One year after his death, hundreds of items from the estate of Van Cliburn are going on sale at Christie’s auction house in New York.
The pianist, who died in February 2013, filled his Westover Hills home with items encountered during his world travels — fine art, furnishings, tableware — and selected with a veteran collector’s eye.
Two years ago, Cliburn parted with some of his most valuable treasures at a Christie’s auction of what was billed as “The Van Cliburn Collection.” That sale earned almost $4.4 million, beating a presale estimate of $3 million. The most valuable item, a pair of George II giltwood mirrors, went for $464,500.
This sale, taking place March 5, is expected to yield between $1 million and $1.5 million, and the more than 300 objects include many more silver pieces, plus paintings, English furniture, colorful Russian porcelain and a 19th-century piano.
“Once again, it’s a great insight into the man that Van Cliburn was. He was very much a collector’s collector, and he associated so many objects with parts of his performing life,” said Andrew McVinish, head of sale, private and iconic collections at Christie’s.
McVinish said that Cliburn had a good eye. “He certainly could spot something that he would always treasure. More times than not, it was a treasure, and not something that everybody has,” he said.
The item with the highest estimated sale price is an oval-shaped William IV silver tea tray valued at $50,000-$80,000. “That is quite an outstanding piece of silver from the early part of the 19th century,” McVinish said.
The catalog describes it as “oval, on four lion’s-mask feet, with cast and applied openwork grapevine border with bacchanalian masks, cornucopiae, lions, and urns at intervals, with guilloch and gadrooned rim, the oval handles with chased flowers and ribbons, flanked by ram’s-head cornucopiae, the field engraved with an Earl’s coat-of-arms and a crest.”
(Low rollers might go for a Russian silver tea caddy, an estimated $300 value, or a set of three picture frames, also valued at $300.)
Cliburn had a lifelong interest in fine silver, telling the Star-Telegram in 2012 that he was reading his first book on English silver at age 8. The collection includes dozens more silver pieces, mostly vases, candelabra, trays, flatware and tea sets. There are silver tea services from England, France and Mexico, and porcelain ones from Russia.
The other big category is furniture. Cliburn had a passion for the best English furnishings, especially chairs. Prime examples in this sale include a George II mahogany pier table ($15,000-$20,000), a George II walnut settee ($7,000-$10,000) and two sets of 10 dining chairs.
Cliburn’s collection is also unusually rich in Russian items, which he began picking up when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 and came home with 16 more suitcases than he left with. The estate includes a silver-gilt icon of the mother of the god of Kazan ($2,000-$3,000) and a silver and ivory teapot owned by Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna ($2,000-$3,000).
Another item expected to draw attention is a C. Bechstein piano made in 1869 ($8,000-$12,000). It’s what’s known as an art case piano, meaning that “it’s not just a utilitarian item,” McVinish said. “It’s also designed as a glamorous piece of furniture.”
Bechsteins, which are still being made, have been eclipsed by Steinways and other brands on the concert stage. But in the company’s early years, Hans von Bulow played the premiere of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, a favorite Cliburn competition showpiece, on a Bechstein piano that the company says was expressly designed to stand up to such virtuosic pieces.
This piano gets extra frisson from the fact that it was bought in the 1940s by Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, who studied piano with a teacher who had studied with Liszt. This lineage famously gave Van Cliburn a direct link to one of piano history’s most electric performers.
Another piano from Van Cliburn’s home, a Steinway grand, was one of the top items in the 2012 sale. Christie’s invited Juilliard School students to play the instrument in the sale room, one pianist per hour, for several days straight. When Cliburn himself came to visit, the students were so awed “they were practically trembling,” McVinish recalled.
It was a reminder of Cliburn’s chief legacy, that easy emotional rapport that reached across cultures and generations. “The most salient thing [about this sale] is that he didn’t just collect objects, he collected people,” McVinish said. “That’s the enduring thing about him. He collected people.”