Katharine Hepburn's Household Treasures Bring $5.8 Million from Adoring Fans
Born and reared in Connecticut, actress Katharine Hepburn held on to
the family home and furnishings she grew up with, like any good New
A lifetime of fabulous stage and screen stardom never seemed to uproot
the essential true-blue Kate (1907-2003), and Sotheby's catalog,
"Property from the Estate of Katharine Hepburn," for its June 10 and
11 sale seemed to affirm it. So did Hepburn fans worldwide. In the
jammed auction house, on phones, order books, and the Internet, they
bought every scrap of the 695 lots, in a transport of applause, for
$5,856,100. Sotheby's high estimate for the sale was $800,000, the
intrinsic worth of the consignment minus the star power.
From Miss Hepburn's family home in Fenwick, Old Saybrook, Connecticut,
on an arm of land reaching into Long Island Sound, to her 19th-century
New York City townhouse and garden on East 49th Street, or her
pied-<133>-terre in Hollywood, there were no trappings of celebrity or
pretense. Just nice solid Americana and "older things" one might find
at a Sotheby's Arcade sale, or passed down in the family, or just
picked up along the way by the actress in some little antiques shop.
Her Hollywood pied-<133>-terre with Spencer Tracy was even more
understated. So were many of her public comments. "I was fortunate
enough to be born with a set of characteristics that were in public
vogue," the phenomenally talented Miss Hepburn once said of her
"I worked for her from 1972 until she died, and I always called her
`Miss Hepburn,'" her cook and housekeeper, Norah Moore, told M.A.D.
reverently. "She knew me. She trusted me. And she was so good to my
family. If you were sick, she was the first to help. The day my
husband died she brought him a tree branch with bells and angels for
Christmas. It was a beautiful tribute to my husband," she said.
Moore, whose American career started as one of 17 waitresses serving
25 people at a homey Rockefeller family Thanksgiving dinner, said
obliquely, "We always dressed for dinner at Miss Hepburn's.
"Miss Hepburn liked plain cookingâ??leg of lamb, filet mignon. Soup
every day for lunch or dinner. Bean soup, vegetable, or zucchini soup.
And every night five vegetables. And potatoes. She was very New
England about the potatoes.
"We had lots of people for dinnerâ??Irene Selznick, Warren Beatty. Miss
Hepburn was older than them. But he treated her so good. Everyone
should have a son like him.
"George Cukor always came to the kitchen to thank me. So did
Christopher Reeve and Robert Wagner and Betty [Lauren] Bacall and Tony
Harvey. And [gossip columnist] Liz Smith was a darling. They were all
favorite friends and funny. And Miss Hepburn's niece Kathy, she comes
from the old school, from good stock.
"After [Spencer] Tracy died, Miss Hepburn worked very hard," Moore
said with total sympathy. "She loved him. And she never got over him."
The fans had a hard time getting over him too. They were loath to give
up on the 3 inches bronze portrait head of Spencer Tracy sculpted by
Hepburn in the 1960's. Estimated at $3000/5000, it finally sold to an
anonymous phone bidder for the emotional top-lot $316,000 (including
An earlier Hepburn romantic memento, Howard Hughes's circa 1930
courtship gift, a diamond and sapphire jardini<138>re brooch (est.
$15,000/20,000), went in spirited phone bidding to "L051," a Pacific
Northwest collector, at $120,000 and excited applause. "Make sure L051
doesn't hang up," joked Sotheby's auctioneer James Niven (son of actor
David Niven) during the hubbub and laughter.
Another Katharine Hepburn sculpture creation, Angel on a Wave, circa
1960, a bronze figure mounted on green glass shaped like a wave (est.
$2000/4000), brought $90,000 from another smitten fan, along with
overwhelming applause from the packed house. "God Almighty, I can't
believe it," bellowed Niven in mock surprise.
The catalog's biggest surprise to most fans was the large selection of
enchanting sketches and paintings in oil or watercolor by Hepburn
herself, especially seascapes, gulls and sea birds, lighthouses, and
sailboats, all loved by a girl who grew up on the water and responded
to it always.
Her first two paintings were two casual Nassau harbor views painted on
Howard Hughes's yacht in 1937. The story goes that she picked up a
paintbrush to kill some time and continued to paint for the rest of
her life wherever she worked or traveled. The first Nassau oil on
canvas brought $11,400 from an on-line Internet bidder. The second
went at $10,200. Each was estimated at $1000/1500.
Furniture of course brought much stronger bids than normal. A circa
1900 painted dresser brought $6600 (est. $700/900). A 19th-century
carved American eagle ornament sold for $7200 (est. $800/1200). A
damaged Chippendale style mahogany slant-front desk went at $36,000
(est. $500/700) with applause. An entrancing miniature long-case
clock, circa 1900, brought $10,800 (est. $800/1200).
Acting and film memorabilia, costumes, clothes, awards, and anything
involving Hepburn and Tracy all tugged successfully at fans' hearts
The so-called "Spencer Tracy rocking chair" at Hepburn's Hollywood
house was restored especially for Tracy from an old frame with springs
the actress found in "an old wreck of a shop on Olvera Street." It was
recalled lovingly in her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life.
Estimated at $800/1200, the chair moved on to a new refuge for $9600.
Special treasures were bought anonymously by their makers or by
celebritiesâ??a few of whom later went public. The French Louis Vuitton
luggage company spent $16,800 for the wardrobe trunk from Hepburn's
matched vintage Vuitton brown luggage set. It is slated for its
Two of Hepburn's favorite brown British Burberry vests sold to
Burberry clothiers for its archives, at $2100 and $9000. Gertrude, the
red canoe from the Katharine Hepburn-Henry Fonda film On Golden Pond,
sold to entertainer Wayne Newton for $19,200. A group of three black
velour hats went to novelist Danielle Steele at $3600.
Hepburn's manuscript for her autobiography sold for $20,400 to a fan.
All told, everything went to someone who admired her and loved her and
felt a little bit closer by owning something that was hers.