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Writer Joan Didion's possessions sell for eye-popping prices at auction

The auction featured a number of items from the office where Joan Didion worked, including two electric typewriters that sold for $5,500 and $6,000, respectively.
Jim Zarroli
The auction featured a number of items from the office where Joan Didion worked, including two electric typewriters that sold for $5,500 and $6,000, respectively.

A pair of faux tortoiseshell sunglasses worn by Joan Didion in a Celine ad sold for $27,000 Wednesday, one of a number of items fetching eye-popping prices at an auction of the late author's furniture, books and household items

The auction, at Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y., netted nearly $2 million, with even ordinary possessions selling for many times the galleries' estimated price, evidence of the continuing fascination with Didion's life and works.

Didion and her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, were friends with many actors, writers and artists, and the auction included signed works by Richard Diebenkorn, Richard Serra, Jennifer Bartlett and Annie Leibovitz.

A lithograph by artist Cy Twombly sold for $50,000, nearly ten times the estimated price, while a Diebenkorn work fetched $85,000.

Even more surprising were the prices fetched for a number of routine possessions, for no apparent reason other than their connection to Didion and Dunne.

A pair of leather wastebaskets went for $5,500, a Random House dictionary for $11,000. A group of desk items, including scissors, a box of pens and a clipboard, brought in $4,250. A collection of seashells went for $7,000.

A small desk clock estimated to be worth no more than $200 ended up going for $35,000, while a silver Revere-style bowl engraved with the monogram JJD and thought to be worth no more than $350 sold for $30,000, nearly 100 times the galleries' estimate.

The item fetching the most money was an oil painting of Didion done by a fan, based on the book jacket cover for her novel A Book of Common Prayer. Didion hung it in a prominent place in the New York City apartment she shared with Dunne and was sometimes photographed near it. It sold for $110,000.

The high prices come at a time when Didion's popularity is surging. During her decades-long career, she was a much-feted and very influential author, turning out screenplays, best-selling novels and several much-admired books of essays.

But since her death last December at age 87, her popularity has only seemed to grow, especially among young people, said Lisa Thomas, Stair's director of fine arts.

"This young generation of 20- and 30-somethings who are really interested in what was happening culturally, artistically, in the late 60s and 70s, they're all interested in her and they're all reading her anew," Thomas said.

"There are a lot of amazing writers from that period, but Didion seems to be the one that has really persisted. People carry around tote bags in New York City with Joan Didion's face on it," said Kelly Burdick, executive editor of the literary magazine Lapham's Quarterly.

Burdick was one of thousands of people who turned out to see the items being sold in the days leading up to the auction.

"It's so incredible to be in this space. To see it all. But just being here is goosebump inducing," said Ellie Reid, 30, one recent afternoon. She had taken the day off from her job in Vermont and driven more than three hours to see the exhibition.

"I have all her books, and there are a couple that I leave one chapter unread because I don't want to finish reading her and there's not going to be anything else after that."

Among the most poignant items sold yesterday was the small drop-leaf table where Dunne was sitting when he had a fatal heart attack in 2003, an event Didion wrote about in her much-celebrated treatise on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking. It sold for $4,250.

Didion suffered from Parkinson's disease, and proceeds from the sale will go to Parkinson's research and care at Columbia University and Columbia/Presbyterian Hospital, as well as to the Sacramento Historical Society, for the benefit of a scholarship fund for women writers at Sacramento City College.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.