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Disassembling Duquette

The Incomparable Estate of a Fabled Designer Falls to the Auctioneer

February 11, 2001|RICHARD CHEVERTON

WHEN DESIGNER TONY DUQUETTE, HOLLYWOOD'S MAESTRO OF MAXIMALISM, died at 85 in 1999, the sequined curtain dropped on one of the great collecting binges of modern times.

It wasn't just that Duquette had a passion for possession--anyone with a fat checkbook can do that--but that the man Vogue proclaimed the greatest interior designer of the 20th century developed a wholly unique pile-on philosophy, combining thousands of wildly disparate objects into a vast, living montage. It sprawled throughout his many addresses--he was of the social set who name their houses (Dawnridge, Sortilegium)--a massive assemblage that combined class and crass: gilded cast resin and 18th century antiques, shells and faux-fur fabric, skateboards and 18-karat gold, colored glass and diamonds, all set off by his signature, coolly clashing colors of malachite and coral.

Collectors are merely temporary custodians of the stuff they covet, though, so now it's time for the inevitable cycle of abandonment and purchase to play out again. From March 12-14, after a year of frenzied cataloging, Christie's, the international auctioneers, will sell off the treasure trove, betting that the parts will be worth more than the sum--a major imponderable, given that the collection itself is a unified work of art.

Selling the "property," as Christie's offhandedly calls it, is the responsibility of the calmly precise president of the firm's L.A. outpost, Andrea Fiuczynski. She readily admits that everything about this sale is daunting. The 1,680 lots--the largest "house sale" in America, she claims--will be arrayed in a series of Duquettesque tableaux across the 35,000 square feet of Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport.

"I've been many a time for events there or to do charity auctions. Having toured it naked, as it were, was terrifying--it's an enormous space," says Fiuczynski, who will be one of four rotating auctioneers. "We're generally up there for two hours and then we switch. It gets quite boring if you're a client sitting there, you see the same old person . . . [this] is interactive theater, and it has to be exciting."

Jason Stein, an assistant vice president, is coordinating the zillion or so details of the sale--everything from the initial walk-through to the logistics of shipping. For a 32-year-old graduate of Cal State Northridge with 10 years in the auction business, this is challenging stuff. Even the usual deadpan auction catalog photos had to be rethought: "We have these super-lush shots that tried to embody the Duquette vision," he says. "It's as though you took a treasure chest and opened it and the coins are spilling out."

The sale ends a long pas de deux between Duquette and Christie's--the firm sold about two dozen of his pieces at the "Innovators of 20th Century Style" auction in 1999. Fiuczynski recalls her "fantastical first meeting [at] Dawnridge, sitting outside in these extraordinary gardens--"

"It's a Shangri-La," says Stein.

"First you enter this extraordinary house . . . and then Tony appeared from his office," says Fiuczynski. "He was in a caftan and a fez. Here's a man at 80--the mind, quick; the eyes, bright."

The collection is unlike anything she has ever seen, she adds. "We see [people who are] obviously compulsive or obsessive collectors. But with Tony, he would acquire something and then 'Duquettize' it. A provincial armoire over the course of the years might acquire architectural elements from Indonesia or Fortuny fabric."

In a room next to Fiuczynski's office are a few representative Duquette items: an Asian lacquer box, gilt-metal pagodas, what looks like a bottle rack covered with shiny coral fronds. In truth, they look a trifle forlorn, carried away from Duquette's carefully, compulsively interlocked stage-set cum home--testimony to the dilemma of the collector: ever assembling, ever haunted by the knowledge that what is acquired is never truly owned. It is lost and regained, again and again--testimony that, in the end, only time (and the auctioneer) wins.

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