Kaminski Auctions in Beverly, Mass., is handling the colossal sale, which features 15,000 lots, including some with multiple items. The furnishings filled nearly every public and private space in the hotel: the celebrity suites, guest rooms, lobby, bars, restaurants and fitness center. The live bidding runs through Oct. 24; the first day alone will put nearly 700 objects on the auction block. (All proceeds will go to St. Bartholomew’s Conservancy.)
“It is overwhelming,” said Stuart Whitehurst, an independent appraiser and antiques consultant who appears on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.” “This sale is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The Waldorf Astoria, which has lived at its current address since 1931, plans to reopen in 2022 with a more modern look for its 375 condominium residences and 375 hotel rooms. To make way for the new, it’s getting rid of the old, with a few priceless exceptions, such as John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair, a clock from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Cole Porter’s personal piano. (During the renovation, the chair and clock will reside with the New-York Historical Society.) By comparison, the objects for sale are more standard-issue hotel furnishings that have been elevated by nostalgia for the golden age of hospitality and its glittery clientele.
“Although the Waldorf Astoria is an art deco landmark known for its opulent lobby and public rooms and for its famous guests, including many U.S. presidents, its interior fittings are not considered particularly noteworthy by design experts,” said Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director and director of fine art at 1stDibs, the e-commerce site. “That said, there is intrinsic value in living with furniture that has a compelling narrative, and you can’t put a price tag on that.”
But you can put a bid on it.
If you are new to the auction game (as I am) or are gobsmacked by the sheer quantity (as I was), Whitehurst offered some tips on navigating the sale like a paddle pro. First, he recommended skipping the first few days of the auction, which are loaded with items from the celebrity suites. Although there is no guarantee that Monroe bathed in the light of the Chinese lamps in her namesake suite or Gen. Douglas MacArthur tossed his garbage in the wooden trash cans, the real or imagined brush with fame will cause the prices to rise exponentially. For example, the day before the live auction, the current bid for two embroidered pug pillows from the Royal Suite was listed at $610, six times more than the high estimate. The bid for three framed photos of Elizabeth Taylor was double the $300 estimate. And I would love to meet the person who is willing to pay $385 for a print of a single shoe that hung in the Monroe suite and had a starting bid of $5. Maybe he or she is looking to complete a pair? By comparison, many objects from later in the week still have no bidders. Among them: a blue-and-red-striped French carved chair, a Regency-style upholstered bench and an elliptical machine.
“Swoop in later in the auction,” Whitehurst said.
Some of the larger pieces (a baby grand piano) or ones with flaws (a Federal-style mahogany dining room table with water damage) are less competitive. “It’s hard to buy a piano on a whim,” he said. But before you place a bid, make sure you have room in your house to fit the elephantine item or furniture repair skills (or, alternately, tolerance for imperfections). In addition, Whitehurst said the bids on the more expensive items will not multiply as much as the ones for the less pricey objects. “They will increase three times, instead of 30 times,” he noted. He recommends the smaller items, such as lamps, side tables and chairs, for their flexibility and usefulness. When asked if he had his eye on any items, he mentioned Lot 494: a Chinese porcelain vase from the Herbert Hoover Suite.
To be sure, many items are one of a kind, but several have repeats — if not identical twins then fraternal. “If you miss one, there will likely be 40 more,” he said. For instance, three lots on Day 3 feature nine armchairs; Day 7 lists seven sofas.
Most important, he said, don’t lose your head in the rush of the action. Be realistic about the appropriateness of the item and the cost.
“Go in with a plan and a budget,” he said, “and make sure you have the space.”
As for me, I am considering a Tibetan rug and that elliptical. With any luck, I will be the one and only bidder.