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An Inside Look at the Mario Buatta Auction — a Coveted Collection From the ‘Prince of Chintz’

Patricia Altschul, Martha Stewart and Charlotte Moss Honored the Maximalist, Cult Favorite Designer at Sotheby's Auction House

BY // 01.22.20

There is no avoiding the fact that an estate sale can often feel more like a wake. At its nadir, a formal shilling of the deceased’s belongings can take on the Dickensian trappings of the cringey foreshadowed pillage that finds Ebenezer Scrooge not yet even cold in his curtain bedecked bedchamber.

Over the years, I have attended plenty such decrepit funerals des meubles of society notables (few of which have included champagne, natch). In great and colorful contrast, on the eve of the latest such occasion, I belabored which bright, floral-print party frock would most befit the memory of the fondly christened “Prince of Chintz,” renowned interior designer Mario Buatta.

Last week, with bubbly on hand, those who loved him lined up to pay their respects to the dearly departed in grandest fashion. The masterful execution of Sotheby’s Auction House’s exhibition and forthcoming auction of Buatta’s estate (to be held this Thursday, January 23 and Friday, January 24) has stirred such a buzz that it would appear we are on the cusp of a reincarnated interest in the ghosts and grandeur of the traditional interior design style that Buatta so loved—characterized by antiques, chinoiserie and the philosophy that “more is more.”

Leading up to the auction, a series of events were held in celebration of Buatta’s life. An elite, yet robust coterie of interior design A-listers showed up in finest form to honor the man who had proudly professed his love for dust, chintz, cockroaches, and the amiable (much like Buatta) Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, known as the “love sponge of dogs.”

The events culminated with a champagne reception to formally open the exhibition, where more than 200 of Buatta’s clients, friends and admirers flocked to pay their respects and preview the auction lots. Preceding the reception was a luncheon co-hosted by Patricia Altschul and Hilary Geary Ross, followed by a discussion led by Carolyn Roehme. Nearly 1,000 pieces from Buatta’s extensive collection will be on Sotheby’s auction block, but according to those who knew him well, the offering is just a fraction of what he spent his lifetime collecting.

Mario Buatta’s Treasures

After Buatta’s passing in October 2018, his estate looked to Emily Evans Eerdmans, Buatta’s biographer, friend, and confidante, to meet what would seem an insurmountable task of editing his collection to be placed for sale. The next and only logical decision, says Eerdmans, was to commission former Director of Design for Sotheby’s Auction House, Rush Jenkins of WRJ Design in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to design and install the exhibition. If Buatta had ever pictured this day, he surely could not have dreamed of a more dynamic duo to organize his send-off.

As guests arrived at Sotheby’s last Thursday evening, we stood agape at the magnitude of the exhibit and the attention to detail in the meticulously-installed millwork and bespoke paint colors that served as the backdrop for Buatta’s exquisitely-appointed collection. (Jenkins, whom I had the privilege of interviewing on the eve of the release of his first book, Natural Elegance, calmly proved that his quotient for design is limited neither by style nor medium.) A floor-to-ceiling wall of Buatta’s tail-wagging Cavalier King Charles Spaniel paintings seemed to wriggle with delight at the prospect of all the fuss being made over them.

Cocktail tables draped in Buatta’s signature chintz, Lee Jofa’s Floral Bouquet, featured myriad antiques, beginning with one of Jenkins’ favorite pieces: an 18th century black and gold lacquered Chinese bureau cabinet valued at over $50,000. “Mario had an eye—he knew how to acquire antiques and furnishings that could make an American family feel like they were building a heritage for themselves,” Jenkins says.

Most illuminating was the overheard chatter—praise for and marvel at Jenkins’ grand vision and Eerdmans’ editing acumen. Several guests—self-described “seasoned” collectors—mused amongst themselves that this was perhaps the most spectacular Sotheby’s presentation they had ever witnessed.

Mario Buatta Sotheby’s Auction
A mural by Buatta’s painter, Haleh Adabeigi, which she painted completely on-site at Sotheby’s. (Photo by Gabby Jones)

Buatta’s long-time mural painter, Haleh Atabeigi, was also commissioned for the exhibition. Of the innumerable priceless works that have come and gone through the auction house over the years, Atabeigi painted the exhibition’s mural almost completely in situ at Sotheby’s.

As for Eerdmans, her deep familiarity with Buatta’s collection and style developed during a year when the pair spent nearly every day together compiling the tome, Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration. Buatta was never known for restraint: the book is so heavy that he famously joked that lifting it had given him a hernia.

After writing the book, Eerdmans says that she and her husband became the close friends with Buatta. “He would take us out to dinner, and later we would go to cabaret shows! And then we were with him for the more everyday things, like doctor’s appointments,” Eerdmans says, adding quietly “On his 80th birthday, we took him to dinner.” When Buatta died at 82, Eeerdmans was by his side.

“He was unpretentious, he was true blue, and he never forgot that he came from Staten Island. He taught me to always ‘be yourself,’” says Eerdmans. “When I took the blue bows down from his living room for the auction, that was my moment of saying goodbye to him. This week has been bittersweet. But all of this—he would have loved it!”

Mario Buatta
The exhibition and auction serve as a tribute to Buatta’s life and passion for interior design. (Photo by Gabby Jones)

Amidst mille-feuille of chintz, Pierre Frey draperies, chinoiserie, needlepoint, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel paintings, there was an outpouring of genuine affection for the man himself, who, anecdotally, was as gracious a host as he was a humorous one. Guests spoke reminiscently of Buatta’s bonhomie—and his penchant for practical jokes.

He would arrive to a party laden with what appeared to be a lavish hostess gift: an oversized Tiffany’s box. After crossing the threshold, Buatta would pretend to trip while dropping the box in dramatic fashion. Before an alarmed host, he would remorsefully, yet casually, open the box—the contents of which were an already-shattered crystal bowl.

And Buatta especially loved to bring out a favorite plastic cockroach before unsuspecting guests, I was told, petting it and presenting it on his hand like a grotesque cocktail ring. To his great amusement, the lifelike specimen usually achieved the intended effect of confusing and revolting his embarrassed guests. But it was all in only the best of humor, a trait, his friends say, is part of the reason why he and his penchant for interior design became so beloved.

Chatting with Buatta’s clients and friends throughout the evening, I awkwardly offered condolences upon every new introduction, in spite of his true memorial having been held a year before. I couldn’t help it. We were surrounded by reminders of the man, right down to the most minor of his worldly possessions: needlepointed pillows bearing cheeky sayings, to a set of bizarre piscine stirrup cups about which one of Buatta’s close friends whispered to me that he had “never seen before and hope[d] to never see again.” I was overcome by the poignancy of the moment as I felt a sense of the gentle and gracious man very present, and yet very missed.

Mario Buatta
A selection from Buatta’s collection of Dodie Thayer lettuceware. (Photo by Lacelliese King)

As we stood around a table overflowing with Dodie Thayer lettuceware like a cruciferous ceramic altar, I finally asked one of Buatta’s old friends gingerly, “Is it a bit emotional for you, seeing all of his things here like this without him?” “Not at all!” she exclaimed, her face lighting up as she set down her empty champagne glass between cabbage tureens. “Why, this is Mario! It’s exactly as he was in life. His spirit is here!”

Indeed, the spirit of our beloved Mario lives on… plastic cockroaches, Cavaliers and all.

Collectors, clients, friends, and fans of Buatta in attendance included Katie Ridder and Peter Pennoyer, Pat AltschulPatricia Geary-Ross, Andrew McKeon, Klaus BaerCharlotte Moss, Martha Stewart, Christopher Spitzmiller, Stephen Sills, Gil Schaefer, Marshall WatsonTom Scheerer, Kate ReidBunny Williams, Tom FreundAlex Pappachristides, Alison LevasseurAnthony BarattaPam Jaccarino, Bill PeaceCharles Miers, Alex HitzDiane Dunne, Carolyne Roehme, Patricia HurstBlayne Truney, Katie Brockman, Molly Moorkamp, and Julia Amory.

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