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The Old Hollywood, Up for Bids

The estate of MGM composer George Stoll offers a romantic glimpse of the past.


In Hollywood, sometimes an Italian rococo-style coffee table isn't just an Italian rococo-style coffee table. Sometimes it's a talisman, a sacred object with the power to confer a touch of old studio glamour, secondhand sex appeal or glitz-by-association on its heirs. Who knows? Maybe Clark Gable once set his champagne flute on that polished mahogany surface. Or perhaps Judy Garland, freshly divorced from her husband and strung out on diet pills, brushed it while making a beeline for Mickey Rooney at some Oscar-night soiree.

Such whimsical conjecturing may be hard to resist this morning at Butterfields auction house on Sunset Boulevard, when the onetime contents of a rambling Benedict Canyon estate will go on the block. Judging by items in the collection--including an 8-foot-long scale model of Ulm Cathedral expected to fetch up to $8,000--the previous owners, the late George and Merian Stoll, definitely had a taste for the stuff of which Hollywood legends are made.

George Stoll's own legend was cast in metal and gold paint on the night of March 15, 1945, when he won an Academy Award statue for scoring the MGM musical comedy "Anchors Aweigh." (The little gold man can be yours for a cool $10,000 to $20,000.) Starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on shore leave in the City of Angels, the movie was made when Stoll--"Georgie" to friends--was near the peak of his powers as one of MGM's leading musical directors and composers. "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Wizard of Oz" and the Elvis Presley auto romp "Viva Las Vegas" were among the soundtracks he helped fashion. And though today his name would probably elicit puzzled stares from most people under 60, Stoll's 80 film score credits and multiple Oscar nominations should give pause to all the Lexus-revving hotshots on the Sunset Strip.

Stoll died in 1985. His wife, a former actress who became a recluse after her husband's death, passed away earlier this year at the Pebble Beach house that was the couple's final home. The Stolls had no children but bequeath a legacy in the popular culture they made, as well as in the silver tea sets, beaded bags, Russian icons and fin-de-siecle Indian carpets that will be bid on today--more than 650 lots in all. The estate also included a 30-carat yellow French diamond, which will bring an estimated $150,000 to $250,000 at a separate Sept. 25 jewelry sale.

For the professionals at Butterfields, today's auction will be business as usual, but with the added fizz that an old-school Hollywood pedigree always provides. On average, the auction house handles about four to five Hollywood estate sales a year.

"It's a connection with the past. It's an attempt to draw a line [between] where others have come from and where we have come from," said Jeff Smith, a dapper middle-aged man who works in Butterfields' department of furniture and decorative arts, as he surveyed a cocktail-hour, invitation-only viewing of the Stoll estate Thursday. "This may sound bad, but sometimes it's easier to be romantic and love an object than another person."

Estate auction previews are strange affairs, windows on individual lives that appeal both to cultivated eyes and inquiring minds. Wine, hors d'oeuvres, expert opinion and plain old gossip are the active ingredients at these events, and the sometimes over-the-top tastes of the dead aren't necessarily granted more critical leeway than those of the living. Some professional auction mavens have sharp claws, which they brandish while pointing out, in stage whispers, a minor imperfection in a Chinese lacquered box or an especially garish Dresden figurine.

But there's also a palpable feeling of pleasure that pervades any gathering of people with a shared obsession. The bargain-hunting faithful drifted from object to object in clumps of twos and threes, exclaiming while pausing to replenish their wine glasses or pluck hors d'oeuvres from a silver tray. A striking portrait of the silky-haired, gray-eyed Merian Stoll, nicknamed "Dallas" for her hometown, stared from a wall. "Ninety-five percent of portraits you see done from life are pretty miserable," Smith said. "They're what I call Sears, Roebuck portraits. These are actually very good."

There's a strong sense of playfulness in the dollhouses, vintage Lionel trains, porcelain tchotchkes and other objects that the couple apparently lavished on each other. "It's that wonderful Hollywood thing about not quite growing up," said Cameron Whiteman, Butterfields' senior vice president of business development.

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