Bay Area animal group to benefit from Joan Rivers estate sale

NEW YORK (KTVU & AP) — An auction this week in New York will offer up dozens of unique items belonging to the late comedian Joan Rivers and a Bay Area organization will be the beneficiary of part of the proceeds.  

"The world lost a great comedienne and a fabulous supporter of Guide Dogs for the Blind," said Janet Benjamin, an administrator with the organization, which has its headquarters in San Rafael.

 Rivers died in 2014 during a botched throat surgery. She had been scheduled to be a keynote speaker at a Guide Dogs event just a few weeks later. 

Now, more than two hundred items are being auctioned off by Christies, in both an online auction open until June 23, and a live auction to be held in New York on June 22. While Rivers was known for her biting humor, she was 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.

"This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived," said Rivers in a 2010 documentary, showing off her Manhattan penthouse, which was full of French antiques. Her decor was as flamboyant as she was. Up for grabs are furnishings, couture gowns, jewelry and designer handbags.

Most of her belongings range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, with some rare antiques offered at $100,000 and up.  The sale is part of 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.

"I do know we are going to be receiving a portion of the proceeds," Benjamin said. "But we have no idea how much that will be!" 

The 11-acre campus in San Rafael, along with another facility in Oregon, serve as hubs to breed and train Labrador dogs and golden retrievers to assist the blind. 

River's daughter, Melissa, will determine the amount of the gift after the auction is complete.  Melissa, 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.'"

Only one other non-profit will share in the philanthropy: a New York based agency that prepares and delivers meals to people who are too sick to cook for themselves.  

"A lot of her things come from Harry Winston and Chanel and Faberge, so those are certainly going to go for quite a bit of money," enthused Benjamin.  

Every year about three hundred dogs and clients are paired and trained, and never at any cost to the blind recipients.   

"I love her already," said Alysa Chadrow while petting the head of her new black lab named Carmel. The duo are in their final week of training before Chadrow, a teacher, takes Carmel home to Alameda. 

She has had two guide dogs previously, each working for about ten years before retirement. 

"They give you a sense of freedom and independence you don't get when you use a cane, " Chadrow said "because they are the ones who are going to get you around the pole or the garbage can or to stop at the curb."  

It costs about $31,000 to train a dog and handler, and there are ongoing expenses, as the organization helps with support and veterinary care where needed. 

Joan Rivers has been donation to the agency since the 1980's, when she and Melissa first visited the facility. 

"This bowl was engraved for Miss River's most famous dog Spike, " described Benjamin, pointing out a silver Tiffany dog bowl offered at an anticipated bid of $500 and up. 

Alongside it, a silk pagoda dog bed, which Spike apparently never slept in. It's expected to fetch at least $1000. 

Much of the clothing is red-carpet ready: dramatic and sparkly, a far cry from the scrubs puppy handlers wear as they work. 

Both staff and clients are thrilled with Rivers' gift and the visibility that comes with it. 

"I've always loved her, I mean who hasn't loved Joan Rivers, she was a wonderfully funny," said Chadrow. 

And wonderfully generous, too. 

Rivers' estate has also sent about forty pieces of costume jewelry to be auctioned off as needed, probably at GDB's upcoming fundraiser, Canine Heroes, on September 24. 

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:

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."

KTVU reporter Debora Villalon and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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