A Benefit Auction at Tiffany's Inspires Masks That the Phantom—or the Lone Ranger—Might Envy

updated 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 01:00AM

Tiffany's, that hush-hush luxury store where the rich buy their jewels in exquisite silence, was in an uncharacteristic uproar. A passel of upper-crust New Yorkers had packed themselves in like hustlers at a Macy's day sale. "One thousand on my left, eleven hundred on my right," barked the auctioneer as bidders fluttered dainty robin's-egg-blue paddles in the air.

There were strolling musicians and flowing champagne, all with one discreetly veiled aim: to coax money—nearly $80,000 as it turned out—from the crowd for the New York Philharmonic. The benefactors were clearly not uncoaxable; they were there in the first place because they held $750 (and up) tickets for the orchestra's Night in Venice ball on May 11.

The goods on display were masks. Masks are, not coincidentally, a traditional part of Venetian balls. But these were not witch and bunny Hallow en outfits the crowd was eyeing. Many were elaborate artistic fantasies, and they had been dreamed up by 120 designers, artists and celebrities. Artists Red Grooms, Larry Rivers, Keith Haring, Erté Peter Max and David Hockney had all made masks for the cause; so had designers Paloma Picasso, Laura Biagiotti, Ottavio Missoni, Zandra Rhodes and the Emanuels.

Also on the block was a black silk pillbox hat with rhinestone veil that had belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Dr. Ruth Westheimer donated a half mask depicting a couple in bed, the man in a top hat and the woman with a bag of onion rings on her chest. Dr. Ruth's inspiration? Wearing just a top hat to bed and using onion rings as foreplay quoits are two sex-enhancing ideas aired on her radio show.

Dr. Ruth was at the auction, but many of the full-time artists didn't show up. This kind of thing isn't easy on one's creative constitution. "I try to stay away," Keith Haring explained. "I don't want to watch other people bidding on my things or influence their bidding by being there." (Just as well he wasn't there. Haring's African-esque full-face mask went for a bargain $1,900. "That is ridiculous, really amazing," said an onlooker. "Haring never sells for as low as that.")

The crowd buzzed when the spotlight hit lot No. 12, David Hockney's "The Mask of Stravinsky," a powder-white half mask of papier-mâché. Bidding careened up to $5,000. "This is a big deal, but it's a no-big-deal mask," a nonbidder sniped. A cherubic Elvis Presley face provided by Stacy Morse, who makes celebrity masks, brought in $225. Theatrical designer Peter Wexler added $300 with a face of Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta topped by a crest of penguins in honor of Mehta's 1987 trip to Antarctica. Painter Anthony Cava's his-and-her gold eye masks earned $1,300; fellow artist Elizabeth Thompson's "antigravity" mask with drips streaming up from its forehead went for $100.

Nervously following the bidding was painter Lowell Nesbitt. Nesbitt blanched when he saw lot No. 19, a full-face flower mask of a lavender iris he created from buckram and window screening. "This is terrible," he said. "I have never been at an auction in my life where my work came up. It is like being sold." His price was $1,400.

No one fussed over a simple but alluring eye mask fashioned from onion skins by artist Hanne Lauridsen. It went for under $100. On the other hand, was the Barry Kieselstein-Cord mask. Not only did it glitter, it was gold. "It represents," explained Kieselstein-Cord, "the ultimate expression of my fascination with music and 24-karat gold. I hope it gets the top bid." It did: $6,750. Most of the masks will return to the spotlight when the Philharmonic performs at the ball in a palazzo-style tent at Lincoln Center. Neither maestro Mehta nor his musicians will wear masks. "We don't," he said, "want to get any wrong notes."

As for the mask purchasers, most of them got to feel virtuous about having donated money to a worthy cause and having wound up with something interesting to show for it. The couple who paid $600 for Dr. Ruth's little concoction is in for a surprise, however. "The person who buys my mask," said Dr. Ruth, "will be guaranteed good sex until the age of 99."

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