Dubbed the richest girl in the world at the tender age of 12, Doris Duke would go on in later life to be lambasted as the ultimate shopaholic who reputedly warehoused reams of bibelots and second-rate furniture. But now, with her storied trove of glittering jewels, antiques and wines on sale at Christie's, with the profits going to benefit her foundation, a very different portrait of the tobacco heiress emerges.
Born in 1912 in Manhattan, Duke died at the age of 80 in 1993 in Beverly Hills after a sensational life, which also spawned tabloid headlines, a tell-all biography and TV miniseries starring Lauren Bacall. In 1925, when she was 12 years old, Duke inherited $80-million from her father, James Buchanan Duke, founder of the huge American Tobacco Company trust -- and was christened the Million Dollar Baby.
Christie's sale tells of her extraordinary wealth and exotic taste, and includes everything from carved emerald necklaces to antiques, including 23 sets of porcelain dinner services. Her magnums of champagne and vintage wines are expected to fetch as much as $4,000 a pop. They can be seen close up this week and until June 1. The sale begins on June 2.
The venerable auction house is selling Duke's holdings culled from her seven-room apartment at 475 Park Avenue, her principal residence Duke Farms in Somerville, NJ and her Beverley Hills hideaway, Falcon's Lair. Christie's expects Duke's wide-ranging possessions, which go on the block in New York, June 2-5, 2004, will bring a staggering $15million-$20 million.
The jewelry alone is the show-stopping kind. Despite her famous introversion, Duke liked jewelry that was hardly shy stylistically and frequently matched her lanky six feet tall frame in scale. Her jewelry was larger than life," says Simon Teakle, Christie's jewelry expert.
But instead of simply locking herself into a single period like her mother's Gilded Age jaw-dropping diamond and platinum necklace, Duke explored an entire history of jewelry styles. Plus, she frequently commissioned pieces from the period's most artful designers.
From Belle poque and Art Deco examples right on to her Mughal-inspired renditions in precious stones, Duke chose brilliantly. Her Indian design emerald and diamond bracelet, estimated to make a cool $250,000-$350,000 is already sparking interest. Duke's penchant for India and other far points began with her honeymoon.
In 1935, Duke married James Henry Roberts Cromwell. The couple set off on a round-the-world yearlong honeymoon. Captivated by the exotic arts of the Islamic world, India and Southeast Asia, Duke turned her attention to collecting in those areas.
"Her taste for the East was radical then," says Duke's long time friend Oatsie Charles, who lives within shouting distance of Duke's Newport home and now serves on Duke's foundation board. "The rest of us were fixated on the right shoes or whether to don gloves," says Charles.
And Duke tackled the arts of Asia head on. She dipped into books on Southeast Asia art, consulted with experts and returned again and again to that part of the world.
"She developed a collection in an obscure specialty, 18th and 19th century Burmese, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos arts, that no one liked and many turned up their noses at," says Forrest McGill, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum director. "Now, her collection, including early Buddhist manuscripts, is the most important one outside of mainland Southeast Asia." More than 800 of her art works went to museums, including the San Francisco one and the British museum.
But Duke went far beyond acquiring rarities like 13th century Cambodian bronze Buddha's. Nor did she stop at snapping up entire rooms of Asian treasures, Duke shopped on a more massive scale. She bought reams of carved teak 18th and 19th century Thai, Burmese and Cambodian buildings from temples and palaces to elegant homes. "She had an extraordinary vision," says McGill. Duke set out to create an authentic Asian village. They remain stored at Duke Farms.
Yes, Duke shopped continually. "But never idly," recalls Charles. Duke trolled virtually every tiptop jeweler in town-Cartier, Tiffany, Verdura, David Webb and Seaman Schepps. But compared to other women, dealers say she wasn't a shopaholic. "I deal with them and they go crazy," says Ward Landrigan, who heads up Verdura, and waited on Doris there. "She was different and very focused in what she wanted", says Landrigan from Bangkok.
One constant runs throughout her 80 years: A serious concern for conservation. In her Newport home, she had precious Aubusson and Persian rugs roped off to preserve them. At Duke Farms, a tiny office off the main drawing room retains all of her china mending materials.
And when it came to repairing cracked and chipped porcelain and glass, Duke took matters into her hands. She ordered up the foremost porcelain repairer as her personal instructor.
"We would fly our restorer out to Honolulu to teach her the finer points," recalls Allen Chait of Ralph M. Chait Galleries, purveyors of fine Ming porcelain. It wasn't simply a matter of a single lesson or two but rather more than 20 times during the sixties and seventies.
While Duke pursued Asian art and even acquired two Bactrian camels in the 60s, she zeroed in on a new acquisition area later in life and closer to home: the derelict 18th-century colonial houses that littered Newport.
In no time, Duke was melding conservation and preservation, beginning in 1968 when she founded the Newport Restoration Foundation. She acquired, restored and later rented 82 colonial houses and in doing so jump-started a thriving preservation movement.
So while the Christie's sale gives a rare glimpse into the personal life of a collecting legend, much remains to be seen. "Her real legacy is Newport and her fine southeast Asian art collection," says Charles.
BROOK S. MASON writes on the fine and decorative arts.