Wish You Were Here

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As I write this column, the U.N. General Assembly week is unfolding in Manhattan. Try living on 61st Street and Park Avenue; impregnable concrete girders by the dozen surround the Regency Hotel sheltering the Israeli delegation. Security guards are housed in temporary sidewalk tents with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling the cordoned-off street. My zip code is suddenly part of a hostile world.

The war zone is not restricted to politicians. As a guest of the beautiful Margo Langenberg at the opening night of the Met Opera, we forgot where we were for a moment during the Tosca performance. It could easily have been Rome where, on occasion, I have witnessed a head of cabbage being hurled on the stage amidst hisses and boos. Such was the reception given Luc Bondy for his new staging. I am all for modern set design, but there is a limit, especially when one needs night-vision goggles to see the action following the voice. Amidst the booing, all eyes were glued to the presidential box where Mercedes Bass kept her stoic demeanor intact.

Less life threatening, perhaps, but certainly a menacing cloud for those Americans who’ve sheltered $50 million plus under a Swiss mattress, the IRS witching hour is upon you—beware. Scores of evaders took advantage of the September 23 amnesty deadline to come clean and avoid a year of terror while they waited to see if they were on the blacklist of 4,500 names.

Around the globe, those unaffected by the recession keep the art market from sagging, with new records continually being set throughout the first half of 2009. The lure remains irresistible to those with money to burn. This is especially true of rare, top-quality pieces. A Rembrandt, not seen by the public in 40 years, is coming up for auction in London this December. New money, old master. Basia Piasecka, the Polish nurse-turned-wife (and now widow) of J. Seward Johnson, currently residing in Assisi, is offloading blue-chip inventory. Could this be a financial Band-Aid to a strapped lifestyle?

In the ascent, former first lady Cherie Blair has opened Tony’s wallet and is spending money like wildfire at the auction houses. Labour playing aristocrat…recently having acquired the late Sir John Gielgud’s 18th-century pile in Buckinghamshire—quite a step up for a gal who grew up sharing her grandmother’s bed in the Crosby area of Liverpool. I think this mega-bright QC has earned the elevation.

Fellow Brit, design critic Stephen Bayley understands this archetypical English trajectory. When asked what building he would like to see demolished, he replied, “Highgrove, provided Prince Charles was in it at the time.” God bless the Prince for all his other good deeds, but such is the affection held for HRH by the U.K. architectural community.

Glitter still seduces Laurence Graff, the world’s leader in diamonds. The jewel czar couldn’t resist a 35.56-carat blue gem, splurging $24.31 million for the stone—the highest price ever for a single stone at auction. The Wittelsbach diamond’s history goes back to 17th-century Spain but will undoubtedly look stunning around the neck of a young Oscar nominee on the red carpet.

Due to a summer of travel unlike any other, the Atlantic and Pacific have become familiar crossings for me. My associate, Roric Tobin, and I have been stretched between the two, tending to major projects in Japan and Europe.

Continuing on from a seized moment of leisure in Monte Carlo, I was a guest of Solidaire in Lebanon. One of the largest companies in the Middle East, it is responsible for the restoration of the bullet-scarred old city of Beirut. The “Paris of the East” is emerging like a phoenix from the ashes after years of strife and is on its way to eclipsing debt-laden Dubai. Istithmar World, the sovereign fund of Dubai, spent lavishly on luxury names like the Queen Elizabeth II and Barneys New York at the height of the market. Now, according to public filings, it accounts for the vast majority of the total leverage of the Emirate, which Moody’s places at $80 billion. Has the Arabian sun burned too intensely for this contemporary Icarus?

The West Los Angeles home of Richard Weisman fell victim to a recent, highly targeted robbery. The entire Andy Warhol “Athlete Series” was hijacked from his dining room. Commissioned in the late 1970s by his father, Fred, who was a client of mine at the time, the silk screens depict athletes including Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, and Jack Nicklaus, among others. Impossible to sell on the open market, the works were probably presold to a sports fanatic with a very private subterranean gallery. One wonders what other vanished treasures hang in this mystery vault.

Perhaps self-proclaimed “artoholic” Charles Saatchi could relate. The advertising giant recently published his quasi-autobiography. I was present in the audience at the Pierre when, upon receiving an honor from the venerable St. George’s Society in New York, he matched his ego with his political stance. He took it upon himself to tear a strip off of America. The audience, devoted to the cause of strengthening Anglo-American relations, sat frozen in horror.

Saatchi is obviously not alone. During the U.N. General Assembly where the world’s tyrants take their cheap shots at us, you’ve got to love our country, warts and all. Who else could play tolerant host to such a group of despots and do-gooders? “We build too many walls and not enough bridges,” warned Newton, but this admonition certainly cannot apply to our 233-year-old democracy of proven endurance and stature.

More about Geoffrey Bradfield here.

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