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Rudolf Nureyev Wore That Jacket

At auction, even the beloved dancer's banged-up shoes sold for thousands

Picture a pair of blue leather boots that look as if they've been run over, peeled off the freeway, then placed on a pristine white pillow.

Now picture someone paying $3,000 for them.

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The boots are no ordinary boots. They were worn by Rudolf Nureyev.

Last week, Christie's held a two-day auction of Nureyev's belongings and the art from his New York apartment in the Dakota. Thursday's sale featured costumes, ballet slippers, and jewelry; Friday's offered paintings, furniture, textiles, and sculpture. Sales totaled just under $8 million, nearly double what was estimated.

The proceeds benefit two Rudolf Nureyev foundations - one in Chicago and one in Zurich - that promote classical dance in the artist's name.

The Russian dancer, who died in 1993, defected to the West in 1961 and became one of the most acclaimed male ballet dancers in the world. His 1962 performance with Margot Fonteyn in the Royal Ballet's ``Giselle'' marked the beginning of one of the most celebrated partnerships in ballet. Offstage, Nureyev's passion for the arts was evident in the way he decorated his homes.

Anticipation was high for the Christie's event, drawing nearly 50,000 to the viewing and causing many here to compare the hoopla to the Barbra Streisand auction. Rumors circulated that pop star Madonna had attended the viewing and disapproved of the use of snakeskin in one of Nureyev's costumes.

Obviously, Thursday's crowd was interested in memorabilia, such as a costume Nureyev wore in ``The Sleeping Beauty'' (which sold for $28,750); while Friday brought more serious art seekers interested, say, in Sir Joshua Reynolds's ``Portrait of George Townshend, Lord de Ferrars'' (the highest-selling item at $772,500.)

Thursday evening went something like this: Balletomanes and curious onlookers shuffled into Christie's and were informed that 11 lots (lots are numbered items for sale) had been withdrawn for donation to London's Royal Ballet archives. Evidently at least one buyer was glad that Nureyev's costume for ``The Muppets' `Swine Lake' '' was still available; he paid a meaty $18,400 for it. (Nureyev joined in a televised caper with Jim Henson's Muppets in the 1970s, performing a pas de deux with the plump Miss Piggy.)

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With a tap-tap-tap, Christie's chairman and auctioneer Christopher Burge got things rolling, presenting the lots and taking audience bids, absentee bids, telephone bids, and bids ``in the gallery'' (an adjacent room in which people participated by video.)

The atmosphere was surprisingly light. Laughter erupted from time to time, even during periods of fierce and spontaneous bidding. From the podium, Mr. Burge would guide the escalating bids in a quick and steady manner and then settle the final bid: ``In the gallery, against the room - not yours at the back, madam - fair warning....''

To the left of Burge was a slide-projection screen for close-ups of the items (rings, costume details). To the right: a white-gloved art handler, who showed costumes and footwear Vanna-White style, and a ``scoreboard'' of the current bid with currency-exchange rates (pound, French franc, Swiss franc, deutsche mark, yen, lira).

``This is more exciting and more well-behaved'' compared with most auctions here, said Edward Lewine, an auction correspondent for ``The Art Newspaper'' in London and a former employee of Christie's. ``It's also much more international. The focus is not on the value of the items, necessarily, but on the person who owned them, Mr. Lewine pointed out. ``It's a memorabilia sale on a really grand scale. For many people, this is their first experience at an auction.''

Of special interest to many were Nureyev's slippers.

``Slippers are the closest thing to dancing, and he never threw them away,'' said David Llewellyn, ballet specialist for Christie's, in an interview following Thursday's sale. ``For a pair of worn and torn slippers to sell for $8,000, that reflects the enormous love and admiration people had for his dancing.''

Nureyev was known to have saved even his most decrepit pairs of slippers, some with his name imprinted on the soles.

Before the auction, newspapers printed the prices that Nureyev's goods were expected to command. The low estimates, in retrospect, seemed misleading: four pairs of black ballet slippers estimated to fetch between $150-$200 eventually sold for $3,450.

But some people were enticed and then disappointed when bids pirouetted out of their price ranges. Some shook their heads and groaned when slipper bids leaped into the thousands.

One pair of pink slippers sold for $9,200. Nureyev's costume for Prince Albrecht in ``Giselle'' fetched an astounding $51,750 after much bidding. (The estimate was $3,000-$5,000.)

People ``either misunderstood the situation or completely understood,'' Mr. Lewine surmised. ``Estimates are a form of advertising. People are attracted to low estimates, then they get in the room and can't stop themselves.''

After the auction, Maria Carreras and a friend were going home empty-handed, but content. ``I came for the personality aspect of Nureyev and the costumes,'' Ms. Carreras said, adding that she had seen Nureyev perform in San Francisco and with the Royal Ballet. While her friend was interested in the slippers, Carreras said, ``I was looking more at the hats.''

The bids for hats went much like those for the slippers - up, up, and away.

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