Mrs. Astor’s Chattel

Recently I spent a pleasant hour gawking at the belongings of deceased socialite/philanthropist, Brooke Astor.

Brooke Astor in 1980, from the New York Times. Click for source.

Sotheby’s is auctioning Mrs. Astor’s  tangible personal property next week so it is on display at Sotheby’s mothership at 72nd Street  and York Avenue in Manhattan.

Mrs. Astor’s lion pin.  She loved animals. Image from Jewel-History. Click for source.

If you have not heard of Mrs. Astor, perhaps you will enjoy this very quick summary of her complicated, fascinating (and sad at the end) life.  Then, I hope you will be inspired to go have a look at all her stuff.

Mrs. Astor became wealthy when she married her third husband, Vincent Astor (whose moneyed father had perished on the Titanic).  Vincent was a “difficult” person, but luckily for Brooke, he died six years into their marriage, leaving her millions.   Brooke enjoyed giving away his money and she was a generous supporter of many New York charitable institutions.  She was also a popular  figure in the social whirl of the internationally rich and famous.

Mrs. Astor died in August, 2007, at age 105.  She was domiciled at an estate called “Holly Hill” in Briarcliff Manor, Westchester County, New York although she also owned a big Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan and a house in Maine.

Three months after her death, Anthony Marshall (her then 83 year old son from her abusive first husband who she married when she was 17) was indicted for grand larceny and 15 other counts of defrauding his mother and stealing from her as well as possessing stolen property and falsifying business records.  An estate planning attorney, Francis X. Morrissey, was indicted as a co-conspirator.

The state alleged that Mrs. Astor had been stricken with Alzheimers in her later years and that the co-defendants conspired to steal millions from her.  Read this wonderful article in Vanity Fair for the appalling dirt.  Also read this excellent paper on the Astor case and elder abuse by CUNY Law School Professor, Joseph Rosenberg in the Pace Law Review.

The criminal trial was epic.  It lasted six months and many rich and famous people testified.  I went often because it was so entertaining.  Every day, Anthony’s third (much younger) wife, Charlene, came to court and sat on a pillow.  The sub-text of the trial was that Charlene was the motivation for Anthony’s criminality – he was attempting to amass a stash of cash for her.  Mrs. Astor did not care for Charlene (who had left her minister husband to run off with Anthony).

Anthony and Charlene from The New York Post. Click for source.

Finally, in October, 2009 after 12 days of deliberation, the jury found Anthony guilty of 14 of the 16 counts.  Months later, he was sentenced to 1-3 years.  As of now, September 2012, his case is still on appeal and I suppose he’s in no hurry for a decision as he’s now 88 years old and physically unwell.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Astor’s will was filed for probate in Westchester County Surrogate’s Court.  New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman represented a number of charities that were beneficiaries under earlier versions of Mrs. Astor’s wills (from before Anthony began messing with her estate plan after she’d lost her sound mind and memory).

Flags 5th Avenue by Childe Hassam. This was Mrs. Astor’s favorite painting. She had bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum but Anthony sold it before she died so he could earn a commission on the sale. Image from Art Market Monitor – click for source.

Last March, 2012, the interested parties reached an agreement that essentially honored a 2002 will but not the later codicils to it.  Anthony agreed to half of what he’d expected.  He settled for $14.6 million and according to Vanity Fair  he owes his criminal lawyers $11.5 million. The New York Post says he’s living a much more humble existence these days and that he and Charlene have become “pariahs”.  Charlene did receive one of Brooke’s fur coats (a catty disposition from Mrs. Astor  because Charlene is full-figured and Brooke was a twig) and a bunch of diamonds.

The settlement provides $100 million to charitable organizations including the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Prospect Park, Carnegie Hall, a bunch of playgrounds and other tax exempt entities. It also creates a new $30 million charitable fund to improve education in New York City.

You can browse Sotheby’s catalogue of Mrs. Astor’s treasures online.  She loved dogs and there are dozens of dog paintings up for sale. There are also some gorgeous pieces of jewelry and art,  tons of fancy furniture, hundreds of books, many sets of china and silver pieces, huge rugs, and even some super-cool servant’s outfits that look like ones on display at Versailles.

Some of the dog paintings and furniture. Image from The New York Times. Click for source.

Now, don’t you want to go?  I hope so!  When you get to Sotheby’s, ask for the elevators and ascend to the 10th floor to enjoy a view of the varied theengs of  a civic-minded and generous woman whose property will continue to promote good works after her passing.

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