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Joan Rivers—surprise, surprise—is ready to shop. "Everyone wants a little piece of history," explains the impeccably clad comedian as she heads off to the auction from her Upper East Side apartment on Tuesday evening. "I saw Halley's Comet, I was at Malcolm Forbes's 70th birthday and now Jackie O's auction. I've hit all the big, shallow events."

As her chauffeured car joins the throng of limos outside Sotheby's York Avenue auction house, Rivers is awestruck. "It's like a Hollywood premiere," she says. "People screaming, asking for autographs. Jackie was known as one of the great arbiters of American taste, and a lot of ladies are coming here thinking, 'If it was good enough for Jackie, it's good enough for me.' "

A few rushed greetings, a few air kisses, and Rivers is inside the door. Tonight she's all business. For weeks she has scoured the auction catalog, selecting items for her home plus jewelry to reproduce in the collection of costume gems that she markets on QVC. A small French painting titled. A Park View (asking price: $800-$l,200) caught her eye, as well as a French table clock ($5,000-$7,000). And "the Greek things," as she calls a pair of 3rd-century terra-cotta horses ($12,000-$18,000), "because they would be great on a coffee table." Other tempting items, though, would clearly run too high. "You just look at a lot of the stuff and say, don't even start."

Before taking her front-row seat, Rivers presses through the crowd to a registration desk. "First thing you do is go get your paddle," she explains, referring to a numbered cardboard marker. "This is for serious bidders—and S&M people." Already, she decides, one good omen has come her way: "The number on my paddle is 1368. It's lucky. It was the year I was born."

At 7:30 the bidding begins. Although Sotheby's experts have priced the first item—a pair of seashell engravings—at $700, it quickly fetches $6,900, to the astonishment of the hushed crowd. ("The first pictures set the tone for the whole evening," whispers Joan.) A few minutes later, the painting she had admired is on the block. The bids rise quickly from $3,000 to $4,000 to $5,000. Rivers hoists her paddle repeatedly, sending the price higher. With a loud crack of the auctioneer's gavel, Lot 13 becomes hers for $13,800—her only successful bid of the night. "I didn't realize my hand was up," she gushes. "I have a painting!"

Later, in the lobby, Rivers reflects on an evening that was sometimes an "adrenaline rush" and sometimes a bit tedious. "I was very bored with the china," she admits. "Somebody says $62,500, then we have to wait for some idiot to make it $68,500. All that ugly furniture went to Chicago. There's one woman that's going to have the ugliest apartment on Lake Shore Drive." Coddling her new painting, she heads out. "I kept thinking, 'My stuff is prettier,' " she says. "I can't wait for my auction."

PATRICK ROGERS
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Speidel.