Estate and collection sales are dignified ceremonies in which objects and possessions are passed on.
The estate sale is usually the preserve of those of prosperity and recognised status. Without this standing an estate sale is just a house clearance.
In the case of David Collins’ estate there was the additional, and significant fact, of his reputation being founded on his having exquisite aesthetic judgment. This meant that the financial value of his objects was, in many instances, less important than their aesthetic presence.
There is the poignancy derived from a quiet knowledge that this is the last time these pieces will be assembled as a person’s complete world; it could be described as a disintegration of sorts.
Of course, those who believe in the pleasure of beautiful objects usually hold the theory that the joy of the pieces should be shared and passed on. David certainly defined this thinking.
There have been some legendary estate auctions. The Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, in scale and in value, has become a major episode in the story of the designer.
I am in The Wolseley. I have, I think, the best seat in the house. I am meeting Jeremy Morrison of Christie’s Design department. It was Jeremy who auctioned the collection of David Collins.
I have never met him before and I am told he looks young and will be immaculately attired. He arrives not one minute early and not a second late. I later reason on this that an auction is a performance of ultra-precise timing, suspense and delivery, and so his punctuality makes perfect sense. So, too, does his suit (Gieves & Hawkes, single breasted in the dried ink tone of a legal signature).
I was going to conduct a Q and A format interview but this seems unfair for a few reasons. An auctioneer is a performer: part historian, part diplomat, and part storyteller. Such people, like actors and musicians, need down-time off stage.
The Wolseley gets impressively busy on a Monday lunchtime. It gets, if not noisy, then delightfully animated. This makes it difficult to operate a recording device, not to mention that the formality of question and answer prevents people from relaxing. We both agree it will be more enjoyable if we simply have lunch and talk. I will try and be accurate, or at least that is the theory.
He is flying the next day on a trip to Denmark. He hopes the visit to the home and studio of a designer will reveal the gathering of objects and inspirations over years and decades that create their own distinct and very personal microsphere of stimuli. He has wide tastes, from Lutyens to Laarman, but all linked by his passion for their provenance, their history, their story. He is a wood and metal disciple, less keen on ceramics or glass. He also reveals that there is a very human fallibility to this game, which means that the entire trip could potentially fail to turn up anything worthwhile.
The fictional notion of an auctioneer is either going to be a Runyon-esque Etonian or a dubious fly-by-night. Some might say Picaresque.
Anyway, Jeremy is thoughtful and charmingly self-deprecating. A geography graduate (UCL) with a father who was an antique dealer.
Jeremy mentions he regrets never having met David, his introduction coming through an immersion into the objects which comprised the estate. We leaf through the catalogue as we talk and eat. He has handwritten sale prices by most of the items. He has a forensic knowledge of the catalogue and without referring to the printed stock he is accurate on recalling every price.
He remembers the presentation of the collection in the galleries at Christie’s. It became a dramatic distillation of David’s home, two rooms, each a figurative stage-set for his life. This, he says, was what invoked the emotion of those attending. He talks, also, of his realisation of David’s cultural significance as reflected in the high demand to acquire the pieces he designed within the collection.
I sadly never visited David’s home, nor did I attend the sale. I simply have a catalogue and a file of images to look at. Even from these you get a powerful sense that the home was perhaps the masterpiece of an astonishing career of masterpieces. The catalogue can be seen as an abstract and oblique definition of the creative ideology of David Collins: an impressive collection of Christian Berard works sit alongside Wolfgang Tillmans’ “Freischwimmer”, a silly Stella McCartney, a blood-dipped James Welling print, a dream-shaped hallucinatory oil by Manfredi Beninati, and an unapologetic improper suggestion by Guy Bourdin.
There are pieces by Paco Rabanne and Gio Ponti. Then, there are beautiful pieces credited to no recognised designer. These, in many ways, shine a light on the gift of David. Earnest reverence for endorsed taste was less important than the instinctive shiver of delight at an object on its own terms. The catalogue is a book of beautiful objects pulled out of one context and corralled into another. The proximity, space, and relationship between each piece creates a devastatingly elegant entirety, not dissimilar to the work of Taryn Simon.
It is tempting to suggest that the estate should have been preserved as an absolute. It is, of course, forever assembled in the memory of those who knew David sufficiently to have been a guest at his home. This was not a strategic collection or an academic exercise in curation, it was simply a home; a home of otherworldly, charming and unconventional beauty. But just a home.
We talk of the forthcoming estate auction, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller. Jeremy reveals, with discretion, enough of the estate to suggest it will be a history-making day/days of auctions. Like all collections, it paints an exquisite portrait of the owners, as did that of the 4th November 2014 event we are discussing.
The Collins catalogue is titled “Luxury-Colour-Texture” – as titles go it is as precise a collection of words as the estate is a composition of beauty.
We briefly discuss the auctioneer as a figure in cinema and literature. There must, I reason, be a decent number of films about, or featuring the auctioneer. Jeremy comes back with a decent first, there is an auction scene in “The Remains of The Day”. Pretty good, but beyond that we struggle to get further than Hugh Grant in “Mickey Blue Eyes”. We quickly ponder the notion of pitching a plot to a film studio.
Jeremy leaves: Copenhagen; Rockefeller; cinema. A busy restaurant in a city made even more bewitchingly beautiful by the snow that is falling outside.
Life, as David would approve, goes on.
Graham Erickson is a freelance editor and writer living in London.
Simon Upton is a portrait and interiors photographer living in London and Devon.