NEW YORK, NOV. 15 -- She wasn't Andy Warhol, but she was close.
Garbo fever gripped Sotheby's jammed salesroom this afternoon, bringing back the ghost of the legendary screen goddess as her paintings and furnishings were sold to a capacity crowd. The auction didn't match the endless sale of Warhol's personal objects, but over three days it brought in $20.7 million from buyers who got a chance to possess a piece of screen history.
Today's take for the special single-owner sale was $2.5 million, way above the high end of the pre-sale estimate of $950,000.
The salesroom was crammed with all kinds of folk -- a small army of 600 registered bidders scattered among the larger mass of spectators -- all craning for a view. Despite furious bidding, the crowd remained remarkably sedate. As the afternoon wore on, the intensity of the bidding cooled, leaving only the serious.
It seemed that no price was too high to pay for the Garbo provenance. Paul-Marie Lenoir's saucy oil on canvas "Serving Maid With Cats" sold for $7,150, up from an estimated $300 to $500.
Albert Andre's "Woman in White, Seated," a charming portrait of an old woman reading a newspaper, was the top lot of the day at $187,000. Its high estimate was $40,000.
Elisabeth Faure's still life "The Anemones" went for $88,000 against a high estimate of $6,000.
Taghi Mahdavi, an antique-textiles dealer from Gothenburg, Sweden, was especially active in the early stages of the auction when the lesser paintings Garbo had collected were gobbled up. In a matter of moments, Mahdavi scooped up a still life by Georges d'Espagnat for $11,000, a landscape by Andre Lhote for $46,750 and a harlequin figure by Gabriel Dauchot for $8,250.
Mahdavi had a long wish list marked in his catalogue. "All the Swedish people on the West Coast are waiting for me to bring something back. They believe that Greta Garbo belongs to them. I'm bidding for many of them."
There was no stopping anyone in the quest for mementos. A rather awful-looking oil, "Embracing Couple" by Sven Gustafson, sold for $9,350. The high estimate was $500. But Gustafson was Greta Garbo's late brother and that fact made the room go wild.
Mahdavi was not content with paintings and went on to purchase a "Regence ormolu-mounted tulipwood and kingwood parquetry commode, first quarter 18th century" for $57,750.
He also purchased a 19th-century "Charles X Savonnerie carpet" from France for $38,500.
Mahdavi said he purchased approximately 15 objects for "circa $500,000. Everybody loved her."
Sotheby's this week has been battered by weakening sales and estimates pegged way over what the current market will bear. But not all bidders were as successful as Mahdavi. When Nils Asther's oil-on-hardboard painting "Platonic Love," illustrating two elephants embracing, came up for bid, plastic paddles waved frenetically across the room. The page-size painting sold for $9,350, compared with its high estimate of $150. Asther was a Swedish screen actor in the 1920s who costarred with Garbo in several Hollywood films.
"You can forget the painting, but what's important is the emotional value behind it," commented Luis Quintana, as he left the salesroom dejectedly with a friend. They dropped out when the bidding reached $900. "I was expecting this," said Quintana. "You should be prepared to come with $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 to throw out for one memento. But you never know."
"I've been waiting all week for 'The Wizard' to come," said John L. Marion, the auctioneer and chairman of Sotheby's North America, as the 15-inch-high, polychromed porcelain scent bottle in the shape of a sorcerer appeared on the auction turntable. The scent bottle looked more like a three-dimensional Disney cartoon figure. In the catalogue, it was shown in Garbo's drawing room on an Italian neoclassical-style commode (which itself sold for $36,300). "The Wizard" fetched $18,700, magically rising above its high estimate of $700.
One woman roaming the salesroom with neither paddle nor catalogue was asked if she was a fan. "Aren't we all? You know, it really looks like a lot of knickknacks to me," said Barbara September Miller. "Clearly she loved color and fantasy."
On Wednesday, during Sotheby's second round of lesser impressionist and modern artworks, eight paintings from the Garbo collection fetched $2.28 million, just under the high estimate.
Garbo held a particular fondness for the German expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Of the seven Jawlensky paintings offered Wednesday, just one failed to sell. "Erde," a striking and brilliantly colored portrait from 1918, snared $440,000, the highest of the Jawlensky lots and the fifth-highest price of the day's sale.
Of the two Georges Rouault paintings carrying the Garbo provenance, "Profile of a Woman" sold for $220,000 and "Pierrot Seated "brought $209,000.
On Tuesday night at Sotheby's, Garbo's top-rated Renoir, "Seated Child in a Blue Smock (Portrait of Edmond Renoir Jr.)," was the evening's second-highest lot at $7.04 million.
Asked why there were no personal items in the nearly 200-lot collection of paintings, drawings, porcelain, furniture and decorations, Garbo estate lawyer Theodore A. Kurz remarked, "The family is not inclined to reduce her personal effects to commercialism."
So unlike the Rock Hudson estate sale held at the William Doyle Galleries in 1987, there weren't any movie scripts, trophies or high school photograph albums for sale. There was French furniture, a lot of it worn and sagging; assorted and questionably decorative paintings; and dozens of polychromed porcelain tchotchkes. All of it gorgeously photographed in Sotheby's $65 hardcover catalogue in a pale pink slipcover.
Garbo died at the age of 84 on April 15 in New York. She made 27 films and retired in 1941 at the age of 36. She never returned to the screen.