To say the Mitford sisters were interesting is to say Downtown Abbey is a popular TV show. Coming from a different era, the Mitford clan embodied the best and worst of the real-life Downtown set. They fascinated and repulsed in equal measure back in the 1930s. The belongings of the last surviving sister, Deborah (she of Chatsworth House fame) will be going under hammer at Sotheby’s London in March, 2016.
Deborah Mitford, the dowager duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the six sisters, died in 2014 aged 94.
Known as “Debo”, she hobnobbed with the Kennedy family (Kathleen Kennedy was married to the previous Duke of Devonshire, brother of her husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire), was painted by Lucian Freud and once had tea with Adolf Hitler (her sisters Diana and Unity are the proper fascists of the lot).
Sotheby’s auction house is selling more than 450 lots of personal belongings, ranging from her jewelry to her Elvis Presley memorabilia collection. Pictured above is one such novelty, a late Victorian brass inkwell in the form of a lobster.
“This auction paints a vivid picture of Deborah, duchess of Devonshire, featuring mementoes, objects and pictures that tell the story of her remarkable life,” said David MacDonald, Sotheby’s specialist in charge of the sale set for March 2.
The sale is estimated to realize £500,000 to £700,000 ($715,000 to $1 million, 660,000 to 925,000 euros), with individual lots ranging from £10 to £40,000.
The objects she surrounded herself with “were often moving, funny, or both, and usually had marvelous stories attached”, MacDonald said.
“The items in this sale capture the very essence of this endlessly captivating woman.”
The sale includes Regency chairs, Jacob Epstein sketches, a diamond heart-shaped brooch designed by her husband, Shetland pony harnesses, a novelty Presley telephone and a borer machine blade used to excavate the Channel Tunnel.
There are also books inscribed by the Kennedys, Madonna and Henry Kissinger.
On sale is one of only 50 pre-publication copies of Brideshead Revisited from 1944, inscribed by its author Evelyn Waugh, and estimated to fetch at least £15,000.
The dowager duchess’s family said they were keeping precious items bequeathed to them, but were consigning the rest for auction.
A red and black leather novelty jewel case
“Given the kind of person she was, and the rich and varied life she led, there are more belongings than we can together accommodate,” they said.
Deborah was one of the less flamboyant sisters, some of whom were known for their dramatic love lives and extreme political views.
Her passion was Chatsworth House, a 17th-century stately home in the English countryside that the duchess opened to the public.
Her chief hobby was keeping hens. Sotheby’s described her as a “great poultry enthusiast”. The sale also includes a pair of monogrammed travelling boxes for poultry and a chick-shaped powder compact.
Born Deborah Freeman-Mitford in 1920, she and her sisters were the “It Girls” of their day, and fascinated British society in the decade before World War II.
In 1941 she married Andrew Cavendish, who later became the 11th duke of Devonshire.
At 90 she published her memoirs, a record of high society balls and debutantes from a now-vanished age.