Olivia de Havilland’s Estate Hitting the Auction Block (Exclusive)
Gisèle Galante recalls a recent evening in which she and her husband first watched Dodge City, the 1939 Michael Curtiz-directed western starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. As de Havilland’s daughter, born 17 years after that film’s premiere, Galante was struck equally by her mother’s beauty and her performance: “I had never seen it before, but she was so, so pretty,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And even though it wasn’t what you would call a meaty role, she was excellent. There’s still so much for me to discover, more of my mother’s films that I have not seen.”
For many classic-film fans, de Havilland’s death in July 2020 at the age of 104 signified the end of an era, the passing of perhaps the last great star of Hollywood’s golden years. Galante notes that she’s had those fans in mind while planning the auction of her mother’s estate, a two-part sale that kicks off with an online event that runs May 13-23 in Los Angeles and is organized by London-based Bonhams. “My mother had tremendous respect for her fans; unless she was sick, she answered every letter, and often I helped her,” Galante says. “That’s really why I’m doing this, because I hope it will be an opportunity for those who loved her to purchase something that belonged to her.”
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“The Collection of Olivia de Havilland” is split into two events that represent the two primary phases of the actress’ life. May’s online auction showcases lots that represent the Oscar winner’s Hollywood years, a collection of mementos that includes gifts from luminaries including Jimmy Stewart and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.
Then, on Oct. 4 in Paris, Bonhams will present an online and in-person sale of de Havilland’s furnishings, artwork and other decorative items, collected over the years after she moved to the French capital in 1953 and married Pierre Galante, Gisèle’s father and then the editor of Paris Match.
“It really makes sense when you think about it, because my mother had two lives,” Gisèle explains. “There was the very glamorous life she lived in Hollywood, and then a different kind of life when she moved to Paris, married my father and had me. She really embraced the Parisian culture and learned how to speak French perfectly. She hired a private teacher, and in the sale you’ll find her notebooks with the exercises she did to perfect her French.”
De Havilland’s early years in Paris are captured in a lighthearted memoir she wrote about adjusting to life in France, Every Frenchman Has One, first published by Random House in 1962 and reissued in 2016 to coincide with the star’s 100th birthday.
The Hollywood lots indeed are linked to some of cinema’s most iconic stars. A floral-embossed silver compact owned by longtime friend and co-star Bette Davis was given to de Havilland after the former star passed by Davis’s longtime assistant, while a silver box engraved with “For Olivia, With Many Thanks, from Sammy” was a gift from Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.
Among the most high-profile items, meanwhile, is sure to be a Bank of America check for $30, written from de Havilland to Errol Flynn and signed by both stars, who were among Hollywood’s most famous onscreen pairings and made eight films together, including 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
While Galante says her mother made no advance plans about selling her estate while she was still alive, she did make one request: that a portion of any estate sale’s proceeds would be donated to The American Cathedral in Paris, which was built in the late 1880s. “She told me she trusted me and asked me to be generous with the American Cathedral,” Galante says. “My mother was a longtime parishioner and read the lessons on Christmas and Easter, so she really wanted the cathedral to be remembered.”
Once Bonhams was brought in to organize the sale — recommended to Galante by Fraser Heston, son of Charlton Heston, whose estate was sold by Bonhams in 2016 — the auction house made several discoveries while examining de Havilland’s possessions, which were maintained in pristine condition. “My mother kept everything, and it was also incredibly well-organized,” Galante says. “We found electric bills dating back to the 1930s. For many of the furnishings and antiques, which my mother bought in London and Paris, we also found the original receipts. The Bonhams representatives were both impressed and quite thrilled to have these for the provenance of several items.”
Other lots in the Hollywood sale also point to de Havilland’s well-known relationships during that period of her life. A collection of jewelry given by Jimmy Stewart to de Havilland includes a letter that alludes to their closeness between 1939 and the early 1940s, while a pair of World War II ration books dated 1943 are issued to both de Havilland and director John Huston. “They were in a relationship for many years, and my mother once told me that John Huston was the love of her life,” Galante says.
De Havilland also was known for favoring Christian Dior, in both her personal life and her films, notably wearing the house’s designs in 1956’s The Ambassador’s Daughter and 1962’s Light in the Piazza. The majority of her personal Dior wardrobe was sold in two auctions during the actress’ lifetime, most recently in 2019, but the Bonhams auction includes a group of Dior original sketches, produced prior to de Havilland’s appearance at the 1963 Academy Awards. “That’s also a lovely memory for me, because I remember my mother taking me when I was seven or eight years old to Christian Dior for both the fashion shows, which were much more intimate back then, as well as her fittings,” Galante says. “It was not like what you see now with fashion shows, but it was still very glamorous.”
Other items in the May sale include wristwatches, a collection of photographs from 1949’s The Heiress (one of de Havilland’s two Oscar-winning roles, following 1946’s To Each His Own) and the Olivetti typewriter the actress used for correspondence in her Paris home. For Galante, a key to the Beverly Hills Hotel also conjures thoughts of a visit to Hollywood while her mother was filming 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. “My mother was a big client of the Beverly Hills Hotel,” Galante says. “That’s where I discovered American TV, milkshakes and how to swim in the hotel pool.”
The October sale, meanwhile, will focus on pieces including the desk and lacquered tables in the office that de Havilland referred to as “the Oscar room” — “where all her prizes were displayed,” Galante says. “She would type letters to her fans, and as a teenager I would put my feet on these low, lacquered Chinese tables, while my mother would point out that they were precious antiques.”
When asked what she wouldn’t part with for the sale, Galante doesn’t hesitate. “Her Oscars will never go to auction; my mother would be so upset with me if I sold them,” she says. “Right now they’re living on our mantelpiece, and one day they’ll be donated to an institution, but they’ll never be sold.” Galante is also keeping a cherished teapot featuring the de Havilland crest — “My mother loved to entertain people with tea, followed by Champagne,” she says — as well as a variety of original sketches and caricatures, many of which were only discovered after de Havilland’s passing. “I knew my mother was a great actress and a great writer, but I never realized what a wonderful artist she was until I found maybe dozens of beautiful drawings and caricatures,” Galante notes. “No one has seen these drawings, so my plan is to frame them and put many of them in our home, while others I’ll give to family and friends.”
The most challenging moment, Galante admits, will be attending the October event in Paris. “It may be a little emotional, seeing all of my mother’s cherished pieces together again,” she says. “But I also know proceeds from the sale are going to a good cause. And hopefully [the new owners] won’t put their feet up on the tables.”
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