“Perhaps be slightly wary of using your paddle as a fan this evening,” cautions Sotheby’s Australia auctioneer Martin Gallon.
The illustrious auction house has taken over the Elston Room in Redfern’s Carriageworks to preside over The Art of Divorce, Russell Crowe’s bizarre and well-publicised auction to finance the dissolution of his marriage to Danielle Spencer.
On a hot and muggy Sydney Saturday evening, the auction staff somehow keep themselves from sweating through their tuxedos, but the climate is not the only thing that doesn’t quite match the host’s unflappable primness. As tables of immaculately dressed assistants to the seriously rich prepare to take phone and internet bids, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts hits warble through the room’s speakers.
“I’d put it in the driveway”, he deadpans. “Take it down to Roads and Maritime, get it registered.”
Things kick off with a series of collectibles from Crowe’s movies. Lot 1, a shirt and other items from the 1991 movie Proof, sells for an internet bid of $650. Things escalate quickly. The next item, the brown Doc Marten boots from 1992 film Romper Stomper, net $10,000. The buyer? National Museum of Australia, which also hands over $2,000 for Crowe’s costume from 1993 movie The Silver Brumby.
But the first big-ticket item up for grabs is the famous Gladiator breastplate. Starting at $20,000, the asking price doubles in seconds. Triples. Quadruples. “Someone’s keen!” Gallon enthuses.
Eventually the bidding tops out at $125,000, sparking a small squall of Gladiator fever. The breastplate’s matching wrist cuffs go for $32,000. The wooden sword gets $20,000. The metal one, $70,000. Owen, in black jeans and a crisp blue formal shirt, takes the chariot home for $65,000. “Something for the man cave,” he grins.
His impeccable Oxbridge accent echoing off the stained factory walls, Gallon is delightfully chipper, as only someone who gets paid to coax rich people out of their money could be. When the first full-size, unsettlingly lifelike Gladiator prop horse comes up on screen behind him, Gallon does a double-take. “Look at that! Something for everyone!”
From nowhere, a woman takes the stage and begins to sing Happy Birthday. Besides being his erstwhile wedding anniversary, Crowe has scheduled The Art of Divorce on his own 54th birthday, perhaps to gift himself an almighty pile of money. A mildly befuddled audience joins in the “hip hip hoorays” at her urgings, which seem odd on behalf of someone who is not here.
Only, he is. Bearded and beaming, Crowe bounces onstage to talk up Lot 31, an 1890 Milanese violin crafted by master luthier Leandro Bisiach Sr and used in the 2003 drama Master and Commander. “This is just a suggestion,” Crowe says, but the buyer “might want to lend it to a young musician so it carries on and starts to play in the concert halls around the world”. Gesturing to a woman in a cocktail dress below him, he suggests: “This young lady, standing right here, may be the young musician that you may want to give the violin to.”
Bridget O’Donnell, a member of the Australian Youth Orchestra, takes the stage to play two pieces from Master and Commander, accompanied on the cello by Hanna Oblikov. As you would hope from a violin that ends up going for $135,000, it sounds pretty bloody nice.
Besides the Gladiator paraphernalia, many of Crowe’s movie costumes are in high demand. His Royal Navy dress blues from Master and Commander goes for $115,000. The blue sleeveless vest he wore as Javert in Les Miserables fetches $12,000. The primeval leather jockstrap from Cinderella Man was expected to go for between $500 and $600, but a handful of disquietingly eager phone bidders push it up to $7,000.
As the crowd thins down to the serious bidders, things begin to get truly baroque. The mosasaur skull Russell picked up from Leonardo DiCaprio via the late Cretaceous period, fetches $65,000. A 17th century Flemish tapestry the size of a billboard goes for $24,000, presumably to adorn someone’s private aircraft hangar. A pair of 18th century duelling pistols go for $26,000 and a bronze warship cannon sells straight after for $20,000.
But it’s Crowe’s stunning collection of Australian artwork that fetches the highest prices. The aficionados checking out the Sydney Biennale at the other end of the complex would have nosebleeds if they realised what they were missing out on. The first artwork to go under the hammer, the exquisite still life Bush Flowers by Margaret Olley, takes $70,000. Sidney Nolan’s Abundance does one better, fetching $100,000. Brett Whiteley’s Moreton Bay Fig and Palms goes for $190,000; Charles Blackman’s The Suitor for $360,000. The selling prices don’t include the 22% tax Sotheby’s places on each item.
The night ends, more than five hours after it started, with a brisk trade in jewellery and no fewer than 28 watches. The mysterious potentates on the other end of the phone bids go berserk. As the bids creep north of $10,000, solemn-looking men in the audience duel with their paddles. An Armani watch that doesn’t work sells for $1,100. A Rolex that does nets $40,000.
In a late-night Tweet after everyone’s gone home, Crowe tallies up his winnings. “$3.7m at the coal face and around $350k of conversations ongoing,” he says. “Not a bad hourly rate for a 5 hour shift.”
London, March 10th, 1816
In the company of her maid, Rowena left Madame Améline’s shop on Bond Street after a full afternoon of choosing and fitting for a new wardrobe. She was exhausted but content, because the effort had been worth it.
“Oh, milady, you’re going to be so beautiful in those fabulous gowns! And the pelisses and coats, the hats and gloves, and …”
“Yes, Trixie, I know, and I am counting on you to take care of it all when it is delivered. Come, we must return to the hotel. It is nearly Emma’s feeding time.”
They waited for their footman to hand them into the carriage, and Rowena sighed with relief when she lowered herself down onto the lush cushions. Her feet were very sore, and she was dying for a cup of tea.
She must have spent a fortune, she mused. Would Alex mind about her spending? It was he who insisted on arranging an account at Madame’s shop, because his wife needed to be fitted out properly for London. No expenses must be spared, he said, but Rowena worried all the same.
The trip to Town had gone smoothly, and little Emma Rose had been no trouble at all. She slept through the journey whenever the carriage rumbled along. Alex had insisted on putting her in a large wicker basket which he personally secured firmly onto the leather squabs in the carriage. He also instructed Nanny Bessy to sit beside it and watch over Emma at all costs. Rowena could not help smiling at her husband’s excessive protective sense.
Alex had secured a suite at Mivart’s hotel in Mayfair, a modest but excellent establishment that had opened some four years before. The Raventhorpe family did no longer possess a town house, since Reginald, the fourth earl, sold it to pay off his many debts. Alex could not help himself though and on one of their outings, he had showed Rowena the beautiful mansion on Park Lane that had once been Raventhorpe House. It now belonged to a rich cotton manufacturer from Manchester.
London Society, however, was rapidly changing, as common people began acquiring wealth from the growing industries in the north of England. They might still be given the cut direct by the aristocracy to whom they were often money lenders, but they were enhancing their positions through clever investments and hard work. Hotels such as Mivart’s cleverly responded to the needs of rich business men who did not want to waste money on expensive town houses. All the comforts of home could be found in such establishment for a reasonable price, which suited everyone all the same.
When Rowena entered their suite, she could hear Emma’s loud protest at being left hungry for too long. She hastened to the bedroom where she found Bessy walking up and down the room shushing the two-month-old infant in her arms.
“Hush, hush, my darling! Mummy is here now, come, my precious.” Rowena took Emma from her nanny and sat down in the rocking chair near the windows. It was a very nice gesture from the hotel management, she found, to have provided such a useful item of furniture. Soon Emma was suckling happily, and Rowena could finally relax.
She had not realized just how exhausted she was, until her head started nodding forward. The voice of her husband asking Tracy where Rowena was brought her back to the present. Alex entered, concern clouding his handsome features. He was holding a stack of letters and sat down in an armchair near the fire place, groaning with frustration.
“What is it, Alex?”
“Invitations to several routs, and I will be damned if I know how they found out we were even in Town!”
They could, of course, not escape the Ton, so Alex and Rowena picked their acceptances very carefully.
The first event they attended was a ball held by Mrs John Scott, whose husband was a distinguished member of parliament and a successful lawyer. Their sumptuous mansion on Park Lane was frequently the scene of important cultural events.
For the occasion, Rowena had donned one of her new gowns, an elegant Empire style dress in fine buttercup yellow silk. Alex was resplendent in his black-and-white evening attire.
“May I complement you on your appearance, my dear?” Alex said, as soon as they were seated in their carriage. “You look exquisite in that gown.”
“You look very beautiful yourself, my lord,” Rowena parried, winking at him, which brought a blush to his impeccably shaven cheeks. “However, Alex, you must tell me who are our aristocratic hosts for tonight. I would not want to make mistakes on our first London soirée.”
“Well … Mr and Mrs Scott are no aristocrats but commoners,” Alex replied, smiling at Rowena’s widening eyes. “He is a successful lawyer and member of parliament, thanks to the family’s wealth obtained from being respectable and hard-working Newcastle merchants. The Right Honourable John Scott also had ascended the Woolsack in 1801, and it is whispered that he has the ear of the prince regent. Nobody will be surprised when he is endowed with a title soon.”
“Why on earth would one ascend a woolsack?” Rowena asked in bewilderment.
Alex laughed. “It is an expression used for someone who fills the position of Lord High Chancellor, presiding the House of Lords, among other matters.”
“Mr Scott is the High Chancellor? I thought only titled gentlemen were allowed to hold that particular position.”
“Ah, but Mr Scott is very close to being a titled gentleman, my dear. There are whispers that Prinny will grant him an earldom in the near future. Mrs Scott, who also comes from a wealthy bankers’ family, will then become a countess. Very neatly done for a couple that eloped to Scotland against their families’ wishes.”
“They eloped? Oh, how romantic!”
Alex chuckled and planted a quick kiss on her mouth. “What a child you are, Rowie, but I am beginning to appreciate that in you. You do not judge people by their wealth or position, but by their humanity and the way they behave towards others. Do not ever change, my dear, please?”
Before Rowena could even think of responding to his unexpected endearment, the carriage stopped and a footman opened the door. They had arrived.
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