Rebekah Harkness’ Dalí Starfish Sells for Almost $1M

AuctionsJun 15, 2023

Rebekah Harkness’ Dalí Starfish Sells for Almost $1M

The Standard Oil heiress’ surrealist brooch, as well as its original concept art, found a new owner at Christie’s New York last week.

Étoile De Mer by Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí’s surrealist piece “Étoile De Mer” consists of a starfish brooch and two butterflies that once belonged to Rebekah Harkness. It recently sold for just under $1 million at Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction in New York on June 7. (Photo courtesy of Christie’s)
New York— A starfish brooch by Salvador Dalí that once belonged to Rebekah Harkness, the Standard Oil heiress Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” introduced to a new generation, sold for $982,000 at Christie’s June 7 jewelry auction.

According to The Art Newspaper, it was the most valuable piece of jewelry by the Spanish surrealist artist to ever sell at auction, though the brooch fell below its $1 million-1.5 million estimate.

The piece, “Étoile De Mer,” incorporates cultured pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds and includes two butterfly pins set with emeralds, sapphires, and colored diamonds.

A surrealist detail, the butterflies feature a versatile design that allows the wear to attach them to one of the starfish’s arms or wear them separately.

Salvador Dalí brooch Étoile De Mer
“Étoile De Mer” includes two butterfly pins with a versatile design allowing for attachment to a starfish arm or separate wear (Photo courtesy of Christie’s)

Christie’s sold the brooch before, at a New York jewelry auction in October 1995.

In a separate lot, the piece’s original design art on paper sold for $52,920, falling within its pre-sale estimate of $40,000 to $60,000, to the same bidder who bought the brooch, according to The Art Newspaper.

Christie’s did not respond by press time when asked to confirm details of the brooch’s sale.

The handmade drawing of the starfish is watercolor heightened with white gouache, collage, pencil, pen and brown ink with traces of blue ball-point pen on paper, according to Christie’s. It is framed, signed, dated and titled, and features the inscription, “G Dali 1950 Etoile de Mer...”

It also previously appeared in Christie’s New York auctions, once with the brooch in October 1995 and again in October 2009.

The artwork includes a design that shows the starfish draped over a hand.

Salvador Dalí original design art of Étoile De Mer
Salvador Dalí’s original design art for his starfish piece, Étoile De Mer, sold for $52,920 at Christie’s auction June 7. (Photo courtesy of Christie’s)

Jewelry historian and author Marion Fasel wrote in a story for her site, The Adventurine, that, to her knowledge, “a mechanism to wear it in this mode was never worked out. The melted watch in one of the arms on the design clearly didn’t make it into the final version of the jewel either.”

Instead of on her hand, Harkness was seen wearing the starfish in a myriad of ways, like provocatively clinging to her breast or draped over her shoulder.

Rebekah Harkness wearing the Dalí starfish brooch
Rebekah Harkness wearing the Dalí starfish brooch (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Don’t ask me how she made it stay that way because I have no idea,” Fasel said in the article.

Fasel also featured the piece in her 2020 book, “Beautiful Creatures: Jewelry Inspired by the Animal Kingdom.”

The following year, she curated a supporting exhibition for the animal pieces, including the brooch, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

A patron of the arts herself, Harkness (née West) was born in 1915 to a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri, and she grew up pursuing a passion for music and dance. 

In 1947, she married her second husband, Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness, and the duo purchased a ‘30s Rhode Island mansion they named Holiday House.

The home was the site of the couple’s well-known grand parties featuring high-society guests, which continued even after Harkness was widowed in 1954. 

In 2013, Swift reportedly paid $17 million for the beachfront property, and references describes Harkness’ years of lush living there in her 2020 song “The Last Great American Dynasty.” 

Swift even refers to her muse’s closeness with the Étoile De Mer designer, recounting in the song how Harkness, “Blew through the money on the boys and the ballet/ And losin’ on card game bets with Dalí.”  

 Related stories will be right here … 

Harkness founded her own ballet company and often commissioned prominent artists to paint sets and backdrops for her shows, like Dalí, who became her friend.

Beyond painting, Dalí also enjoyed other mediums like sculpting, film and jewelry design, which he began dabbling in around the 1930s.

“His inspiration for the jewelry design came from everyday objects, animals, parts of the anatomy and religious figures,” Christie’s said. “His brilliance was his ability to transform these concepts into wearable works of art.”

In the 1940s, Dalí began taking the craft more seriously. He collaborated on a collection with Fulco di Verdura in 1941 before designing the Étoile de Mer for Harkness in 1949.

That same year, he signed a contract with jewelry manufacturer Alemany & Company, where Carlos Alemany brought the starfish to life.

Christie’s said Dalí found interest in the starfish’s symbolism of renewal, which inspired the creation of surrealist details, like the sprouting gold branches with emerald leaves that extend from the core of the sea star.

Though Harkness died in 1982 and the Harkness Ballet company’s doors have closed, she and Dalí (1904-1989) have a connection that transcends this world, as she asked that the artist design the urn that holds her ashes.

It has been reported that the $250,000 urn was too small to fit the entirety of her remains.

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