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Historical Whales: Brooke Astor's Love of Jewelry and Dogs

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Welcome to Whale Week, our celebration of the city's biggest spenders.

In September of 2012, Sotheby's held an auction of property from the estate of Brooke Astor, which included decadent furniture, stunning jewelry, impressive art, and more from the philanthropist, writer, activist, and socialite's personal collection. The auction brought in a whopping $18.8 million in sales, and offered an insider's glimpse into Astor's New York City and Westchester homes.

Born in 1902 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Brooke married into the Astor family in 1953, when she and her third husband, Vincent Astor, son to John Jacob Astor IV, tied the knot. A prominent society figure, one of Astor's style trademarks was her classic, lady-like attire. However, the end of her life was marked with scandal and controversy; there were accusations of elder abuse on behalf of her son, Anthony Dryden Marshall, who was later convicted of grand larceny and other charges relating to the tampering of Astor's estate.

A few years after the trial, Sotheby's held their auction of Astor's belongings. Most of the items listed were furniture, but the sale also included a some serious pieces of Bulgari jewelry—like an 18kt gold, platinum, colored stone, and diamond brooch and matching earrings; and a platinum, emerald, and diamond necklace, both circa 1960, and which sold for $31,250 and $686,500 respectively. Upstaging both of those was her platinum, emerald, and diamond ring, which went for $1.2 million.

After the auction, Barbara Goldsmith, one of Astor's friends, wrote about the experience of watching others bid on her late-friend's belongings. In the article, she recalls a lunch they had after Goldsmith's divorce. "At that point, Brooke left the room, returning shortly with a very small sparkling Judith Leiber modiliére, and handed it to me. 'Every time you start feeling sorry for yourself,' she said, 'just look at this absolutely ridiculous frog and it will make you smile.'"

But as mentioned above, most of what was offered at the Sotheby's auction was home decor, from a pair of Italian Neoclassical style carved giltwood mirrors to Louis XVI everything. As Astor told Architectural Digest in 1982:

I have found that my taste changes with the years. I used to love 18th-century English furniture—mahogany sideboards and large breakfront bookcases; paneled rooms with sporting prints on the walls. Then, by way of a divorce, I moved away from the English furniture and the house, into an apartment, where I had French furniture—small, pretty chairs, which were easy to draw up for conversation, and small round tables. Now I like a mixture. I want pure comfort, with some good wood pieces and low Chinese tables—and mirrors in every room.

Another thing you could find in her New York City home? Lots of paintings of her dogs. According to a photo accompanying that AD story, as of 1982, Astor's New York City stairwell included 74 portraits of dogs.
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