In 1977, opera singer Maria Callas died in her Paris apartment at age 53. She had no way to predict that, years later, intense bidding would begin over who would be the owner of her underpants.
That's exactly what happened last week at the Drouot-Montaigne auction house in Paris when a collection of Callas' intimate apparel came up for bid. The assortment of brassieres, suspender belts, slips, dressing gowns, stockings and bodices brought 9.3 million francs (about $1.3 million) to two Italian collectors.
The auction, like the lady, was not without its drama. The Athenaeum Foundation, which has sponsored the Maria Callas opera prize for the past 24 years, wasn't about to see the woman's private items exploited in the marketplace of public scrutiny. The front row of the auction house was filled with members of the Greek foundation, eager to bid on the underwear.
"We came to buy Maria Callas' underwear so that we could burn it and cast the ashes into the Mediterranean," foundation president Louli Psichuli told the AFP news agency. "It was unbearable for us, in Greece, to think of Callas' image, which had nothing to do with sex, being exploited in this sordid way."
The foundation had assistance from the sympathetic auctioneer, who made sure the bidding didn't go too high for its budget. He also ordered that the Callas underwear was to be presented in closed boxes, rather than endure the lascivious gaze of the drooling public. The tactic worked, as most of the scanties ended up being purchased by or on behalf of the foundation, including a black lace slip for 41,000 francs ($5,570) and a pink satin slip for 13,000 francs ($1,766).
An unforeseen hero of the auction was a young Lebanese composer and businessman named Omar Harfouch, who bought a lock of Callas' hair -- and a "La Traviata" poster that featured Callas, at 50 times the expected price. Harfouch then announced that he intended to donate both items to the Athenaeum Foundation, at which point Psichuli burst into operatic tears of gratitude.