Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Selling a NYC Mansion for a Pearl Necklace, 1917

Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Isabella reporting,

It's hard to imagine selling a Fifth Avenue mansion for a pearl necklace - but that's exactly the deal that was made between an indulgent millionaire and a savvy jeweler in early 20th c. New York City, and with both parties thoroughly satisfied with the transaction, too.

Morton F. Plant (1852-1918) was the millionaire, a railroad tycoon, real estate developer, and philanthropist. Plant was a gentleman with expensive tastes – he owned yachts, baseball teams, multiple houses, and a hotel or two – and when he decided on a new house in 1902, he spent grandly. Occupying a corner lot on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, the five-story mansion, left, was built of granite and marble and featured all the elegant details of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, making it an instant landmark of "Millionaire's Row."

When Plant's wife of twenty-six years died in 1913, the sixty-one-year-old millionaire didn't wait long to find a new spouse.  Mae Caldwell Manwaring was only thirty-one, and married to another man. But Plant was not accustomed to being denied, and less than a year after his wife's death, he married the newly-divorced Maisie.

A new bride deserved a new house. Concerned with the encroachment of stores and businesses up Fifth Avenue, Plant began building an even more lavish new mansion farther uptown on 86th Street. Maisie was eager to do a little upgrading of her own. She had her eye on a double-strand necklace of Oriental pearls in the display cases at Cartier. In these days before cultured pearls, natural pearls were extremely valuable, and favored by kings and queens – and Maisie. This particular necklace certainly had a royal price: $1million dollars, or roughly $16 million in today's money.

But what Maisie wanted, Maisie received. Her husband met with the jeweler, and sold the Italianate mansion on 52nd Street for $100 and the pearl necklace. The jeweler transformed the mansion into Cartier U.S. flagship store. Maisie, right, happily wore her pearls through two more marriages.

In the long run, however, it seems that Cartier got the better of the deal. The store continues to prosper in Plant's mansion, and in 1970 was designated a New York City Landmark. I can't begin to imagine what the Cartier store is worth today in Manhattan's real estate market, except that it must be significantly more than a million dollars. As for Maisie's pearls, the development of cultured pearls in the 1930s-40s flattened the market for natural pearls. After her death in 1957, Maisie's heirs sold her pearls at Park Bernet. The price realized at auction? A mere $150,000.

Many thanks to one of our favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan, for first sharing the story of Maisie's pearls with us.


Laura Morrigan said...

What a fascinating story! I love hearing snippets of history like this! Very well told, I like how you mention that she happily wore them through her next two marriages.

Jenny Girl said...

Love the unknown history of landmarks! Thanks Ladies :)

Rosi said...

Absolutely fascinating! Thanks so much for posting this story.

nightsmusic said...

I own a 22/24 double strand of matched natural pearls with a huge diamond clasp that are worth significantly more than cultured pearls, even if they didn't have that clasp. Cultured pearls did drop the bottom out of the natural market for a long time because they became affordable to the 'common man,' but as the years have progressed, natural pearls have become the rarity and their value has increased by leaps and bounds. Too bad her family couldn't have held on to them. Everything old is new again I guess. ;o)

Karen said...

Great story -- it would make a good movie! Did she keep getting divorced, or did she marry older men who died, saving her the trouble?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Nightsmusic, you're entirely right - those heirs should have hung onto the pearls. The market did in fact rebound for natural pearls, and one article I read in regard to Maisie's necklace noted that a similar necklace sold at auction in 2004 for $3.1 million!

Karen, Maisie did have a colorful marriage history, didn't she? She outlived Morton Plant, who died in 1918. In 1919, she married Colonel William Hayward (1877-1944), a lawyer and politician most famous for supporting and commanding the "Harlem Hellfighters" regiment of African-American troops during World War I. As far as I can tell, Maisie outlived him, too; he died in 1944. She married her last husband, banker & industrialist John E. Rovensky (1880-1970), in 1954. She herself died in 1956.

Anonymous said...

This is such a coincidence. I just came back from Sotheby's jewelry auction in NY where I sold the natural pearl necklace my grandfather gave to my grandmother in 1914.

Anonymous said...

An added note to my previous comment which runs parallel to selling the NYC mansion for a pearl necklace, when my mother was given my grandmother's natural pearl necklace, my uncle, her twin brother was given the three acre island vacation home.

Karen Susan said...

Vanitto pearls jewellery are nuclear and the shapes are mostly very round. The various shapes, such as drop, off-round, and baroque are often attributed to one kind of freshwater pearls which are cultivated without nuclear.

Melvin said...

Great story. Thanks for your sharing. Could you please give me some ideas for my website www.1PearlNecklace.com

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