UPPERVILLE, Va. — Few people have ever visited Oak Spring Farms, the grand home here of Rachel Lambert Mellon, better known as Bunny. If they had, they would have seen a Pissarro, unframed like a flea market find, above the living room fireplace. Upstairs, a still life by van Gogh hung above her bathtub. Antique porcelains — cabbages, asparagus, artichokes — were artfully arranged on practically every surface.
Mrs. Mellon was the matriarch of an American dynasty whose fortune and art holdings rivaled that of the Fricks, Carnegies and Morgans. But perhaps most notably, she was a passionate collector of a bygone era. She didn’t pay attention to what was in fashion; she didn’t think about future financial returns. Instead, she had understated and original taste, buying what she loved, free from the dictates of decorators and investment consultants.
Rachel Lambert Mellon, right, with her husband Paul, and Lady Bird Johnson at the National Gallery of Art.Rachel Mellon, an Heiress Known for Her Green Thumb, Dies at 103MARCH 17, 2014
A hardy orange tree flanks Oak Spring’s library, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.The Eloquence of SilenceJUNE 12, 2014
“Bunny was part of a generation that no longer exists today: an amateur collector with a sure eye, great taste and upper-class refinement, who bought across the board, from expensive jewelry and paintings to trinkets,” said John Wilmerding, an American art scholar and trustee of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
She was also fiercely private and rarely opened her home to visitors. So when Mrs. Mellon died in March at the age of 103, no one knew the full extent of what she left behind. It turns out there are thousands of objects — paintings, drawings, jewelry, handbags, baskets, even a fire truck — most of which will soon be up for auction at Sotheby’s. It estimates her collection could bring in over $100 million.
Sotheby’s plans a nine-day extravaganza, starting on Nov. 10, eventually turning over the galleries on all 10 floors of its New York headquarters to display what was on the walls and in the cupboards of the five homes she shared with her second husband, Paul, the son of the financier Andrew W. Mellon.
With estimated prices from $200 (a 1940s hooked rug) to $30 million (a painting by Mark Rothko), Sotheby’s hopes to draw not just wealthy buyers but also anyone eager for a small piece of Mrs. Mellon’s legacy.
The sale comes at a critical time for Sotheby’s, which has been battered by tepid spring auctions and a board battle. It is surely betting that its estimated prices will be eclipsed by buyers bidding wildly for, say, a cast-metal bunny (estimated price: $1,000 to $1,500).
In 1996, when Sotheby’s held a similar sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s estate, people waited in line for hours to glimpse John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs and her 40-carat diamond ring from Aristotle Onassis. Those auctions, over four days, raised $34.4 million, more than six times its estimate.
On a visit to the Mellon estate here in July, everything had been assembled, tagged and organized like a perfectly planned military operation. Sotheby’s specialists in areas like English furniture, Chinese porcelains, American paintings and contemporary art had combed through more than 20 buildings on the property and documented every one of some 4,000 objects, tagging every teacup and fork.
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“We felt like interlopers moving into a notoriously private and protected world,” said Elaine Whitmire, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s who oversees major estate sales.
Clearing everything out has been a herculean effort, involving 3,000 feet of Bubble Wrap and more than 500 packing boxes for the decorative objects and books alone. Even those who knew Mrs. Mellon well didn’t foresee the scale of the project, said Jane MacLennan a lawyer for the estate. “She never threw anything out. All her correspondence exists.”
So, it seems, does every pair of gardening shears she ever bought. A self-taught horticulturalist, Mrs. Mellon designed the White House Rose Garden and, of course, the gardens surrounding her own houses, too. A lot of 27 pieces — two bentwood pitch forks, three watering cans, four pruning shears, a hoe, nine umbrellas, three shovels, three walking sticks, a bamboo walking stick concealing a saw — is estimated to sell for as much as $600.
In its building, Sotheby’s plans to showcase an 1880s octagonal cupola that Mrs. Mellon never installed. (Price: $3,000 to $5,000.) There will be Christian Dior handbags with clasps of gold and lapis lazuli, created for her by the French jeweler Jean Schlumberger. There are sets of antique china and glass that could entertain hundreds. (Although not on view, a 1950s fire truck, Oak Spring I, is estimated to sell for as much as $25,000.)
And then there is the art: more than 400 paintings and drawings, including Picassos, Seurats, Hoppers and Homers.
Before the auctions, prominent collectors tried to buy the best paintings privately. The estate quietly parted with several canvases including two by Rothko and a Diebenkorn, said Alexander D. Forger, her friend, lawyer and an executor. “It seemed prudent to take advantage of the offer,” he said. “We’ve got estate taxes to pay by December.” He declined to name the buyers or the prices, which dealers said totaled around $300 million.
Auction houses also jockeyed for the estate sale. Sotheby’s and Christie’s prepared elaborate presentations with mock catalogs, simulations of the gallery installations and worldwide marketing plans.
From the start, Sotheby’s had the inside track. “Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s came in with the same financial arrangement,” Mr. Forger said. “But we knew Sotheby’s better.”
Mr. Forger had been an executor of Mrs. Mellon’s great confidante, Ms. Onassis, and selected Sotheby’s for that sale.
But his choice was not based on familiarity alone. While neither he nor Franck Giraud, the art adviser to Mrs. Mellon, would discuss specifics, both said that she was angry with Christie’s owner, François Pinault. In 2002, she agreed to sell him three Rothko paintings for around $25 million. They had been on loan to the National Gallery since the early 1970s, and Mrs. Mellon parted with them only after Mr. Pinault contractually promised to exhibit them in what was to be his foundation for contemporary art on the Île Seguin, in Paris.
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But when his plans for the space in Paris fell apart, Mr. Pinault moved the project to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, where the works were on view only once. Two years ago, he sold one of the paintings, “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown),” from 1952, to Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, for more than twice what Mr. Pinault paid for all three paintings, according to dealers familiar with the transaction. Last year, he sold a second, “Yellow and Blue” from 1954.
Nazanine Ravaï, Mr. Pinault’s chief of staff, said that the Rothkos were to be displayed in Paris, but that they did not fit with the programming in Italy, and there was no permanent place to house them. Mr. Pinault, she said, plans to keep the third Rothko.
Space was not an issue at Oak Spring, a working dairy farm. There was the stone cottage where the Mellons lived, stables for prizewinning thoroughbreds, a pool house designed by I. M. Pei and the Brick House, a Georgian-style mansion. A building was devoted just to Bunny Mellon’s collection of baskets: Shaker, Native American, florist shop generic, and antique discoveries.(The property also includes one of the country’s earliest private airstrips.) Oak Spring itself was put on the market last month for $70 million.
What could be left?
“Every book had to be shaken to make sure there wasn’t a drawing or love letter tucked inside,” Ms. Whitmire said.
To raise as much money as possible for Mrs. Mellon’s foundation, the executors decided putting her property up for auction would be the best approach.
Deciding what to give back to the family — Mrs. Mellon’s son, Stacy B. Lloyd III, and his two children, as well as Mrs. Mellon’s two stepchildren, Catherine Conover and Timothy Mellon — was a delicate balancing act. “Sometimes, things are just too personal,” Ms. Whitmire said. Among other things, family members selected a Pissarro painting from her bedroom, one of Mrs. Mellon’s Givenchy gardening hats, furniture that she designed, and a picture frame by Schlumberger that contained family photos.
While Ms. Whitmire and others culled through the buildings, a few discoveries were made: One of Joseph Cornell’s famous box assemblages was unearthed in a bathroom cabinet; a Magritte watercolor was found in a rarely used room.
“When I walk through the buildings for the last time, I’m terrified that something will be forgotten,” Ms. Whitmire said. “You only get one chance.”