The auction-day atmosphere at Palm Beach Modern’s exhibition space was, in a word, “festive,” said auctioneer and co-owner Rico Baca. “We worked very hard to make it an event people would remember. How many auctions have you been to where there’s a cocktail bar, lavish hors d’oeuvres, valet parking and a drag queen on roller skates handing out candy?” Baca asked. As a nod to Steve Rubell, there was even Cristal champagne on hand for VIPs.
Normally, 100 to 125 people might turn out for one of Palm Beach Modern’s auctions, Baca said, but at Saturday’s affair, attendance topped 400 and included a number of individuals who had flown in from New York. That was in addition to phone bidders and the nearly 700 people worldwide who participated via the Internet through LiveAuctioneers.com.
Throughout the proceedings, LiveAuctioneers wielded a mighty impact. As the Miami Herald reported in its January 19 edition, bidders “mercilessly ran up prices on old Studio 54 programs, posters and even birthday-cake candles. None was more acquisitive than an online bidder known only as No. 975, who in the first hour and a half grabbed dozens of items at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.” As it turned out, bidder 975 was not some deep-pocketed disco icon, as some had speculated; it was actually the number assigned to all Internet bids.
“We knew there would be massive participation online,” said LiveAuctioneers CEO Julian R. Ellison. “During the weeks leading up to the sale, Palm Beach Modern’s online catalog was very heavily visited, and by the time the auction began on Saturday morning, there were multiple online absentee bids in place on most of the lots. It was destined for success.”
The highest-priced piece in the Studio 54 collection was a metal sculpture with a stenciled dollar-bill motif that Andy Warhol had given to his close friend Rubell in 1981. Believed unique, the artwork was purchased by Jim Elkind, owner of Lost City Arts in New York City, for $52,800. Another gift, an original Michael Vollbracht graffiti-style portrait titled “Steve Birthday” sold to an online bidder for $18,000.
Bidding was intense over the many dozens of black-and-white photographs taken of celebrity guests partying inside Studio 54.
“Movie stars, athletes, politicians and entertainers – everybody who was anybody back in the late 1970s and early ’80s made an appearance at Studio 54, and there were always photographers around,” said Baca. “What’s amazing to me is that the photographers who took these pictures were from many different media organizations. But every one of the pictures turned out amazing, no matter who took it. I think that’s because the environment Steve and his business partner Ian Schrager created was magical – Disneyland for the beautiful people.”
Prices included $1,320 for a photo of Truman Capote shaking his booty on the dance floor at Elizabeth Taylor’s 46th birthday party, $2,520 for a picture of Salvador Dali and “Purple Rain” co-star Apollonia; and $2,520 for a lively depiction of Rubell with Diana Ross and fashion designer Halston exiting the club in formal attire. A poignant shot of Rubell pleading with a New York City fire marshal not to shut down the venue, which had just been flooded with heart-shape candies in preparation for a Valentine’s Day party, sold for $3,900.
Several Polaroid photographs that Warhol took of Rubell with his famous pals proved especially popular with bidders. A candid shot of a closely huddled group that included Tina Turner, Cher, Rod Stewart and then-wife Alana Stewart was chased to a final bid of $11,400. Another picture of Rubell with his fellow revelers, including Grace Jones, reached $12,000.
A Studio 54 front-door reservation book in which Rubell noted the names of expected guests and whether or not they were to receive free entry or drinks tickets was purchased for $7,200. Rubell’s personal address book containing the names and addresses of many of his high-profile friends made $7,800.
Baca and his business partner Wade Terwilliger spent the better part of a year hand-selecting exceptional modern furnishings and decorative art to complement the Rubell collection at auction. A circa-1955 cocktail table in the manner of Gio Ponti led the section with a selling price of $40,800. A circa-1960 sofa and chairs in the manner of Marco Zanuso sold as consecutive lots, jointly realizing $15,000. An elegant circa-1960 Maria Pergay silver-plated cocktail table served up a winning bid of $19,200; while a rare Paul Evans “Cityscape” cabinet closed at $12,000. Recalling the conversation pits so popular around 1970, a Milo Baughman 3-piece semicircular sectional sofa with revolving cocktail table and two rosewood sofa tables retired at $9,600. The catalog’s cover lot, an Ico Parisi (attrib.) multifaceted sphere bar on tripod base garnered $18,000.
The auction of slightly over 400 lots lasted more than 8½ hours. “Nothing was a quick sell. Every item in the Rubell collection had multiple bidders after it,” said Baca. “After the sale, we had calls from people asking if there were any unsold items they could buy, but there wasn’t a thing left. Everything in the collection was sold.”
Since 1989, the year of Rubell’s death, the Studio 54 archive had remained in the care of his close friend, fashion designer Bill Hamilton. Last year Hamilton decided it was time to part with the collection and share its contents with the world.
An avalanche of publicity followed the auction announcement, with coverage from the Associated Press, New York Times, New York Post and literally hundreds of other newspapers worldwide. Several TV news organizations visited Palm Beach Modern Auctions’ exhibition space to interview Baca and Terwilliger; Sirius Radio produced a program about the event, and even the urbane Charlie Rose – who, by his own admission, never visited Studio 54 – narrated a special segment about the auction for CBS This Morning.
“The media definitely recognized this auction for what it was – a chance to revisit a unique time and place. I think everyone wanted to ‘be there’ just one more time,” said Baca.
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Legendary New York Clubs:
1. Studio 54 – the world’s most famous disco, operated by its original ownership 1977-1981. Originally the Gallo Opera House.
2. The Stork Club – a popular nightclub from 1929-1965. Demolished in 1966 and now the site of Paley Park.
3. The Cotton Club – famous jazz club in Harlem from 1923-1940. Closed due to higher rents, changing tastes and a government probe alleging tax evasion.
4. The Latin Quarter – originally opened in 1942 by Lou Walters, father of Barbara Walters. Still in operation and catering to hip hop, reggae and salsa act.
5. The Copacabana – a nightclub that gave many entertainers their start. Opened 1940 and condemned in 1977 to make way for a subway line. New location is in Times Square.
6. CBGB – music club in the Bowery founded in 1974. Launch pad for many American punk and New Wave bands. Closed in 2006.
7. Max’s Kansas City – nightclub and restaurant frequented by musicians, poets and artists. Opened in 1965, closed in 1981.
8. The Mudd Club – TriBeCa nightclub that opened in 1978. Billed itself as an “antidote to the uptown glitz of Studio 54.” Closed in 1983.
9. Tunnel – nightclub located in a former railroad freight terminal in West Chelsea’s Historic District. Opened in 1986 after a $5 million investment by the founder of Bonjour Jeans. Favored by the techno and hip hop crowd. Closed in 2001 due to non-payment of rent and the owner’s deportation to Canada on charges of income tax evasion. The Tunnel building is now occupied by several businesses, including LiveAuctioneers.com.
ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE