Drama of a dancer's final act

Rudolf Nureyev's treasures, literal and sentimental, will go on sale in New York in January. Or will they?

Geraldine Norman
Sunday 18 September 2011 06:51

FOR JUST $50, Rudolf Nureyev's pale pink ballet slippers could be yours. They are, according to Christie's auction catalogue, "considerably soiled and worn" - but it's still a small price to pay for the tools of the great dancer's trade, especiall y whenthe sole of each is evocatively stamped with his name.

These are the cheapest items in a vast range of possessions from Nureyev's estate which Christie's is to auction in New York from 12-13 January. Four pairs of black ballet slippers "in good condition" are estimated at £100-£130 and a "tunic of black velvet with full sleeve shirt and collar of white silk" (which Nureyev wore for Les Sylphides at Covent Garden) is expected to fetch £1,300-£2,000.

The event kicks off with an evening sale of jewellery and ballet costumes, followed by the contents of Nureyev's New York apartment. These include some superb paintings, furniture, textiles, photographs, books - and some exotic street clothes. A wasp-waisted snakeskin suit made for him by Paul Zentner of San Francisco, for instance, is expected to fetch £2,000-£3,000. The finest offerings on sale are Nureyev's paintings: Fuseli's Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Lance, a crazily dramatic late18th-century fantasy, is valued at £333,000-£460,000.

There is one cloud hanging over the sale, however. Nureyev's sister Rosa, and her daughter, Gouzel, who left Russia to live in France under the dancer's protection, are trying to get the sale cancelled by court action. They have succeeded in doing so before. Auctions scheduled to take place this time last year in London and New York were called off as a result of their protests.

Rudolf Nureyev, who had Aids, died on 6 January 1993 and his executors immediately turned to Christie's. What his relatives are trying to do is get his will annulled, claiming that Nureyev's wishes are not being properly interpreted; they have persuaded the French authorities to seal his Paris apartment so that nothing is removed before the dispute is resolved. Barry Weinstein, director of the foundation which inherited all Nureyev's property in America under the will, is confident of his legal position. "I have no doubt the sale will go ahead," he says.

In his will, Nureyev left his fortune to two foundations. His property in Europe went to the Ballet Promotion Foundation which he founded in 1975, while the American property was to fund a newly formed Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation with headquarters inChicago. The ballet costumes to be sold in January belong to the former, but the rest of the material for sale comes from his New York apartment and belongs to the American foundation.

The European Ballet Promotion Foundation had several tasks under the disputed will. The first was to pass large legacies to Nureyev's family - Rosa, Gouzel, a second sister called Rezeda, who is still in Russia, and her two sons. After that, the foundation was to promote dance, provide young dancers with scholarships, set up a memorial museum and fund medical research.

The American foundation has a more limited objective: to provide financial support for the "study, performance and appreciation" of classical dance. The two foundations point out that without selling off Nureyev's possessions, they cannot perform any of these tasks.

The material extravagance of Nureyev's later years was in stark contrast to the poverty of his youth. He was born on a train at Irkutz, on the banks of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and grew up in a one-room wooden house in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkir republic. He shared it with his parents, three sisters - one of whom has died - and two other families. He wrote in his 1962 autobiography of "constant, gnawing hunger".

When he became an internationally famous dancer, Nureyev handled his money cannily. Dabbling in the stock market was not for him, and he was loath to pay too much to the taxman. From 1975 he channelled his spending through the Ballet Promotion Foundation, which is registered in Liechtenstein and has its headquarters in Zurich; he took out Austrian citizenship and made Monaco his official domicile, but he lived in Paris. He spent his money on property and art.

Besides the Paris and New York apartments, Nureyev had a house at La Turbie, above Monte Carlo; an island off the Tuscan coast; a farm in Virginia; and a house on St Barts in the Caribbean. He sold his British home - a charming Queen Anne house in Richmond - more than 10 years ago when he moved to France. His most important art works, however, were kept in New York. One of his old friends, Douce Francois, explained Nureyev's philosophy: "He said that buying beautiful things was the perfect combination; it gave him immediate pleasure and was a sensible investment for the future." He had no truck with art advisers - he bought what he liked with an extraordinary flair for quality.

Nureyev's three greatest paintings are English, and were bought quite recently for the New York apartment - the Fuseli picture, which illustrates a scene from Milton's Paradise Lost (estimate £330,000-£460,000), a Reynolds portrait, George Townsend, Lordde Ferrars (£230,000-£300,000) and Portrait of George Nugent Grenville by Sir Thomas Lawrence (£66,000-£100,000).

Each of these paintings could almost be seen as a "still" from a ballet. Fuseli's Satan is flying through the air in a balletic leap; in both portraits the men are posed against landscape backdrops reminiscent of the theatre. Two of these pictures of Nureyev's came from the saleroom; the Reynolds was bought for £270,000 at Christie's in 1986, and the Fuseli for £770,000 at Sotheby's in 1988. All three are almost 8ft high and decorated Nureyev's huge reception room in his New York apartment. The room hadplain wooden floors like a stage, and Nureyev placed a white marble torso in dramatic isolation at its centre - a Roman copy of the Diadumenos by Polykleitos, a sculpture much lauded in Classical literature but only known from later copies. According toChristie's, Nureyev's copy "is considered one of the most skilful and precise"; it is valued at £200,000-£330,000.

The sparsely furnished room also contained four large, upholstered sofas which Nureyev was given by the opera singer Maria Callas, some ele-gant French Empire furniture and huge early 19th-century French history paintings featuring naked men - also good examples of their kind.

For his bedroom, Nureyev adopted a different style, combining Renaissance furniture and paintings with an explosion of textiles - he adored fabrics, especially Kashmir shawls, Oriental carpets, Japanese brocades and antique costume. He kept a coral-pink closed robe of watered silk, from around 1745, on a mannequin in his bedroom (estimate £33,000-£46,000) - she often served as a hat stand for his trademark green velvet cap. The room also contained a "mostly 16th-century" oak and marquetry tester bed (£10,000-£13,000), elaborately carved and usually draped in a cascade of textiles; a Jacobean oak settle (£2,000-£2,500); a series of small 16th-century portraits of well-to-do gentlemen, mostly Flemish (variously estimated from £4,000 to £120,000), and a very good double manual harpsichord dated 1760, made in London by Jacob Kirkman (£65,000-£80,000).

Nureyev achieved an even more exotic fusion of cultures in the dining-room, with a Jacobean oak refectory table (£8,000-£12,000) and a set of 12 chairs made by Thonet in Austria around 1906: among the first examples of modernist furniture (£13,000-£20,000). Over them hung a 55-light Venetian glass chandelier in rococo style (£16,000-£23,000). The walls were papered with hand- painted 19th-century Chinese landscape wallpaper panels (£13,000-£20,000).

While the contents of the New York apartment give a vivid overview of Nureyev's taste, the Paris apartment, when it is unsealed, will yield a very personal collection. There are more than a hundred 19th-century oil studies of male nudes; studies painted from a live model were a standard feature of art education in the 19th century and are still known in France as "academies". Some of Nureyev's are by great names such as Gericault, others by more or less unknown artists. The collection underlines Nureyev's ability to recognise good painting, irrespective of the fame of the artist, as well as reflecting his interest in the male nude.

The Paris apartment also contains most of his 19th-century Russian furniture and the bulk of his collection of period clothes. He was fascinated by antique costume, its design, texture and colour; the collection provided inspiration for many ballet wardrobes. His other homes contained few valuable antiques - though all contained organs for him to play. The New York organ is included in the auction, a combination chamber organ and barrel organ made in London by Flight and Robson in around 1820 (£16,000-£23,000).

Rosa and Gouzel contend that, once all this is sold, there will be nothing left for the memorial museum Nureyev wanted. The trustees reply that they have to sell to comply with his will. Originally they intended to convert the Paris apartment into a museum, but introducing the public - let alone museum guards - to a bourgeois apartment block on the Quai Voltaire, a smart address on the Left Bank, proved too complicated. They are now in discussion with the Bibliotheque Nationale about mounting a two-roomdisplay there when the main library moves to the suburbs; a memorial display at the Opera, the Parisian equivalent of Covent Garden, has also been considered. A selection of exhibits has already been made by the Ballet Promotion Foundation, capable of presenting a vision of the great dancer's lifestyle by combining some of his finest ballet costumes with personal possessions. Naturally, they are not included in the auction.

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