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Spirit of Studio 54 electrifies Palm Beach Modern's auction of Steve Rubell archive
Cocktail table in the manner of Gio Ponti (Italian, 1891-1979) pictured in ‘Domus, Taschen 1955-1959,’ pg. 112. Auctioned for $40,800. Palm Beach Modern Auctions image.
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.- They partied like it was 1979 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions’ January 19th sale of Studio 54 photographs and memorabilia from the estate of the late Steve Rubell. Personally amassed 25 years ago by the charismatic co-owner of New York’s most famous discotheque, the collection of mementos headlined a $1 million auction that also included important modern design and furnishings evocative of the Studio 54 era. The Rubell collection accounted for $316,680 of the day’s tally.

The auction-day atmosphere at Palm Beach Modern’s exhibition space was, in a word, “festive,” said auctioneer and co-owner Rico Baca. “We worked very hard to make it an event people would remember. How many auctions have you been to where there’s a cocktail bar, lavish hors d’oeuvres, valet parking and a drag queen on roller skates handing out candy?” Baca asked. As a nod to Steve Rubell, there was even Cristal champagne on hand for VIPs.

Normally, 100 to 125 people might turn out for one of Palm Beach Modern’s auctions, Baca said, but at the January 19 affair, attendance topped 400 and included a number of individuals who had flown in from New York. That was in addition to phone bidders and the nearly 700 people worldwide who participated via the Internet through LiveAuctioneers.com.

The highest-priced piece in the Studio 54 collection was a metal sculpture with a stenciled dollar-bill motif that Andy Warhol had given to his close friend Rubell in 1981. Believed unique, the artwork was purchased by Jim Elkind, owner of Lost City Arts in New York City, for $52,800. Another gift, an original Michael Vollbracht graffiti-style portrait titled “Steve Birthday” sold to an online bidder for $18,000.

Bidding was intense over the many dozens of black-and-white photographs taken of celebrity guests partying inside Studio 54.

“Movie stars, athletes, politicians and entertainers – everybody who was anybody back in the late 1970s and early ’80s made an appearance at Studio 54, and there were always photographers around,” said Baca. “What’s amazing to me is that the photographers who took these pictures were from many different media organizations. But every one of the pictures turned out amazing, no matter who took it. I think that’s because the environment Steve and his business partner Ian Schrager created was magical – Disneyland for the beautiful people.”

Prices included $1,320 for a photo of Truman Capote shaking his booty on the dance floor at Elizabeth Taylor’s 46th birthday party, $2,520 for a picture of Salvador Dali and “Purple Rain” co-star Apollonia; and $2,520 for a lively depiction of Rubell with Diana Ross and fashion designer Halston exiting the club in formal attire. A poignant shot of Rubell pleading with a New York City fire marshal not to shut down the venue, which had just been flooded with heart-shape candies in preparation for a Valentine’s Day party, sold for $3,900.

Several Polaroid photographs that Warhol took of Rubell with his famous pals proved especially popular with bidders. A candid shot of a closely huddled group that included Tina Turner, Cher, Rod Stewart and then-wife Alana Stewart was chased to a final bid of $11,400. Another picture of Rubell with his fellow revelers, including Grace Jones, reached $12,000.

A Studio 54 front-door reservation book in which Rubell noted the names of expected guests and whether or not they were to receive free entry or drinks tickets was purchased for $7,200. Rubell’s personal address book containing the names and addresses of many of his high-profile friends made $7,800.

Baca and his business partner Wade Terwilliger spent the better part of a year hand-selecting exceptional modern furnishings and decorative art to complement the Rubell collection at auction. A circa-1955 cocktail table in the manner of Gio Ponti led the section with a selling price of $40,800. A circa-1960 sofa and chairs in the manner of Marco Zanuso sold as consecutive lots, jointly realizing $15,000. An elegant circa-1960 Maria Pergay silver-plated cocktail table served up a winning bid of $19,200; while a rare Paul Evans “Cityscape” cabinet closed at $12,000. Recalling the conversation pits so popular around 1970, a Milo Baughman 3-piece semicircular sectional sofa with revolving cocktail table and two rosewood sofa tables retired at $9,600. The catalog’s cover lot, an Ico Parisi (attrib.) multifaceted sphere bar on tripod base garnered $18,000.

The auction of slightly over 400 lots lasted more than 8½ hours. “Nothing was a quick sell. Every item in the Rubell collection had multiple bidders after it,” said Baca. “After the sale, we had calls from people asking if there were any unsold items they could buy, but there wasn’t a thing left. Everything in the collection was sold.”

Since 1989, the year of Rubell’s death, the Studio 54 archive had remained in the care of his close friend, fashion designer Bill Hamilton. Last year Hamilton decided it was time to part with the collection and share its contents with the world.

An avalanche of publicity followed the auction announcement, with coverage from the Associated Press, New York Times, New York Post and literally hundreds of other newspapers worldwide. Several TV news organizations visited Palm Beach Modern Auctions’ exhibition space to interview Baca and Terwilliger; Sirius Radio produced a program about the event, and even the urbane Charlie Rose – who, by his own admission, never visited Studio 54 – narrated a special segment about the auction for CBS This Morning.

“The media definitely recognized this auction for what it was – a chance to revisit a unique time and place. I think everyone wanted to ‘be there’ just one more time,” said Baca.



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