In the mid-1980s, Susan and John Gutfreund were the queen and king of New York’s high-society scene, making their mark in Page Six with their high-flying galas and high-falutin’ homes.
According to a rather uncharitable article in Vanity Fair in 1991, Susan spent money like it was flowing from a faucet: sending a $700 orchid tree to decline a dinner invitation, having a 22-foot Christmas tree hoisted by winch through her home’s window, and once renting out the World Heritage site Blenheim Palace for a party.
John was the CEO of Salomon Brothers, an investment bank that symbolized NYC’s go-go money-making attitude of the era. Business Week anointed him the “King of Wall Street.” But the king was dethroned — forced to resign and scandalized in society — in 1991 after the firm admitted to violating rules for bidding on US Treasury bonds.
At the time, Vanity Fair reported, Salomon traders allegedly organized a betting pool on when the luxury-loving Susan might file for divorce. She did flee Manhattan for a while, spending time in Paris and Nantucket. But Susan eventually came back, and she and John stayed in their 12,000-square-foot duplex at the Rosario Candela-designed 834 Fifth Ave. building, which she sold in 2019 — five years after his death at age 86 — for $53 million.
Now, Susan is ready to let go of the past. Christie’s is auctioning off more than 665 lots — artworks, furniture and jewelry that made up 90 percent of the belongings in the couple’s former 20-room duplex.
“I’m a widow living with a chihuahua and I really didn’t see the need to keep all these pieces,” Susan Gutfreund, 74, told The Post. “It gives me a clean slate.”
Christie’s has placed high estimate of $7.4 million on the entire collection, although it cost the Gutfreunds many more millions to decorate their home. Will Strafford, senior international specialist of European furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s, said that changing tastes have led to depreciating value.
“People have turned to much more contemporary, cleaner interiors, and less formal interiors,” he told The Post, nothing that there are still “many beautiful pieces, rare pieces and valuable pieces.”
Among them are Susan’s collection of rare jewelry worn by models in Chanel haute-couture runway presentations.
She counted Karl Lagerfeld, the longtime creative director of Chanel who died of cancer in 2019, as a friend. The two were so close that he would he invite her to view seating arrangements the night before a fashion show.
“These were never retailed,” she revealed of the 106 pieces, including earrings, necklaces and cuffs. “These were things he just made for [one] outfit in the show … [They’re] very different from what you could go downstairs and buy in the boutique.”
The priciest item up for bid is a Gripoix glass and faux pearl necklace-and-earrings set, which features draping green leaves and carries an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. Susan said they are ideal “if you’re invited to the south of France or to Southampton in the summer.”
Other lots include oversize faux pearl and resin earrings in the shape of urns and a Gripoix glass necklace and brooch with matching cross pendants. Each set is expected to go for between $3,000 and $5,000.
“I’d wear them a lot when I traveled and didn’t want to necessarily take good jewelry. Or to a bistro on a Sunday night and you didn’t feel like it was the night to be wearing any important jewelry,” Susan said of the costume pieces, some of which she’s never worn.
She plans aims to donate the proceeds from the jewelry to a cancer organization or a hospital in Lagerfeld’s honor.
“I really want to give back with that collection,” she said.
Of course, it wasn’t just Susan who was well-decorated. The “Winter Garden” — the most lavish room in the Gutfreunds’ duplex — was outfitted with Chinese wall panels, gilt furniture and an elaborately painted ceiling. The Vanity Fair story mentioned how Susan would fly in bands from Paris to entertain guests in the room.
But amid all that grandeur stood a more understated table designed by the Swiss sculptor Diego Giacometti; its auction estimate is between $80,000 and $120,000.
“It’s actually very apart from the rest of the collection,” said Strafford of the 20th-century bronze table, which depicts vines wrapping around each leg. Henri Samuel, the celebrated interior decorator who designed the Gutfreunds’ 834 Fifth home, commissioned it from Giacometti himself a year before the artist passed away in 1986.
“Only the really elite were able to have access to Giacometti’s works in his lifetime,” Strafford said. “It’s sort of entering the most exclusive private club.”
That’s certainly how Susan felt when she chose to place it among her home’s more ornamental pieces.
“I was crazy about it,” she said. “That’s the whole thing about doing a place — it has to be the yin and the yang. It’s having something strong next to something in silk.”
Susan was well known for throwing lavish parties: fundraising lunches, holiday gatherings and book parties for such figures as the controversial Princess Michael of Kent. She recalled to The Post how she would attend conferences all over the world, including at the Palace of Versailles, to study tablescapes.
(According to the Vanity Fair story: “The jaded jet-setters who came to view Susan’s buffets, with spun-sugar fruits and birdcages made out of pasta, dismissed these painstakingly plotted affairs as the work of ‘a frustrated set designer.’”)
In the spring and summer months, she tended to bring out her 400-plus-piece Royal Copenhagen porcelain dinnerware, in the “Flora Danica” pattern.
“That gave me great pleasure,” Susan said of the set — which, with an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, is expected to be the most expensive lot in the auction.
“This is a particularly extensive service,” said Strafford. “That’s what makes it so valuable, because usually we sell fragments of services in our sales — sets of 15, 20 plates or a couple of serving pieces.”
Susan also outfitted her dining room, facing Fifth Avenue, with a pair of Russian tazze — essentially, platformed platters — in Kalkan jasper and Orietz rhodonite, purchased in Paris.
“I thought they added a lot of strength to the dining room,” she said of the stately pieces, which now carry an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000.
A few of the items were brought over from the Gutfreunds’ former home at the River House in Sutton Place, including an 18th-century carpet from the esteemed Moorfields manufactory in England. She and John picked it up at London’s C. John gallery after having lunch at Harry’s Bar across the street.
“Would you like to see something unique?” Gutfreund recalled the salesperson asked them before taking them downstairs and unrolling just a portion of the carpet, which has an auction estimate between $100,000 and $150,000.
Moorfields would tap architect Robert Adam to design important commissions, such as this one, and the patterns often reflected the ceilings of the rooms for which they were designed. Very few of the carpets still exist today.
“This is a really rare opportunity,” said Strafford.
Susan hopes that her belongings go to collectors who love them — and maybe even display them as ornately — as she did.
Said the former Pan Am stewardess turned NYC high-society doyenne: “ I feel like I’m responsible for those things.”
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