Treasures of a Legend
Van Cliburn auction includes silver, gifts from Russians and, of course, a piano
On March 4-5, Christie’s offers collectors the rare opportunity to procure treasures from the estate of renowned musician Van Cliburn, who died a year ago at his Fort Worth home. The New York auction, dubbed Two Distinguished American Collections, also features pieces from the estate of Noreen Drexel.
But it’s the Van Cliburn collection that speaks most to Capera Ryan, senior vice president and managing director, Southwest region, for Christie’s, who selected some of her favorite pieces in the slideshow above. She recounts with fondness her time spent with “sweet Van,” a cherished family friend.
“The objects he collected in a way tell the story of his life,” Ryan says. “As he played all over the world, he’d always buy himself something. He collected everything, and he went after it passionately. He didn’t have children; these objects were like his family.”
“The objects he collected in a way tell the story of his life,” says Capera Ryan, a senior VP at Christie’s and friend of Van Cliburn’s.
Silver was one of Van Cliburn’s great loves, a passion he inherited from his mother and aunt, who were also big silver collectors. “The oval tea tray [lot 445] to me is very reminiscent of his passion for English silver,” Ryan says. “He had it in his library. It just makes me think of him.”
Russian pieces also figure prominently among the auction items, of course, as the pianist skyrocketed to fame in 1958, when, at the tender age of 23, he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. In addition to buying himself collectibles during his travels, he would often receive gifts from the Russians he encountered as he toured.
“The Russian pieces say so much about his connection to the country,” says Ryan, who also remembers attending a Russian gala with Van Cliburn and watching young Russian women approach him as if he were a rock star. It was in that moment, she says, that she truly understood his celebrity status in that country.
Naturally, the Christie’s auction also includes a C. Bechstein piano, dated 1869. It was a gift to Van Cliburn from his mother, who taught music. “He had seven pianos in his house. A piano of Van’s is such a collectible item,” Ryan says.
Ryan got to know Van Cliburn in 2012, when Christie’s held its first auction featuring items from his estate. (You can watch an interview from that time in the video below.) The pianist considered Ryan’s grandmother, Deborah Moncrief, a good luck charm, and he would often send her lavish bouquets of flowers after a performance. By 2012, Moncrief had passed, but Ryan says her grandmother is what bonded her to Van Cliburn.
As they catalogued the pieces in that 2012 auction, the two shared fond memories of Ryan’s grandmother. Van Cliburn also had an incredible memory of his objects and shared elaborate stories about each, from the provenance and the artist to where he bought it and even how much he paid for it. Ryan says he saw beauty in everything and had impeccable taste, which is reflected in the assortment of items up for bid.
Ryan also notes that Van Cliburn truly enjoyed his collections and, as an avid entertainer, put items like his silver to good use. They didn’t sit around collecting dust. They were very much a part of his household, and he took great pleasure in sharing them with those who visited his home.
“He had everything out, in view,” Ryan says. “He enjoyed these things. He served food on his silver. It was as much about collecting as enjoying.”
The upcoming auction is bittersweet, Ryan says, because the musician wasn’t there to relate the stories of how he acquired his beloved objects and the lives they had before coming into his possession. But she knows these treasures will live on, creating memories for their new owners, just as Van Cliburn himself lives on through his music.
“I can see the similarity between Van the collector and the objects themselves,” Ryan says. “I think he believed in many lives.”
The auction, Two Distinguished American Collections, takes place March 4-5 in New York. Bidders can register by telephone, bid online or in person. The pieces will be on view at Christie's New York — open to the public — for a week preceding the sale.