WASHINGTON — An online auction of 150 of items owned by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised $803,650 for Washington National Opera, one of the late justice’s passions.
Ginsburg's silver tea set is going to a family with a 5-year-old daughter who once was Ginsburg for Halloween. A medal she was awarded when inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame is going to a family that demonstrated recently for reproductive rights. And a drawing of her that hung in her office was a Utah-based scientist's Mother's Day gift to his wife.
The auction ended in late April, and buyers are now picking up items or arranging to have them shipped to their homes in 38 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Germany. Winning bids ranged from $850 to $55,000.
Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, the owner of The Potomack Company auction house in Virginia, said they were “just really blown away by the interest.” A pre-sale estimate was that the auction could raise $50,000 to $80,000.
Ginsburg died of cancer at age 87 in September 2020. In her later years, the court’s second female justice and liberal icon also become a pop culture figure known as the “Notorious RBG.” In January, an online auction of her books brought in $2.3 million, almost 30 times the pre-sale estimate, according to Bonhams, the company that conducted the auction.
Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello, a friend of Ginsburg's, said the auction's proceeds will be “a huge help this year as we try to cultivate the return of our audience” amid the lingering coronavirus pandemic.
The auction's biggest ticket item was the drawing of Ginsburg, which sold for $55,000. The image had accompanied a 2015 article about her in The New York Times. Ginsburg liked it so much she got a copy for her Supreme Court office signed by the artist, Eleanor Davis. The buyer asked that his name not be made public.
Other high-dollar sales included modern art that Ginsburg had collected. A terracotta Pablo Picasso jug she displayed in her living room sold for $25,000 while an earthenware Picasso plate that hung in her dining room sold for $22,500. A print of Josef Albers' “Red Orange Wall," which hung in Ginsburg’s bedroom, sold for $27,500. Albers was among Ginsburg’s favorite artists, and an original work of his on loan from the Smithsonian was prominently displayed in her office at the court.
Even much less valuable Ginsburg pieces went for large sums. A drawing that one of Ginsburg’s grandchildren, Paul Spera, made as a child showing his grandmother as the Statue of Liberty sold for $12,000. At the top, Spera had written “Bubbie of Liberty,” using the Yiddish word for grandma.
Other sales included $5,000 for a glass souvenir vase given to attendees of a luncheon at the Capitol following President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, $16,000 for a black mink coat with Ginsburg’s name sewn in a pocket, and $30,000 for her 2002 National Women's Hall of Fame medal. Buyers paid another 27% in auction fees on top of their winning bid.
Before her death, Ginsburg displayed a number of the items that were auctioned in her apartment at the Watergate complex in Washington. The auction's online catalog included images of how Ginsburg had displayed those items.
Jennifer DiBrienza, a California-based educator, was the medal's winning bidder, spending nearly twice what she had planned to. When bidding near the end of the auction pushed up the price, she thought to herself: "I’ve been winning this for days. I can’t give it up now,” she said.
DiBrienza, who along with her three children demonstrated last week following the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn a nationwide right to abortion the court recognized in 1973, said she hopes having Ginsburg's medal will be “a reason to talk about her."
Krishan Paramesvaran was the winning bidder on two items: a wood sculpture for $3,500 and a silver tea set for $5,000. The tech executive and father of three said his family plans to put the sculpture in their living room and the tea set alongside china in their dining room. The tea set will be mostly for display, he said, though he imagines it will get used once or twice. Paramesvaran said his 5-year-old daughter, the one who dressed as Ginsburg for Halloween, knows it's coming and they had in the past talked with her about “powerful women" and "the impact that RBG has had.”
Right now, he said, the family is “super, super excited” as they wait for the items to be shipped to them in Washington state. Said Paramesvaran: “We have not been able to stop thinking about the fact that we're about to have something that she owned in our house."
Val Lick contributed to this report.