NEW YORK — The palatial Upper East Side home of Jayne Wrightsman, a celebrated arts benefactor and grande dame of New York’s high society, is up for sale, seven months after her death at age 99.
The 14-room residence, once filled with priceless paintings and rare books and collectibles, encompasses the third floor of 820 Fifth Ave. — the exclusive limestone apartment house facing Central Park at 63rd Street, where units rarely go on the market.
Wrightsman had moved there in the 1950s with her husband, Charles Wrightsman, an Oklahoma oil tycoon who died in 1986, and held court over the years with various socialites, aristocrats, politicians and museum curators who attended her elegant soirees.
The co-op apartment, roughly 7,000 square feet with 100 feet of park frontage, is being sold by her estate, with an asking price of $50 million, according to the listing broker, John Burger of Brown Harris Stevens. The monthly maintenance is $23,729. A separate, three-bedroom unit on the first floor, purchased in the 1980s and used by her staff, is also being listed, at $2.5 million, with $6,783 in monthly maintenance.
Since Wrightsman had no children, proceeds from both sales, as well as sales of additional artwork and personal items, will go to charity, according to Beverly Fanger Chase, the executor of the estate and her longtime personal lawyer. Christie’s plans to hold a live and online auction next April of paintings, furniture, carpet, ceramics, silver and other items.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Wrightsmans had long served as trustees, also recently announced that she had bequeathed more than 375 works to the museum, along with $80 million to the Wrightsman Fund for use in future acquisitions. Over the years, she and her husband had donated many of the museum’s most important European paintings and finest collections of 18th-century French decorative arts. Among them: Delacroix’s 1835 “Portrait of Madame Henri François Riesener” and Monet’s “The Garden of Monet’s House in Argenteuil.”
“She was an amazingly generous person,” said Chase, describing her also as very private. “The Met was her great love. It was the principal object of her philanthropy.”
Another great love, of course, was the Fifth Avenue apartment, which served as her primary residence. (The Wrightsmans had also owned homes in Palm Beach, Florida, and London.)
The Wrightsmans reportedly purchased the Manhattan apartment from the Baroness Renée de Becker, a member of the Rothschild banking family and also a noted art collector. Jayne Wrightsman transformed the already grand space into a showplace for old masters artwork, as well as fine French furnishings and décor, with the help of Maison Jansen, a prominent Paris decorator that also did work in the Kennedy White House.
“She curated the apartment,” Chase said. “It wasn’t a museum, but at the same time, she was surrounded by museum-quality art and decorative art.”
The apartment itself became an objet d’art. Throughout the rambling space, with its 12-foot ceilings and oversize windows, are imported parquet de Versailles floors, sumptuous crown moldings with gilded trim, and intricately carved boiseries, or wooden panels, acquired from European homes. Every major room also has a wood-burning fireplace (there are seven in all) with French marble mantels mostly from the 18th century, one with a faux finish, and decorative cast-iron firebacks donning mythical or religious designs.
Some modern touches were brought in as well, like central air-conditioning.
Wrightsman kept the unit’s original floor plan largely intact, including separate wings for the entertainment space, bedrooms and staff quarters, although she did enlarge some rooms by reducing or eliminating others. The home is currently configured with five main bedrooms and six full and two half baths.
From a private elevator lobby, the apartment is entered through imposing double doors that open to a formal gallery, 46-by-12 feet; a wood-burning fireplace sits at one end and a spacious coat room at another. (Wrightsman would typically escort departing guests to the elevator, Chase recalled.) The space once contained shelves of rare books, many since donated to the Morgan and Watson libraries, and various furnishings and artwork, including paintings by Canaletto and a large portrait of King Charles IX of France by Clouet.
The gallery leads to the main public spaces — a formal dining room, an enormous drawing room and a library — lined up enfilade style. Although now devoid of art and most furniture, each park-facing room remains anchored by an ornate fireplace.
The dining room is done up largely in pink, one of Wrightsman’s favorite colors, from the pinkish marble on the Louis XVI fireplace to the decorative floral wall covering. A round table with pink upholstered chairs and an 18th-century crystal chandelier still remain (although aren’t included in the sale). The room contains a service door that connects to the kitchen, and a few feet away, a “false door” to make the room symmetrical, Chase said.
The 31-by-21-foot drawing room, detailed in gold and featuring a Louis XV mantel of Breche d’Alep marble, was perhaps her favorite room, according to Chase. “It had comfortable plush chairs and couches,” she said. “It wasn’t all frivolous.”
Wrightsman also spent much of her time in the library, where she would study 18th-century art and literature. “She was an avid reader,” she said. “She was a scholar.”
The south wing holds the main bedrooms, each with an en-suite bath, as well as an office. A long corridor there offers an abundance of storage space and closets (a large safe was hidden away in one of them).
The master suite, which faces the park, had contained an elegantly furnished seating area with a writing desk. It opens to another large bedroom with a walk-in closet/dressing area that Wrightsman had used as a private sitting room.
The staff quarters, which connect to a professional kitchen and prep room, contain two small bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths and a family room.
The last time an apartment sold at 820 Fifth was about 10 years ago, Burger said.
Those looking to move there, though, will need to have deep cash reserves, not to mention unimpeachable credentials: The building prohibits financed purchases, and its persnickety co-op board is notorious for rejecting buyers, even billionaires. (Casino mogul Steve Wynn was reportedly turned down, as was investor Ronald Perelman.)
The 12-story building was designed by Starrett & Van Vleck in a neo-Italian Renaissance palazzo style and erected in 1916. It includes 12 apartments, 10 of which are full-floor units, and two on the lower floors are duplex maisonettes.
Notable residents have included the Gov. Al Smith, designer Tommy Hilfiger, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who now owns the nation’s most expensive single-family home, a $240 million penthouse at 220 Central Park South.