out why she wants to sell now.”
“You never know about people’s private lives. Maybe she has some loose ends to tie up.”
Nicole laughed and got in the little rental car. “Loose ends” was a term many sellers used instead of “I’m strapped for cash, I’ve got debts, my son gambled away all our money in Monaco, we were victims of a Ponzi scheme, Wall Street screwed us, or our daughter is addicted to the devil’s sugar, and we need to pay the rehab bills.”
Elizabeth had said that if she were to sell, she wanted to lead the January sale. Usually, it took us a full year to get an estate of her size ready for auction. We certainly didn’t want to rush it, and four months was beyond rushing it, but if that was one of her stipulations, I knew Christie’s would do it. Our department was not a big one and we never said no to estates like Elizabeth’s even if we had to work night and day to get it ready for January 18. We only had sales twice a year: September and January. The rest of the time we lived in fear of getting enough to wow the world in September and January.
I had texted Alex three times since I’d been gone to tell him I was in Houston, potentially working on a huge deal, and he had only written back, “cool.” Really? “Cool?” Did that mean he was chilly? Or that my job was awesome? Or maybe he was screwing someone else and had only been able to pound out “cool” with one of his thumbs while he twisted her into a Boy Scout knot? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Alex and Elizabeth Tumlinson were flooding my brain.
The next day, Nicole and I were ready to turn our attention to old auction records, historical records, and previous sales from each of the craftsmen. When we went back to Elizabeth’s at 9 A.M., she told us that she had a meeting with “a few others” that evening so it was good we were planning to wrap it all up that morning.
“By a few others she means David Marcham from Sotheby’s, you know. Maybe Valerie Hemmet, too,” said Nicole as we inspected an end table on the other side of the house. “Louise is not going to be pleased they’re here.”
We had thought that with the time Elizabeth was allotting us, David wasn’t coming at all, but we were clearly wrong. David Marcham was a legend in the American furniture industry. He had hair that smelled exactly like fine leather and was on Antiques Roadshow twice a month. He had once made a woman cry when he told her that her antique baby chair was a fake and looked like dog feces molded into the shape of a rocker. His brother was the preeminent expert on American numismatics and had once shot himself in the foot on live television to prove a point about the Civil War era Whitworth rifle.
It took two hours of talking to Elizabeth to get a thing out of her about Sotheby’s. Nicole didn’t want to ask, I didn’t want to ask, but we had to know if they were definitely coming that night, as we might lift our guarantee a little if they were.
After we rephotographed a few pieces because the morning light was better than what we had the day before, Elizabeth decided to get chatty, but not about what we were hoping she’d talk about—her transfer of assets from her living room to our New York showroom. Instead she talked about herself. And we listened.
Sitting tall on a muted blue settee and pulling her hands into her lap, she smiled and looked at us smiling back at her like desperate idiots. She knew she could talk to us about pig intestines for fourteen hours straight and we would have to continue nodding enthusiastically and gasping over the complexities of swine innards.
“I’ve always been a collector,” she said, pointing out the obvious. “Even before I met Adam. I didn’t have the money to buy the really important things—the Lannuiers, Thomas Afflecks, Duncan Phyfes—like I do now, but I’ve always been taken with collections. Not only did I like to acquire things; I could never get rid of anything, either. My mother, Janet Tivoli, died Christmas Day of 1963, and, well, she was the same way. She once said that throwing out a sweater was like ripping the wings off an angel. That really stuck with me.”
Holy God. If I took one hundred twenty-seven pieces from her, would I be killing 63.5 angels? Or would that be one hundred twenty-seven angels?
“I’m just like you,” I told her. “I can’t get rid of anything. I have every letter I’ve ever received, every photo I’ve ever taken. I don’t use digital because I can’t bear the thought of deleting things.”
Nicole raised her eyebrows at me, sure that I must be lying. She probably took nothing but iPhone photos and had a posh, perfect, clutter-free existence.
“Your grandmother was the same way, wasn’t she,” said Elizabeth, looking at me.
“Yes, she really was.”
“We met at a dinner in Baltimore, you know,” she offered up.
“I didn’t know. But I’m sure she was very fond of you,” I suggested. Of course, my grandmother had never mentioned knowing Elizabeth, but I was going to ignore that. Just like I was going to ignore the fact that my butt was completely asleep because I had been sitting on this very attractive, very expensive, and very uncomfortable chair for two hours. I felt like a geisha. Soon I would be asked to do a tea ceremony.
It was somewhere between talking about how she had first collected Revolutionary War era lamps (because she didn’t like to be kept in the dark) and how she then decided to move on to silver soup tureens that she mentioned Sotheby’s.
“David is very interested in my estate,” she announced, as if we had no idea. “We spoke last night and he’s convinced me it wouldn’t be in my best interest to give everything to Maryland, because real collectors, real lovers of the finest Americana, should have a chance to own history just like I did. He made a very good point.”
Yes, he had. It was one both Nicole and I had made about five times the day before.
“We agree wholeheartedly with that point, as we voiced yesterday,” Nicole said politely. “I can promise you that Christie’s will put the best deal on the table. Along with the thirty-million-dollar guarantee, half of it paid to you upon signing, Christie’s is very willing to lower our commissions, to waive certain fees, and to commit ourselves to really showcasing your work in the best way for it to sell.” I took out a rendering of Elizabeth’s estate displayed in our showrooms along with a note from our graphic designer that was faxed to us just hours before.
“Your collection would have its own catalogue, which would go out to thousands of very important buyers,” I added.
“I like you both,” said Elizabeth, looking at us like we were rabid dogs about to chomp off her ankles. “And I know my husband was very fond of Louise, but Sotheby’s has given some very good preliminary numbers, too, without even seeing the collection. So you’ll understand why I gave them a loose verbal agreement last night.”
Had Sotheby’s given over a $30 million guarantee? There was no way.
Nicole scribbled something on her notepad and I looked over and saw the word bluffing, scrawled in her tiny handwriting. She scratched it out while we kept talking.
Was Elizabeth bluffing? She could definitely be bluffing. She knew I couldn’t just call up David and casually ask.
“We don’t think that’s the right decision,” I said firmly.
“We just made history with the Nicholas Brown. We also made history with the Richard Edwards Chippendale pier table when it went for four-point-six-two in 1990,” said Nicole.
“Yes, but that was 1990,” Elizabeth replied.
“But the Nicholas Brown was four days ago,” I pointed out. “I arranged that sale. Our record in American art is unquestionably superior to any of our competitors. We have the resources and the buyers and we will get you the dollar amount you deserve.”
Elizabeth stood up, so we both followed her lead and stood up in front of her. I was only five foot three but in the grand room, I felt even smaller, like a garden gnome.
Maybe Elizabeth had no intention of going with Christie’s in the first place. Perhaps David was her best friend and he was actually in some guesthouse suite watching us writhe in our failure on a CCTV feed. He was probably screaming, “Another martini, Jeeves, and some unemployment forms for the girls! This is simply rich!” as he watched me try to control my urges to throw myself on my stomach in front of Elizabeth and beg her to go with Christie’s because she knew my grandmother, because we both loved the great, strangely shaped state of Maryland, because C came before S in the alphabet. Anything! Perhaps it was time for me to fabricate some story about David Marcham being a closet pyromaniac who couldn’t control himself and his little match collection around two-centuries-old mahogany?
Maybe it was because Nicole seemed to have thrown in her hand and was already talking to Elizabeth about people they knew in common in Maryland, but I blurted out, “Thirty-seven-million-dollar guarantee and a four-percent commission. Anything we make over thirty-seven, we keep. That’s the best offer I can give you and it’s an extremely good one.”
Elizabeth looked at me startled, her glassy green eyes not quite registering what I had just said.
“I’ll also waive all fees. The insurance fee, the illustration fee. Everything. You and I both know David won’t put that offer on the table even if you say we did. I shouldn’t be putting that offer out. But I am. You’ll lead the January sales. It’s a very fast turnaround to get your estate ready by January but it seems very important to you—”
“It’s a deal breaker,” Elizabeth interrupted me.
“Right, we will have everything ready for January, then. Absolutely guaranteed.”
Nicole was doing the math in her head as she looked at me looking at Elizabeth. She had clearly figured out how many million I had overpromised by and started to turn very pale and shook her head no at me. I ignored her and repeated the numbers.
An hour later, as I knew she would, Elizabeth signed our offer.