And stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. A tiny portion of her things went up for auction Friday, a chance to own something belonging to the lively, outspoken mother of the late senator John McCain.
“She acquired what she liked and she seemed to be a savvy shopper,” said Stephanie Kenyon, owner of Sloans & Kenyon auction house in Chevy Chase. “She bought things that appealed to her but were not, for the most part, of high value.”
Which means that most of the jewelry and silver items went for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. But there was plenty of interest: All of McCain’s 107 lots sold and brought in a tad more than $97,000.
But it was more than just a dispersion of things. A piece of Old Washington was up for bid; her life represented a certain era when women were mostly defined by their husbands’ careers and burnished that reflected glory with a beautiful home and well-behaved children.
Her collecting was inextricably tied to her travels, which started as a child and ended a century later. The journey started in Oklahoma, where she was born while her father made a small fortune in oil. In 1933, as a 20-year-old at the University of Southern California, she eloped with John S. McCain Jr., a young naval ensign who would go on to become a four-star admiral. For the next four decades, she traveled the world as a Navy wife and mother of three.
Everywhere she went, she bought art and antiques that caught her eye, then shipped them on Navy planes despite her husband’s protests.
“Roberta, you can’t just put that on the command plane,” her husband told her. “I’ll get in trouble.” But she did it anyway. Perhaps it was her charm; more likely it was the fact that her husband was a four-star admiral in charge of the entire Pacific command. Over the years, she acquired hundreds of artifacts from the Far East.
“Everyone who’s a career naval officer ends up with some Asian stuff,” explained Joe McCain, the youngest of McCain’s three children.
After her husband retired, the couple rented a 3,200-square-foot apartment in one of Washington’s grandest buildings: 2101 Connecticut Ave. (In 1976, after debating whether they could afford to buy, they purchased the apartment for $80,000, their son said.)
McCain was widowed in 1981 and sought solace in Florence — her favorite place in the world. From then on, McCain and her twin sister, Rowena, traveled abroad twice a year, spending weeks exploring. Her most famous travel story came from Europe when she was denied a rental car because she was too old: McCain bought a car instead (it was either a Mercedes or a Peugeot; accounts vary), drove it during the trip and then shipped it home.
But, inevitably, she picked up smaller treasures. “She would go to a city, then go into an antique shop,” explained Joe McCain. In Venice, she found a small figure of a dog for a few lira — and later discovered it was from the Chinese Tang Dynasty (5th to 8th centuries). Over the decades, an ad hoc collection emerged, created by what appealed to her more than any strategic plan.
This was the more-is-more backdrop where McCain lived and entertained for almost 50 years. When son John McCain ran for president in 2008, she gave reporters a short tour of the apartment. For her 100th birthday in 2012, she allowed Town & Country magazine to photograph her at home.
After her death in October, her son invited family and close friends to select pieces that had a sentimental value, but “it didn’t make a dent.” So he invited Kenyon, who handled his sister’s estate in 2019, to look at his mother’s things. Kenyon spent five days going through the apartment and determined there was simply too much for just one sale.
Friday’s auction included jewelry, silver and paintings. McCain favored gold with colored stones: rubies, sapphires, emeralds and coral crafted in earrings, rings and bracelets, although none with large or valuable gems. The silver was the kind your grandmother used for company: a coffee set, a tea set and silver boxes made in Southeast Asia; decorative carved figures of elephants, deer and foo dogs.
The single most valuable piece in the auction was a painting by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, best known for his portraits and nudes. This small oil, a self-portrait of the artist painting a nude model, was estimated to sell for $50,000 to $100,000.
The auction began at noon: a slide of each lot on the large screen, then rapid bidding. There were only a dozen or so people sitting (socially distanced) in the auction room; the other bidders called in or bid online.
Dimitri Shevchenko, owner of Antique Traders Co. in Rockville, was one of the in-person bidders. He snapped up several pieces of McCain’s jewelry and some of the decorative pieces, including four foo dog silver boxes for $500. And he bid a bit more, he admitted, because of the provenance.
“I think the name will definitely help,” he said. But he also explained that the collection of jewelry was one of the best of its kind. “She had super good taste.”
And the Zorn? It went to a man in Arizona who said he bought the piece because he admired the late senator. The price? A relative bargain at $21,300.
But more than 40 of McCain’s 107 lots sold at more than the high estimated price. The second part of the estate, McCain’s extensive collection of porcelain and decorative items, will be auctioned off later this spring.
Joe McCain said he’s been urged to write a book about his mother’s remarkable life, but he’s not sure. “How do you write about a butterfly who never lands?” he said. But it was a life well-lived: “She went everyplace she wanted to go and did every single thing she wanted to do.”
In an earlier version of this article, a caption for a photo showing Roberta McCain standing by an oil portrait in her apartment in 2000 incorrectly identified the portrait’s subject. The painting was of her father-in-law, Adm. John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., not her husband, Adm.John S. McCain Jr.