Joan Rivers was many things: brash and brassy comedian, queen of QVC, petite mistress of great big gowns.
Lesser known, perhaps, was her penchant for collecting — from Faberge objets d'art to fine French furniture. Her East 62nd Street penthouse, a former ballroom, was filled with it and nearly two years after her death at 81, her daughter, Melissa Rivers, felt it time to clean house.
With the help of Christie's New York, she made her way through rooms and rooms of memories, deciding what she couldn't emotionally part with, what she would hold onto for archival purposes and what she would donate to charity so they could put on auctions of their own.
What was left is now the Private Collection of Joan Rivers, with more than 200 lots to be auctioned in a live sale at Christie's on June 22 and about 80 more offered online at Christies.com through June 23.
Melissa Rivers, in an interview Thursday, was not ready to use the word "cathartic." After all, she said, "It hasn't even been two years." Instead, she's in survivor mode, "taking care of business" in a way she knows her mother would appreciate.
"She never believed that everything should be kept in storage or a bank vault. She always said, 'Use your things, enjoy the things you have,' so I don't have the guilt of 'I need to keep these dishes because this was the set that she used every third Thanksgiving but it's not my favorite.'"
The auction house opened its doors to the media Friday for a preview. There, a couple of Joan's elegant sitting rooms were set up, her inlaid Yearwood desk and chair near a favorite painting by Edouard Vuillard, titled "Dans l'atelier." It dates to about 1915 and is valued at $120,000 to $180,000.
Faberge was a favored brand for the former Beatrice Grushman Molinsky, the daughter of Russian immigrants, furriers who served the court back in the old country. Staying tony in the United States was sometimes a struggle that Joan never forgot. It fueled her furious work ethic. But she believed in using the fine things she and her late husband, Edgar, amassed.
Joan died on Sept. 14, 2014. Many of her zingers were printed on walls for visitors to enjoy as they ogled items up for sale, including this one that speaks volumes about the things she collected:
"Marie Antoinette would have lived here if she had money."
Her approach was far from hands off when it came to sharing her world. Furniture and housewares, whether they were fancy or a tag sale find, were mixed and matched and enjoyed.
Hence antique Faberge picture frames held family photos, including one of Melissa in her University of Pennsylvania hoodie. Among the rarest and most valuable Faberge items up for auction is a small, gold-mounted, bowl-like study in green nephrite of a Lily of the Valley leaf with pearl and diamond details.
"The leaf is by far the rarest and really one of the most exciting Faberge objects that's been on the market in a very long time," said Helen Culver Smith, a Christie's specialist of Russian works of art. "What makes it rare is only two are known, and there's the craftsmanship."
It was made around 1900 in Russia and passed through many hands after it was sold off by the Soviet state. Joan bought it from a London-based Faberge dealer. Its value: $200,000 to $300,000, making it among the most expensive items to be auctioned.
Another item that Melissa remembers fondly is a diamond-and-platinum flower brooch her mother designed, with help from Harry Winston. Joan wore it often and added to it over the years, sitting on the floor with little bits of paper she had cut out to configure new stones. The auction house estimated its value at $30,000 to $50,000.
Melissa had less trouble giving up a silver Tiffany dog bowl engraved for the cantankerous Spike, the now-dead Yorkshire terrier a friend gave her mother as a puppy.
"I call him the empty nest syndrome dog," Melissa laughed. "Spike was given to my mother the same month I left for college. She carried him everywhere and never let him out of her sight and spoiled him ridiculously. It's easy to connect those dots in Psych 101."
Spike did her mother a world of good after the death of her husband in 1987. He comforted her in her darkest hour, she once said, and he appeared with her on "The Tonight Show" and the cover of People magazine.
Known for splashy gowns, there are a few up for sale, including some bedazzled looks from a favorite, Bob Mackie, along with an ochre gown with a custom cape from Oscar de la Renta. She wore it as a presenter at the 1990 Tony Awards.
Though her frame was tiny, Joan's fashion style was outsized. But her taste and keen eye kept her from being swallowed up by the clothes and chunky accessories she chose.
"The clothes didn't wear her. She wore the clothes. She had the style and the presence to pull these things off," Melissa said. "I do not have that ability whatsoever. If you put even a ruffle around my neck I'm just swimming and spitting out feathers."
Among the belongings Melissa kept were some attached to precious, private moments with her mom, including a toothbrush cup.
"I would always be leaning against the wall of her bathroom talking to her when she was getting ready," the daughter recalled. "I would look in the mirror so we could look at each other and the toothbrush cup was always in my sightline, and I never realized that. That to me represents so many of our most intimate moments."
In terms of art, she said close family friend Vincent Price was key in starting her parents on the path of collecting.
"I was very fortunate to have grown up in a home where art was part of our daily life," Melissa said.
But not in a pretentious way, she was quick to note.
"Nothing was off limits. Things were meant to be lived with and enjoyed and appreciated. That's the point of having these things," Melissa added. "So many people nowadays have so many things and there's so many billionaires out there now. It's all about collect, collect, collect."