There are few places where the real blends more seamlessly with the imaginary than New York City. Because as a child I knew the Plaza Hotel to be a real place, I grew up quite convinced that its most famous resident, Eloise, was a real six-year-old girl. Long after I’d given up on Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Punxsutawney Phil, I believed in Eloise. And this week, I’m a believer again.
On December 5, the auction house Bonhams will feature Eloise co-creator Hilary Knight’s original Plaza Hotel portrait of the beloved hellion as the centerpiece of its Fine Books and Manuscripts daytime sale.
Knight created the painting in 1956 as a birthday gift for his Eloise partner, author Kay Thompson, who proudly loaned the portrait to the Plaza, where it classed up the lobby until a fateful November night in 1960 when it disappeared — stolen. The sensational crime prompted a major media moment in New York City. Kay Thompson, distraught, offered a reward. But it was no use: The portrait (which, framed, measures a considerable 59 inches by 42 inches) was gone, right off the wall and “into the stratosphere of New York City,” Knight, 92, said in a recent interview with Bonhams. Sometime later, under very mysterious circumstances, the portrait — discovered in a dumpster, frameless and a bit worse for wear — made its way back to Knight.
Eloise is hardly the only treasure in the December 5 Bonhams sale — which, despite the title, includes a good deal more than fine books and manuscripts. Lot 130, for instance, is a small writing box made from the wood of a mulberry tree purportedly planted by William Shakespeare near his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Lot 205 is pianist Glenn Gould’s wildly annotated copy of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Lot 244 is a collection of 11 iron shackles and locks from Harry Houdini’s collection, and Lot 271 is a tattered British flag that survived the Battle of Dunkirk.
But, Eloise. After the disappearance of the first portrait, Hilary Knight re-created the Eloise painting for the Plaza lobby, where it hangs to this day. The recovered original was forgotten until 2017, when Knight collaborated with the New-York Historical Society on an exhibit titled Eloise at the Museum. He retrieved the old portrait from his closet, where it had languished, rolled and wrinkled, for decades and, with curator Jane Curley, set about restoring it.
The result is dazzling, though by Knight’s own admission the painting was never created to be “art.”
“It was done on very thin cardboard, in water paint, not oil,” he told Bonhams. “It was a funny gift … meant to be a parody of portrait paintings going back to Gainsborough.” But parody or not, the piece feels rawther important today, and its six-year-old subject comes off every bit as indomitable as Carolus-Duran’s Mrs. Astor.
Bonhams expects the Eloise portrait to command upwards of $150,000. And that, surely, is worth a spot over the mantle.