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Estate Sales Are Cool Again

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/1/2018 Katherine Clarke

The wood wall paneling from Sweden was still there, as was the artwork and even the reddish-brown bedding. Normally, a home with decades-old décor might struggle to find a buyer.

But this was the Manhattan home of Greta Garbo, the movie star who retired from Hollywood and led an intensely private life—a choice that seemed to only deepen fans’ fascination. Last month, the apartment the actress called home for nearly 40 years sold for $8.5 million, or a 43% premium over its asking price. “The Garbo effect is the reason someone paid up,” said Brian Lewis, one of the listing agents.

When celebrities die, their homes and all their contents are analyzed, researched and carefully marketed in an effort to obtain top dollar. While Garbo's mystique generated a big premium for her home, often it is the contents of the house that prove more lucrative. That’s particularly true these days: Rather than collect antique furniture, a new generation of buyers wants items that might offer insight into the life of a celebrity or business titan, or a snapshot of a bygone time.

“Younger collectors don’t want things so much as they want experiences and stories,” said Jennifer Jones, director of trusts, estate and valuations at Phillips, a New York auction house. “Owning something that belonged to a big celebrity like that sort of combines both.” Last year, Phillips sold a 1968 Rolex Daytona once owned by actor Paul Newman for $17.752 million.

Another upcoming sale replete with colorful collectibles is the estate of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian actress who died in 2016.

In January, Margaret Barrett and her colleague Carolyn Mani, specialists for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, evaluated Ms. Gabor’s Los Angeles estate. As Ms. Gabor’s husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, 74, looked on, they inspected her glassware, jewelry, antique furniture and a collection of purses including Hermès and Louis Vuitton bags.

Ms. Barrett examined a goldtone lipstick holder embedded with diamonds and the inscription “Zsa Zsa.” In the living room stands a gold-painted Steinway piano—it was painted gold after Ms. Gabor’s late ex-husband, George Sanders, won an Academy Award for the movie “All About Eve” in 1951, Mr. von Anhalt said.

In Ms. Gabor’s wardrobe hangs an Oscar de la Renta gown she wore to the White House for dinner with President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan. “She was from an era where celebrities would never have walked out of the house in jeans and flip-flops,” said Ms. Barrett. “Her wardrobe is frilly and fluffy, with lots of fur and sequins…There’s a Chanel jumpsuit in mint green.”

Ms. Barrett and Ms. Mani spent a week at Ms. Gabor’s Bel-Air home, evaluating the pieces to determine their origins, how Ms. Gabor acquired them and what they might be worth. They’ll catalog and then auction some of the items at the home in April, said Ms. Barrett, who specializes in entertainment memorabilia and has worked on the estates of John Wayne and Steve McQueen.

Some of this will make Instagram fodder for Heritage, which operates social-media accounts to attract younger collectors.

In recent years, crowds have flocked to the estate sales of celebrities like socialite-philanthropist Brooke Astor. Jared Seligman, a collector, said he bought a $10 toaster oven at an estate sale at Grey Gardens—the East Hampton estate formerly owned by “Little Edie” Beale, first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—just to own a piece of the estate.

As is usually the case, Ms. Gabor’s home was sold separately; it sold for less than its $14.9 million asking price in 2013, though Mr. von Anhalt is permitted to stay there until 2019 under the terms of the deal, he said. He said the home is likely to be a teardown for the new owner—the land is more valuable than the real estate. He declined to comment on the identity of the buyer.

On the other side of the country, the children of Jacob Javits, the influential politician who served as a U.S. senator from New York for more than 20 years, have been going through the items in their parents’ East 57th Street apartment, following the death of their mother Marian last year. Carla Javits said she and her siblings found a bust of their father’s head, which they gave to Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. There was a framed picture of their mother with President Lyndon B. Johnson, and a pen she used to sign the document that formed the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. She had lobbied congress for the establishment of the endowment, Ms. Javits said.

While many of those items will stay in the family, the Javitses worked with appraisal experts and are planning to auction several of their mother’s paintings—which include pieces by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—at Christie’s, according to her daughter. The auction house has already sold several of the Javitses’ pieces, including Cartier ear pendants for $324,500.

The apartment, which has been cleared out, has sold, said listing agent Pamela D’Arc of Stribling & Associates. It was asking $4.35 million. She declined to identify the buyer.

A spokesman for Heritage said it can be difficult to provide heirs with a solid estimate for an estate. When Heritage valued the personal collection of Shirley Temple Black in 2016, it estimated the auction of 347 lots could bring in $275,500. The auction ended up selling for more than $1.6 million, he said. No estimate has been placed so far on the Gabor collection.

a living room filled with furniture and a fireplace © Zachary Bako for The Wall Street Journal

While sales of personal objects are strong, interest is nose-diving in other areas, particularly “brown” antique furniture, rugs or anything else associated with more traditional décor. “I have seen people buy an antique chest of drawers for less than you would spend at a family furniture store,” said Chris Jussel of Chris Jussel Antiques, a Connecticut-based antiques dealer.

Mr. Jussel tried to maximize the value of an estate he worked on recently at 1111 Park Avenue by handling items differently based on where they might command the highest price. The late owner, Price Glover, was a collector of English and American decorative arts. Sotheby’s auction house handled the sale of most of the antique furniture, while Bonhams of London handled the pewter collection.

Also, sometimes sellers will withhold details about a particular item for privacy reasons. The level of discretion required by beneficiaries can vary widely, and can dictate the stories estate sales professionals can tell publicly about the person’s belongings, said Leighton Candler, a real-estate agent with the Corcoran Group who’s represented the estates of Brooke Astor and comedian Joan Rivers. “I remember [Rivers’s daughter] Melissa telling me, ‘I know that you are noted for your discretion, but that is not what I want. I want a splash,’” she recalled. Ms. Rivers’s penthouse sold for $28 million in 2015, public records show.

There is no shortage of splash in Ms. Gabor’s case. She needed two rooms to hold her more than six decades of outfits clad in plastic protectors. She held onto the checked shirt with a pussycat bow she wore at her 1989 trial for smacking a Beverly Hills police officer after he pulled over her Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible for a traffic violation. She was convicted of misdemeanor battery on a police officer, driving without a driver’s license and having an open container of alcohol in the car.

“Every so often, she’d still put them on in the house, just lie in bed and watch television and then take them off again,” Mr. von Anhalt said of his wife trying on outfits in her later years. “She had a handbag for every day. Elizabeth Taylor took her shopping in Paris and they bought everything they could buy.”

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