A standing-room-only crowd sweltered inside the William Doyle galleries today as 120 items from the Rock Hudson estate were auctioned off for a total of $84,000 to a mixed batch of seasoned antiques dealers and breathless movie fans. Hudson died last October at age 59 of AIDS complications.
Highlights included a 1930 Steinway baby grand piano that fetched $6,250 (before the 10 percent buyer's premium and sales tax) and a crudely made pine step stool, inscribed in lavender script to Hudson from Elizabeth Taylor, which sold for a staggering $1,400.
A group of four needlepoint pillows stitched by Hudson himself -- at least two of which appeared moth-eaten -- ran up frenzied bidding to $700.
A portrait called "The Rock Hudson Story," painted in 1959 by actress Claire Trevor, was knocked down at $2,800, well above its presale estimate. Trevor, who won a 1948 Academy Award for playing Edward G. Robinson's moll in "Key Largo," portrayed the handsome film star smiling from the center of the painted masonite board, surrounded by a trombone, keyboard, sailing yacht and the facade of his Beverly Hills home.
Beaming on the sun-washed Upper East Side sidewalk outside the auction house, the new owner, Mary Ann Flynn of Park Ridge, N.J., said, "I loved Rock since I was 9 years old. He was a good actor and a good man . . . The handsomest man I ever knew. It's a pity. No one will remember how he lived, but only how he died. I have something of his now. It's going up in the den."
Though billed as an auction of "Fine English and Continental Furniture, Decorations and Paintings," theld,10 poster-size blowup of Hudson in a turtleneck smiling from the front window of the auction house summed up the real elbow-jarring interest inside the gallery.
Auctioneer William Doyle frequently chided unwary spectators for fanning themselves with their green bidding paddles. "Don't move or you'll get sold something," Doyle cheerfully warned. "Now, who will give me $600 for Rock Hudson's stereo equipment?" The components brought $650.
The digital lot counter above the auctioneer's head chugged along at a little better than 100 lots per hour. There were 765 lots in the mixed estate sale that also included some property of the very much alive pianist Bobby Short. Doyle added interesting tidbits to the Rock Hudson items sprinkled throughout the daylong bidding marathon.
Only aficionados of Hollywood gossip magazines would know that Hudson's one-time New York house guest, Elizabeth Taylor, couldn't see herself in the bathroom mirror, custom-made for the 6-foot-4 actor. The diminutive Taylor built a primitive pine stool for future visits and left it behind for Hudson, complete with felt-tipped heart signature, and the legend "E.T. stood here. She had to because she couldn't reach the sink." When the stool was brought out for auction, Doyle gushed into the microphone, "Oh gosh, here it is." The stool was held proudly as photographers snapped Taylor's girlish script.
After the furious bidding, the audience applauded the final price -- no doubt a record for such a heavy autograph. Doyle announced, "Okay, back to the real world."
Perhaps the souvenir hunter's ultimate trophy was Hudson's magic sword. The hefty, four-foot-long version of Excalibur, with golden hemp-covered handle, was presented to the actor at the end of a 1977 summer stock run of Camelot. Inscribed by the entire cast "To Rock Hudson as King Arthur," it sold for $1,300.
Without a break in the proceedings -- only the auctioneers changed like Pony Express riders -- groups of spectators and bidders sought fresh air and bits of gossip outside on the sidewalk under a sunny spring sky.
"Memorabilia must have made a comeback," enthused Barry M. Leeds, an executive playing hooky from his midtown office. "I would have bought a lot more," said the perspiring Leeds, "but there was no break and I couldn't take sitting in there any more." He stared appreciatively at his new $550 painting, "The Matador," which leaned against the parking lot facade next door to the auction house.
In sickly green tones, a gaunt Rock Hudson, in bullfighting costume and eye-straining red cape, smiled sheepishly from the gaudily framed canvas. Leeds picked up the man-size portrait and carried it to his car, returning for a final comment: "By the way, did you know this was painted by the actress, Claire Trevor?"
Not every buyer was a movie fan or memorabilia addict. John Emory, a 27-year-old antique dealer from Sydney, bought a large number of lots, including the mahogany-cased baby grand. "I can create the same sort of sensation in Australia as you have here," said the impeccably clad Emory. "I just happen to be in New York. I'm traveling and buying around the world. I'll ship these lots back in a container. Some will sell for phenomenal prices."
Emory said he dropped out of the Elizabeth Taylor bidding at $1,300. "I gave in on the footstool. It's just made out of pine and nails. It's not even a piece of furniture."
"The guy has to be a kook," said Jack Yaffe, an antiques dealer from Chelsea, Mass., on the mysterious footstool buyer who disappeared in a posse of flashing cameras after the sale. "I bought about 15 lots. Now, if I brought anything back to Boston and said, 'This was Rock Hudson's,' my clients would look at me and say, 'So what?' "