Over the summer, it was announced that the personal property of the late and beloved author Joan Didion would head to auction this November, offering fans and collectors a chance to own a physical token from a titan of American literature. At this point, no amount of extravagance on the part of the wealthy should surprise us, and this auction’s proceeds actually went to a great cause — Parkinson’s research at Columbia University and a scholarship for women at the Sacramento Historical Society. Still, some of the prices fetched during the live online auction would lead even the most die-hard of Didion devotees to raise one perfectly sculpted eyebrow.
Some of the winning bids — like the $27,000 dropped on Didion’s trademark pair of Celine sunglasses in faux tortoiseshell, or $60,000 for a stunning mixed-wood J. Breuner partner’s desk — make a kind of vague sense, in terms of their direct relationship to Didion’s image and legacy as a writer. Others, like a broken clock that sold for $35,000 or a staggering $7,000 bid for a collection of 26 or so seashells and beach pebbles, left some observers scratching their heads. For $7,000, you could take a weeklong, four-star trip for two to Hawaii, and collect all the dang seashells you want, for free.
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Oh, but these were Joan Didion’s seashells, you say? These seashells were collected by a deep thinker, probably while walking along a beach and staring at the ocean and thinking extremely deep thoughts. Probably, she had some of her most influential ideas while collecting these shells. That makes them worth roughly $250 apiece, right? Right??
Perhaps just as amusing as the hammer figures on some of these items are the responses to the sale on social media. Users are having a ball imagining the most hilarious items Didion could have owned and the prices they could have fetched — and if you look at some of the things that actually sold, it’s really not so hard to believe.
Other dubious high-ticket items from the actual auction included various lots of books from Didion’s collection, which fetched thousands of dollars, averaging out around $700 per book, regardless of author, edition, or condition. Small framed and sculptural works of art from her personal collection fetched well above their assessed value — but the subjectivity of worth for art at auction is already a tale as classic as Didion’s iconic and emotionally lacerating essays on the human condition.
The final cherry on top of this auction sundae — a flourish so narratively rich, if it was a work of fiction, no one would believe it — are two lots of blank notebooks, which sold for $11,000 each. One sees the appeal, since there is nothing more writerly than a stack of empty notebooks, just waiting for genius to burst forth, but there can perhaps be no more ironic commentary on the intoxicating power of celebrity than a five-figure bidding war breaking out over all the notebooks Joan Didion didn’t use.
This is, of course, idle speculation on the idle rich — one deeply hopes that nobody spent their life savings to try to hold some small piece of their hero. And since proceeds from the sale will benefit a cause dear to Didion — who died in 2021 at the age of 87 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease — we can at least know that the fervor over Didion’s material legacy is at least in the service of her values.