Sunglasses for $27,000? A desk for $60,000? Joan Didion's estate sale made big bucks

Author Joan Didion sits in her New York apartment on Sept. 26, 2005.
The belongings of writer Joan Didion, who died last year, went up for auction this week. (Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

"We all know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a time when we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead."

Joan Didion wrote that in "A Year of Magical Thinking," her 2005 memoir in which she grieved the 2003 death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne.

"Let them become the photograph on the table," Didion added.

On Wednesday, nearly one year after Didion's own death, an online estate sale of her belongings was held in New York City. Among the 224 items up for grabs, both the photograph (a 1968 portrait of Didion by Julian Wasser) and the table (an oak desk she used in her office) were sold for a combined total of $87,000 — far beyond their projected worth.

Along with other pieces of furniture and her book and fine-art collections, the items were from Didion's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, according to Stair Galleries, the auction house behind "An American Icon: Property From the Collection of Joan Didion."

Proceeds will go toward the Sacramento Historical Society, which will benefit the Sacramento City College's scholarship for women writers, and Parkinson’s research and patient care at Columbia University.

Didion, a Sacramento native, died in December 2021 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease at age 87 in her New York home.

"It's been an honor working with the collection," said Colin Stair, president of Stair Galleries, in a statement following the close of the auction. "And we are so pleased that the proceeds will be benefiting two important charities that represent Joan Didion in both her hometown of Sacramento, and in New York City where she spent the end of her life."

By the close of the sale late Wednesday, the auction had generated more than $1.9 million, according to the auction house.

Didion, whose work is the "elusive" subject of a new exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, was a major influence on the literary world. Perhaps in an attempt to memorialize her, fans paid massive sums in Wednesday's sales, often exceeding estimated values.

Lisa Thomas, director of the Fine Arts Department at Stair Galleries, said it's common for sales at a high-profile auction to surpass their typical market value. But even so, some of the bids exceeded even her own expectations.

"Some of these prices are unusually high, even given where they come from," Thomas told The Times. "$27,000 for a pair of sunglasses seems like a lot. I was pleasantly surprised."

Thomas was referring to arguably the buzziest of items in the auction, a pair of Céline faux tortoise-shell sunglasses, which were expected to fetch several hundred dollars but sold for $27,000. In some of the more iconic images of Didion, she is seen donning such thick-framed sunglasses.

Didion wrote in a 2011 essay for Vogue that among her childhood fantasies was to stand in front of a South American public building, recently divorced, "wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi."

Several other pairs of sunglasses sold for a more modest $4,250, while a bundle of prescription glasses went for $10,000.

Though Didion's final days were spent in New York, she lived much of her life in California — and was deeply associated with it. The aforementioned photo, which sold for $26,000, was a framed portrait of Didion from the iconic 1968 Time magazine shoot, where she is seen with a cigarette in hand, leaning against her Stingray Corvette parked in the driveway of the Hollywood house she shared with her husband.

black and white photo of a woman standing kissing a sitting man on the head, surrounded by books
Joan Didion, left, and husband John Gregory Dunne photographed in 1987. (Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times)

Some of the items at Wednesday's sale were originally from California before making their way to Didion's Manhattan apartment, including one of the largest sales, an office desk with a blend of oak, maple and walnut, built in Sacramento, which sold for $60,000.

The largest sale of the auction was an oil painting of Didion from 1977, which was estimated at $3,000 to $5,000. It sold for $110,000. Didion was photographed in front of the painting numerous times, the auction house said.

For the item that received the most bids — 49 — buyers scrambled over a framed, 6- by 4-inch paper cutout of an invitation to an art exhibition by American artist Bruce Nauman. Estimated value: $200 to $300. Final sale: $32,500.

In Didion's 1968 collection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," she wrote an essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," where she ruminated on her impulse to write things down in notebooks in order to "record what we see around us."

The romance of that essay wasn't lost on buyers, who snatched up bundles of Didion's blank notebooks for $11,000 a piece.

Thomas was also pleased by the hefty price tags on smaller items, such as a paperweight and other desk items, which collectively sold for nearly $20,000.

The auction, which began Wednesday morning after accruing pre-bids, wrapped up late in the afternoon with its final sale: six silver candlesticks for a mere $8,000.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.