Design royalty is all atwitter about the Prince of Chintz auction

Jura Koncius

THE WASHINGTON POST – Mario Buatta, the celebrity interior designer known as the Prince of Chintz, collected lacquered furniture, dog paintings, porcelain vegetables and, like many Americans, storage units.

Buatta, who died in 2018 at age 82, had five units: three in Harlem and two on Staten Island, crammed floor-to-ceiling with treasures. The same was true of his 1929 Upper East Side townhouse apartment and his Gothic Revival country home in Thompson, Connecticut, where floors eventually collapsed from the sheer weight of furniture.

Recently, 922 of the best of the 7,000 items culled from these seven locations are being auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York, an event that has spawned a feeding frenzy in the design community. Everyone, it seems, wants a souvenir of Buatta, a mischievous trickster and larger-than-life personality who launched an American version of English country style.

Buatta loved beautiful things. He started collecting as a child in Staten Island, buying an 18th-Century lap desk for USD12. His quest for fine English and Chinese export porcelain, fanciful floral chintz fabrics and quirky accessories became a lifelong passion.

He bought things for himself and clients at auctions of design divas Sister Parish, Bunny Mellon, Brooke Astor and Nancy Lancaster. He decorated penthouses and chateaus for the likes of Mariah Carey, Wilbur and Hilary Geary Ross, and Billy Joel, as well as Blair House, the presidential guesthouse.

Mario Buatta’s own brown-and-gold lacquered bed is said to have been made for Prince Albert to use at the Brighton Pavilion. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The Buatta auction is part of New York’s annual Americana Week, a series of auctions and antiques shows coinciding with the Winter Show (formerly the Winter Antiques Show, which Buatta chaired for many years). The exhibit installation, by designer Rush Jenkins, re-creates Buatta’s New York apartment, using his paint colors, architectural details and blown-up photographs of the prince himself.

During the one-week Sotheby’s exhibition that ended recently, more than 2,000 designers, clients, former assistants (he couldn’t keep them for long), curiosity seekers and an ex-lover or two descended on Sotheby’s fourth floor to view Buatta’s treasure trove: a custom chintz cape (estimated at USD600 to USD900); an oak umbrella stand full of walking sticks (USD3,000-USD5,000); the iconic blue silk picture bows from his New York apartment (USD500-USD800); an 18th-Century Chinoiserie wallpaper screen (USD4,000-USD6,000); 107 pieces of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware (USD10,000-USD15,000); and an 18th-Century oval Axminster rug (USD5,000-USD8,000) that he bought from Sister Parish for USD100,000 and had kept rolled up in his apartment for 25 years.

“The things are so beautiful. My catalogue is ridiculously dog-eared,” said designer Charlotte Moss. “But I’m sorry, I just won’t give you the list of what I want. I don’t want any competition.”

Architect Peter Pennoyer and his wife, designer Katie Ridder, were eyeing the Staffordshire porcelain elephants. Pennoyer predicted: “More people will be streaming this than looking at the impeachment proceedings. We all want to see what Mario’s stuff brings.”

Online bidding before the live auction was surprisingly brisk. (A gilt bronze dolphin knocker from Buatta’s front door (estimated value USD500 to USD800) was already up to USD2,600 recently. The Mario Buatta: Prince of Interiors two-volume auction catalogue (USD80) was in its second printing and is destined to be at the top of the book stack on tastemaker coffee tables.

“You won’t see this all together ever again. It’s a lifetime of collecting the best of the best,” said Christopher Spitzmiller, a designer of lamps and accessories, who expected “vicious and ruthless” bidding to occur. Could the auction be a catalyst for the rebirth of more soulful decorating? Before there were endless gray walls and cold, white trophy kitchens, there was Mario Buatta and his romantic 1980s rooms.

“Everything Mario stood for is coming back in a big way,” said Elle Decor’s Editor in Chief Whitney Robinson. “It’s the return of maximalism. It looks like the ’80s: bold decorating, brash colours, fearless design. Mario had a zest for life and for the profession of decorating. His happy, glamorous spirit really comes through in this auction.”

“I hope this will bring back stuff,” designer Bunny Williams said, looking around the packed rooms. “Everything in here has character.” Though the Sotheby’s official high estimate for the sale was USD2.9 million, insiders have predicted more. The typical single-owner decorative arts sale has 100 to 200 lots; this one has five times that.

“The Mario Buatta name really enhances things, especially today with the market as challenging as it is,” said Dennis Harrington, Sotheby’s head of English and European furniture. The demand for American and English antiques reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, prices have stagnated. “You can buy a nice antique table for less than you’d pay for a new one at Restoration Hardware,” Harrington said.

On January 16, the opening day of the week-long exhibition, the well-heeled converged. First, a lunch and private tour in the exhibition space co-hosted by Sotheby’s, Hilary Geary Ross and Patricia Altschul, star of Bravo’s reality show Southern Charm, for Buatta’s clients and friends, including Carolyne Roehm, Martha Stewart and Patricia Hearst. The tablecloths were made of a tulip print fabric from Buatta’s stash. Then 175 people attended a panel discussion, “Mario Buatta and the English Country House style in America.” That evening, 225 designers and Sotheby’s clients dished about it all at a private reception.

Longtime designer Richard Keith Langham was shopping with client Blaine Trump, a socialite and philanthropist once married to Robert Trump, the President’s brother. “Generations behind me have never seen such goodies under one roof. It’s amazing,” Langham said. “Let the pendulum swing back to that.”

The sale was organised by Emily Evans Eerdmans, a design historian and co-author with Buatta of the 2013 book Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration.

When Buatta died, he had been in declining health for several years and he had let his financial affairs slip. He left no will, and his estate had to go to probate.

Eerdmans, who had remained close to Buatta, was eventually retained by Joseph Buatta, Mario’s brother and only heir, to help sell the collection.

“I threw in organising everything and getting rid of anything that could not be sold,” she said. “It was a deep dive, shall we say.”

Along with two assistants, Eerdmans worked full time for 10 months sorting through mountains of hoarded treasures mixed with household debris, all the while channeling “her inner Nancy Drew”. There were “Mario moments,” as she called them, throughout: “Under a pile of stuff on the living room sofa, we discovered a huge rubber rat. We just screamed. We felt like Mario was right there with us.” They found six scraggly toupees, hung on a giltwood ornamental tree (Lot 320, estimated at USD800-USD1,200, toupees not included). Buatta wore the hairpieces to throw people off when he went into a party. There were some plastic cockroaches that he liked to leave on people’s plates. And there were 50 grey wigs with pink rollers that he liked to send as gag gifts. Then a gold Cartier watch would turn up in a jumbled drawer. He had a pair of mirrors from the famous London Yellow Room of one of his design inspirations, Nancy Lancaster, a Virginian by birth who became the queen of English country home and garden style. They were unearthed under a blanket in a storage unit. In a dishwasher, they found Meissen tureens still in their bubble wrap.

“You just don’t know if something belonged to Doris Duke and he paid USD44,000 for it or if he bought it at TJ Maxx,” Eerdmans said. “There were these ceramic fish pitchers he had 18 of. Someone noticed they looked interesting. Then we found the USD6.99 price tag.” They donated masses of suits and shirts – plus 615 ties and 300 belts – to the non-profit Housing Works thrift shops.

“Collecting was his addiction,” Eerdmans said. But it was also a comfort. “There was a loneliness to him. Even though he had all these glorious things, he was still lonely. So the intensity of his connection to them is much more than many people could ever understand.” The emotional experience has made her rethink her own stuff. “It’s a lesson. I’m a maximalist, and I have this tendency to hold on to things. I could get caught up coveting Meissen tureens, but I could become like Mario,” she said. “This makes you want to go home and edit.”

There’s been a lot of interest in Buatta’s library of more than 4,000 books, many of them signed by him. About 2,000 are up for auction; the rest will be sold by Kinsey Marable, a book dealer in Virginia. But in all the piles, Eerdmans unearthed no copy of Marie Kondo’s popular decluttering handbook The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “If he had one, it would have been given to him as a joke,” she said. But he did follow one of Kondo’s main rules.

“Every single one of his thousands of items brought him joy,” said Eerdmans.