For decades, Theriault’s would exchange notes and catalogs with one of its biggest doll collectors anonymously, dealing only with her attorneys.
“It was intriguing,” said Stuart Holbrook, president of the international doll auction company. “For a number of years we had no idea who she was — she was only known as the client.”
Late heiress Huguette Clark is now famous for her family’s wealth, longevity and lifelong love of art. Many pieces of her family’s multigenerational art collection were auctioned off after Clarks’ death at age 104 in 2011.
She willed a large portion of her estate to charity, including a new arts foundation to care for the Bellosguardo estate in Santa Barbara.
Along with the Bellosguardo property itself, Clark willed her extensive doll collection to the foundation.
“Mrs. Clark,” as Holbrook still calls her, was a big buyer with Theriault’s for about 30 years, spending more than $1 million with the company. She spent millions of dollars with other doll companies over the years, too.
Even after Holbrook learned the identity of this mysterious client, his staff never had direct contact, always sending things through the attorneys. They realized the scope of her wealth only a few years ago, when her story became widely publicized after her death.
“I would send her books, interesting tidbits about the doll world and she would send her gratitude,” Holbrook said. “I had this 30-year relationship with a person I never really knew.”
She mostly purchased French dolls from the 19th century, though she did buy some Japanese dolls — the Clark family had an extensive collection of Asian art — and even some unique Barbie dolls.
Her family had a large collection of French impressionist art, French furniture and Asian art, so Clark’s taste in dolls seems to follow the rest of her artistic interests.
“We learned through her buying, there were very specific emotional catches to her purchases, things she really identified with,” Holbrook said. “It was remarkable that a woman of such immense wealth could have anything in the world she wanted yet she was not just going after every major expensive piece, but for items that fit some idea of her collection. They had some emotional draw to her or balanced out what she already had.”
Some media have characterized the act of collecting dolls as “creepy,” he said, and his company hopes Clark’s now-famous name and extensive collection could draw many people into the world of antique dolls.
“Our hopes really lie with the idea that the foundation will incorporate the dolls in some manner with Bellosguardo,” Holbrook said. “People are respecting her more for the choices she made and realizing the dolls are not just a whim of a quirky old woman, but are a true work of art. It could be a wonderful way for the general public to be educated in the world of antique dolls.”
Clark’s collection was appraised in the range of $1.7 million. Holbrook was brought in to do an expert appraisal confirmation for the Internal Revenue Service, working with pictures of the collection.
There are 1,000 to 1,200 pieces in the collection, including 600 to 700 European dolls, several Japanese dolls and some contemporary American fashion dolls from the 1930s to 1960s.
“People tend to forget she had been collecting since she was a child, in the early 20th century when many of these dolls were still being purchased new,” Holbrook said. “She was unique in that she was a collector from childhood, something almost unprecedented in our world. Because of the wealth and traveling, the longevity, she was able to amass a wonderful assortment of dolls over the years.”
Southern California has the highest concentration of doll collectors in the world, he said.
“We see it awakening people, especially in Santa Barbara,” he said. “What better name than Huguette Clark, and what better place than Bellosguardo?”
Besides the doll collection, it’s still unclear how much money will be given to the new arts foundation. The settlement included $4.5 million, but that number depends on the auction proceeds and whether the IRS waives some gift tax penalties, according to Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.
“Once everything is done, if there is any money more than expected, that will go to the foundation — but we won’t know that until everything is finished,” she said.
The arts foundation board soon will be established, possibly this summer, but will not have any assets or property transferred until the estate is completely settled, Schneider said.
That could take another year, she noted, but the public administrator of the estate, Ethel Griffin of New York County, is “ensuring that the Bellosguardo property is well maintained as it has been for decades.”
Schneider said she isn’t sure where the dolls are, saying the public administrator is probably paying for storage somewhere in New York.
“I don’t think they are where Clark left them," Schneider said, "because I think a lot of them were in her penthouse — that was cleared out and sold, so they were moved out of there.”