Celebrity estate sales are guaranteed to be lucrative, determining what we’ll pay for a piece of an icon’s legacy

In the wake of Joan Didion’s death, in December of 2021, a slew of tributes went to press. “The Cult of Saint Joan,” a New York Times headline read. “Saint Joan,” Jezebel and the LA Review of Books more succinctly led. It’s a title the writer earned, in no small part, thanks to her legion of devotees. Didion—whose famously disaffected voice charmed many—had broad cultural footing that was unparalleled, arguably, by any writer in recent history.

Didion was a persona—a celebrity in her own right. The panning-out of her estate sale is a testament to that. The Guardian reported that a pair of faux tortoiseshell Celine sunglasses went for $27,000; a Cartier clock—seemingly broken, whose estimated value was less than $200—sold at $35,000. Outside of the realm of luxury objects, it gets stranger: Wrote Danielle Cohen for the Cut, “Two sets of blank (blank!) notebooks went for $11,000 each. A stained pair of leather trash baskets were auctioned off for $5,500. One lucky (?) soul coughed up $7,000 for the collection of beach trash that once sat on Didion’s mantel.”

It comes as no surprise (to me, at least, a Didion lover since I was 15) that most of the tchotchkes up for auction sold at 10 times what Stair Galleries thought they might. Though I did read one fact that shocked me: A Diebenkorn lithograph, estimated at $70,000, had only garnered a $25,000 bid at the time of one writer’s visit, while more trivial objects—dishware, paper weights, scarves, used books—soared. In the end, the artwork fetched $85,000. Higher than expected, but barely, in relation to most everything else.

This lithograph, it seemed, wasn’t quite like the rest. Maybe it wasn’t close enough to Didion—not like those empty journals, which could have easily been next in her storied lineup (“On Keeping a Notebook”). It was too close, maybe, to something you could buy in any old art gallery. Those Celine glasses had context (that famous ad), as did that pricy “beach trash.” (Did she collect it around her home in Malibu? Or from the beaches of Honolulu, where she reportedly spent “an eccentric amount of time”?)

The obsession around celebrities’ belongings is actually nothing new; Soetheby’s auctioned off Napoleon’s estate, all the way back in 1823. Access was simply democratized, and thus hugely popularized, in the golden age of eBay: a jar of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s breath (fake, apparently) cost one duped fan $530. Niall Horan’s half-eaten piece of toast? A whopping $99,000. J.D. Salinger’s toilet? $1 million, and listed without the author’s knowledge. In 2022, writer Holly Connolly dove into the phenomenon—driven by the question of what, exactly, we’re paying for.

“The celebrity object is the religious relic of the secular age: a lock of Saint Joan’s hair, referenced in her parables, gilded and preserved, promising entry to heaven—or else high society.”

Connolly was curious about the estate sale of Zsa Zsa Gabor—the American socialite and actress, who authored How to Catch a Man, How To Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man, and was survived by her ninth husband, Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. Along with her passport, some pill bottles, clothing, and jewelry, Gabor’s sketches were up for purchase, which she’d done while on trial for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer. “She got 72 hours jail time, 120 hours community service, and had to pay about $13,000 in fines and costs,” Connolly wrote, “But as her lawyer Bull summarized, ‘In her heart she knows she is innocent.’” Connolly rambles on, eventually circling back to her present argument: “If this story seems like a tangent, that’s because it is—but it’s tangents like these that make ordinary objects precious. Tangents are the currency of celebrity auctions.”

If that’s the case, the mad dash for fragments of Didion’s life makes total sense. Her entire oeuvre is a mess of tangents—coolly reported, mundane and unattainable, and often very much driven by the object. A pair of hurricane lamps, journalist Jessica Francis Kane noted, had a cameo in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s masterpiece, in which she grieves her partner and daughter who passed unexpectedly and in quick succession: “One writer’s light-in-a-storm to another? Yes, please.” A scuffed mahogany table—foolishly valued at $1,500—was listed by Stairs with the tangent to end them all: “It was at this table that [Didion’s husband] John Dunne suffered the fatal heart attack that took his life.”

It brings to mind Didion’s packing list, from her essay collection The White Album, which reliably goes viral from time to time. “TO PACK AND WEAR: 2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards… cigarettes, bourbon, bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste,” she lists. “TO CARRY: mohair throw, typewriter, 2 legal pads and pens, files, house key.” It’s pointless to ask, Why does anyone care for these details? Vogue figures it’s her status as a “style icon.” The Times, as “the archpriestess of cool.” Why does anyone rise to the rank of celebrity where people are remotely interested in what’s in their bag? (Information, it seems, fans actually care very deeply about.)

We want proximity—intimacy—for a myriad of reasons, among them admiration, aspiration, and collector’s impulse. Even better if we can connect it to a story we know well. The celebrity object is the religious relic of the secular age: a lock of Saint Joan’s hair, referenced in her parables, gilded and preserved, promising entry to heaven—or else high society. These things were procured, probably, for a variety of reasons: as artworks that will appreciate over time; as vessels of an icon’s distilled spirit; as a slice of Didion’s capital—social, cultural, and, of course, financial. The fact that she’s passed only adds to the fervor, which has dwelled under the surface for years. But you can only achieve sainthood once you’re dead.