A starfish-shaped brooch designed by Salvador Dalí that once belonged to a socialite muse of Taylor Swift sold for $780,000 ($982,800 with fees) at Christie’s New York on Wednesday (7 June), making it among the most valuable pieces of jewellery by the Surrealist artist to sell at auction.
The Étoile de Mer brooch features a red and white starfish made up of rubies, diamonds and a large pearl at the centre. Dalí designed the starfish inexplicably to have branches laid with emeralds growing from its legs. The brooch also includes two attachable butterflies made with diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. It sold below its $1m to $1.5m estimate.
The brooch once belonged to Rhode Island socialite Rebekah Harkness (1915-1982), a Missouri native who married Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness in New York in 1947. Harkness was a major ballet patron who founded the Harkness Ballet Company in 1964 after the Joffrey Ballet refused to change its name in honour of her donations to the company. During her ballet company’s 11-year run, Harkness commissioned artists including Dalí to paint backdrops for performances. The project marked the beginning of a friendship between Harkness and Dalí, and when Harkness died in 1982, her ashes were placed in a $250,000 jewelled urn designed by Dalí, in accordance to her wishes.
Decades after her death, Harkness’ life became the subject of a song by singer Taylor Swift from the pop star’s 2020 album folklore thanks to a real estate connection between the two women. In 2013, Swift purchased Harkness’s former home—nicknamed Holiday House—on the coast of Rhode Island for $17m. Harkness had hosted large parties at the coastal mansion, infuriating neighbours. (Another high-profile resident of one of Harkness’s former properties is megadealer Larry Gagosian. In 2011, Gagosian paid $36.5m for a mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan from which Harkness operated her ballet company.)
In the song “the last great american dynasty”, Swift sings about Harkness’s parties and infamous reputation: “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names / And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet / And losin' on card game bets with Dalí.” Swift drew comparisons between herself and the woman who once lived in her Rhode Island home, singing that both women “had a marvellous time ruining everything”.
The brooch once worn by Harkness is the most valuable piece of jewellery designed by Dalí to ever sell at auction. Dalí signed a contract with jewellery manufacturer Alemany & Company in 1949 to bring his Surrealist designs to life.
Also included in Christie’s Wednesday jewellery sale was Dalí’s design on paper for the Étoile de Mer brooch, along with another brooch inspired by the Greek mythological figure Medusa. The gold brooch shows winding snake figures encrusted with diamonds, and Medusa’s eyes and mouth are made up of sapphires and rubies. The Étoile de Mer sketch sold for $42,000 ($52,920 with fees) to the same bidder who purchased the starfish brooch, while the Medusa brooch went for $54,000 ($68,040 with fees).