Heart-throb hotel: Savoy puts its treasures up for sale

After more than a century, the Savoy is closing its doors for a 100m refit and selling off its treasures. Simon Usborne looks back in wonder
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The Independent Online

It is a balmy July evening in London. A silk-lined gondola, strewn with 12,000 carnations, bobs on a Venetian canal, escorted by pearl-white swans. A baby elephant, groaning under the weight of a 5ft-high birthday cake, is escorted on board the gondola, accompanied by Enrico Caruso, who croons "O Sole Mio" under a paper moon. The scene is illuminated by 400 hand-made paper lamps.

The date is 1905. The occasion is a lavish dinner hosted by the flamboyant Wall Street financier, George Kessler. The place could only be the Savoy.

Secreted at the end of a lane off the Strand in central London, the gleaming steel letters that hang above the hotel's entrance have become a byword for extravagance and opulence. For more than 100 years, the Savoy has attracted a who's-who of Hollywood greats, royalty and celebrities, from Marilyn Monroe to Oscar Wilde, who conducted his clandestine relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas in rooms 346-362, and whose ghost reputedly still paces the hotel's corridors.

Today, as the curtain closes on the grand old dame of hotel world for a 100m facelift set to take 18 months, Wilde's ghost will follow the hotel's living guests and check out of the Savoy to make way for the builders. Also meeting the outgoing bellboys and waiters at the Savoy's revolving doors will be an army of auctioneers from Bonhams, who are gearing up for what promises to be one of the most remarkable sales of the century.

Almost 3,000 items of furniture from the hotel's bedrooms, ballrooms and bars will go under the hammer in an auction that is expected to raise well over a million pounds. Lots include 200 umbrella stands, enough silver butlers' trays to equip an army of Jeeveses, 20 large toast racks and, that kitchen essential, 250 pink-edged muffin dishes (asking price: 100-150 each).

But it's not all branded teapots and silver salvers. The impeccable provenance of some of the more remarkable lots is entwined with the extraordinary history of the hotel. For as little as 1,000, one lucky bidder will take ownership of a painted and gilt double bed (complete with a green and cream tented canopy) which has supported the dance-weary limbs of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Coco Chanel (if not at the same time). Richard Harris, the actor, spent so long at the Savoy before his death in 2002 that his suite (No 758) was named after him. Lots from that room include the sofa and the George III mahogany chest in which he probably kept his socks.

"The Savoy has an incredibly colourful past," says Kiaran MacDonald, the hotel's general manager. "The sense of those who have passed through the doors, and the parties that have been hosted here, is palpable it almost oozes out of the walls."

The thousands of bidders who do flock to next week's sale can expect the event to be more theatrical than the average auction, for the Savoy's history is rooted in the stage. In 1881, the young impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, who was most famous for producing Gilbert and Sullivan's operas, bought the land on the Strand to build the world's first modern theatre and, some years later, the world's most luxurious hotel. He recruited the renowned French hotelier Csar Ritz, who later founded London's second most famous hotel, and the legendary Auguste Escoffier as chef (it was he who invented the Peach Melba in honour of the actress and Savoy guest, Dame Nelly Melba).

The Savoy wowed London high society when it opened in August 1889. Its reputation for unrestrained luxury was unsurpassed it boasted an unheard of 67 fully plumbed bathrooms, and ascending floors (now known as lifts). And, over the years, it has played host to some of London's most outrageous parties. Kessler's gondola dinner was surely its most extravagant.

The al fresco dinner saw the Savoy's forecourt, which was later turned into a Japanese garden to entertain the Japanese Royal Family, and now lies under the Lancaster Ballroom, flooded and turned into a reproduction of Venice. The bill came to 3,000, a fortune at the time. (Kessler presumably also had to pay for the swans, which were overcome by the blue dye in the mock canal).

Neither the gondola nor the Venetian lanterns will appear at next week's sale, joining instead an equally impressive list of Savoy memorabilia that is not for sale. They include the chair on which Marilyn Monroe sat as Laurence Olivier lit her a cigarette at a press conference in 1956, the garden bench on which Bob Dylan took a break from filming the video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues", the giant teddy bear that a lonely Humphrey Bogart reportedly requested to keep him company in his room as he couldn't stand drinking alone and Kaspar the cat, the 3ft-tall statue who has been rolled out by superstitious staff of the Savoy Grill since the 1920s to share the table with bookings of 13.

Also not for sale is the art deco clock that hung in the Savoy's bridal suite when, two years ago, the writer Howard Jacobson was married in the Savoy by the Chief Rabbi. "We spent two nights there and took over half the hotel," says Jacobson. "It was a very lavish event that I'll be paying for for the rest of my life. If we could lay our hands on one thing as a souvenir, it would be that clock". But Jacobson won't be attending the auction. He says: "I feel personally violated that they're selling all this stuff when so many other places want to go back to that look."

In recent years, the Savoy has struggled to retain the celebrity cachet that has defined it for decades its most recent "event" came earlier this year when Amy Winehouse was kicked out of the renowned American Bar for being too rowdy but the management has tried to keep the hotel's arts tradition alive. In 2002, it appointed the novelist and playwright Fay Weldon to be the hotel's first writer in residence.

"I think they did it to bolster the image of the Savoy as a literary place," she says, "but it has ceased to be a literary place, if only because writers don't make enough money to stay there." Weldon, whose grandfather, the writer Edgar Jepson, frequented the Savoy in the 1920s, was given a room with a view of the Thames worth 350 a night, plus breakfast (but not the minibar) for three months while she wrote her latest book.

"It was so comfortable that I didn't do any work at all," she says. "I just watched Kilroy. The mattresses and the pillows were completely amazing. I had the most comfortable sleep I have ever had." Unlike Jacobson, Weldon is tempted to join the Savoy sale, if only to snap up her favourite bed, but calls it "sad" that so much of the Savoy's heritage is being sold. "But I do think it has to develop its own history for the 21st century," she says. "The passing of something is always sad but pass it must. And hotels get a bit grubby, don't they?"

Auction highlights

* Lot 152

The oak parquet dance floor from the Lancaster Ballroom, which comprises 100 sections, inset with fairy lights. Savoy lore says that Marlene Dietrich made love in the ballroom five times, but not, presumably, on the same night.

Estimate: 400-600

* Lot 97

A Grotrian Steinweg white grand piano, one of only four to have been made. It has been played every Sunday in the River Room restaurant to accompany the weekly jazz & champagne brunch..

Estimate: 2,000-3,000

* Lot 68

A pair of large mid-20th century, 24-light chandeliers from the Thames Foyer, so called because of the view of the river

Estimate: 10,000-15,000 for each chandelier

* Lot 2381

A George III mahogany serpentine chest of drawers from the sitting room of the actor Richard Harris, who lived in the Savoy for a number of years. In 2002, Harris was taken ill while in residence at the hotel. As he was carried out on a stretcher he is famously remembered as calling out "It was the food!" to anyone within earshot.

Estimate: 3,000-5,000