Sunglasses for $27,000? A desk for $60,000? Joan Didion’s estate sale made big bucks.
She was a New York Times reporter who was murdered by her husband, a former writer for the magazine whose career had made him wealthy and famous. Her papers were put up for auction in December 2002 — and on the first day, she was valued at $17.1 million, by far the highest price ever paid at Sotheby’s at that time.
Here’s how the world’s most lucrative art sale has been described: “It is the ultimate in a kind of auction auctioneer’s art-world equivalent of the ‘best man’s speech’ at Harvard.”
And here’s how Joan Didion’s estate was valued: $27,000. “There’s nothing wrong with being low-key and modest,” she said at the time. “My husband was a very big man, and he loved my little things. If he liked something, he bought it.”
Sotheby’s auctioned off the first of what is expected to be a staggering six editions of Didion’s papers — more than a quarter-million documents — on Monday.
The auction house estimates the collection at between $18 million and $30 million. In fact, it came to $27,000 — a mere fraction of what Sotheby’s got for the other pieces, which brought as much as a quarter-billion dollars.
It can’t have helped that Joan Isotta Dell’Olio, the daughter of a Sicilian immigrant, was a longtime journalist. But as she wrote in the introduction to the auction catalogue, “I came to New York with the idea that the writer’s room was mine. My office was the writer’s room. I felt that I knew what work I had to do and that I had to do it better so that people would read me.”
Dell’Olio’s early career was rooted in the Times, first as a reporter and later as associate editor, where she oversaw the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the shooting of a New York City police officer, Ray Homan, in 1986.
“I came to New York with the idea that the writer’s room was mine. My office was the writer’s room