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Tony Duquette
Photo Tim Street-Porter

Goanese ivory-inlaid, close-nailed mahogany cabinet on stand
The Duquette Collections
Christie's Los Angeles
Mar. 12-14, 2001

The drawing room at Duquette's home, Dawnridge

The upstairs landing at Dawnridge

The malachite room at Dawnridge, with a set of four Indian patterned brass and copper-mounted peacock-form armchairs (est. $3,000-$5,000)

The gardens at Dawnridge
Collecting Beauty
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

For Los Angeles decorator Tony Duquette, collecting wasn't so much an exercise in connoisseurship as it was an art form in and of itself. He collected whatever he fancied, almost compulsively. His houses in San Francisco and Los Angeles were laden with elements of the high and the low. A cheap ceramic frog sat at the foot of an ivory-inlaid Anglo Indian chair. Venetian oil paintings hung next to souvenir Chinese pagodas. As a world traveler, he bought in bulk. Even at home in L.A., he once spent $1,000 at the 99-cent store.

Duquette, who died in 1999 at the age of 85, was not only one of L.A.'s preeminent decorators, he was an artist, sculptor, jeweler, mystic and character. Mentored by the legendary decorator Elsie de Wolfe, his insouciant and unpredictable style endeared him to West Coast high society. With his wife Elizabeth, known as Beegle, he befriended movie stars like Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He decorated homes for Doris Duke and in his 80s was flying around the world buying antiques and fabrics to finish the extraordinary Venice palazzo of John and Dodie Rosekrans.

Legends, however, can live on through their collections. Onerous estate taxes have to be settled. Thanks to Christie's Los Angeles, a lifetime of acquisition has become "The Duquette Collections," the largest house sale ever held. Large enough, anyway, to fill the entirety of Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Air Center with 1,500 lots to be sold over three days, Mar. 12-14, with sessions held each day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Viewing is Mar. 9-11 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Duquette's greatest achievements were his own houses, where he could indulge his eccentric vision, combining his refinement as a decorator with his theatrical sensibility. (He also worked as a designer for stage and screen, most elaborately on Kismet for Vincent Minnelli, whose house he also decorated.) The special effects at his own homes -- most impressively, at Dawnridge -- were often jerry-rigged with a glue gun, plaster of Paris and low lighting.

He used fabric of his own design in patterns of green malachite or faux leopard as background for an archeological strata of paintings, bookshelves, chests, screens, shrines, birdcages and hanging plants. Each room pivoted around one of his brilliant chandeliers of coral or abalone shell. One room filled with extraordinary antiques had ceilings coffered in gold plastic dinner plates. Old hubcaps were lacquered crimson and made into totems for the garden.

Like a magpie, he loved anything shiny and saw beauty everywhere. He used to say that if there were just one abalone shell left in the world, armies would fight wars over it because of its beauty.

All of this and much, much more is on offer. Due to his far-flung friendships and his affinity for the rarefied history of the decorative arts, many pieces in the auction have a special provenance. Highlights from the high life include the polychrome and parcel gilt dolphins that not only belonged to Misia Sert but were featured in Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief (est. $6,000-$8,000); and a ruby velvet sofa designed by Syrie Maugham for actress Ina Claire and a leopard-covered tabouret by de Wolfe for the ballroom of her house at Versailles, Villa Trianon (both estimated at $2,500-$3,500).

The Anglo-Indian ivory-inlaid ebony armchair is estimated at $30,000-$50,000 while an Nigerian Ekoi headdress, which inspired some of his costume designs, carries a $12,000-$15,000 estimate. An 18th-century Italian seven panel screen with a view of Port Maurice is set at $40,000-$60,000 while a suite of Grotto furniture that came from the Hearsts is offered at $4,000-$6,000.

Duquette, who made jewelry as gifts for his powerful clients, returned to that passion toward the end of his life. With the aid of his friend Hutton Wilkinson, Duquette's unusual necklaces of lapis or turquoise or baroque pearl became the rave of the fashionistas, the subject of articles in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Several are on the block in the range of $5,000.

On the other hand, his more personal effects run the gamut from a carved wooden foot to turquoise glazed pigs to Chinese robes and have estimates that are only in the hundreds. Perfect for Duquette fans -- and they are legion.

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.