Estate of Countess Bunny Esterházy at Bellmans

Items from the estate of Countess Bunny Esterházy, who died in December 2021 aged 82, will go under the hammer at Bellmans in West Sussex in October.

The countess was a well-known figure in international society in the mid-1950s and in the racing world. Her collection includes significant horse paintings, race trophies and jewellery, which will sell on October 10-12.

She had notable success in the 1970s and 1980s as a racehorse owner, following in the footsteps of her mother “Etti”, whose sixth husband was Arpad Plesch through whom she became a legendary figure on the turf and the only female owner to win the Derby twice. Bunny’s horses won at Ascot in 1975 and 1983, as well as winning the Selsey Stakes at Goodwood in 1981.

Bunny was the only daughter of “Etti”, Countess Wurmbrand and her third husband the Hungarian Count Tamás (Thomas) Esterházy, they married in 1938, the year Bunny was born and separated in 1942 before divorcing in 1944. Despite the luxury that came with being born into one of the most prestigious families in Hungary, her childhood was blighted by turmoil; leading to Bunny living all over Europe and even being smuggled out of Hungary under a blanket during the Second World War before the Russians seized her father’s estates. Her mother, who went on to marry three more times, had all but handed over parenting duties to nurses and friends years ago, writing ‘I know that I was neither a good nor attentive mother’ in her memoir, Horses and Husbands.

After the war Bunny led a gilded life of parties and travel and became a globe-trotting socialite, but eventually settled in London. Αs a teenager, her life continued to be constantly uprooted as she moved from Switzerland to Italy, to Detroit, to Chile, before settling in Paris where Etti lived with her new husband, Dr Arpad Plesch.

Occupied with balls, carriages and champagne, she seemed to live a life belonging to a bygone age. Her debutante ‘coming out’ ball in London in 1956 attracted some attention in the media given that the feast of caviar, beef wellington and pineapple sorbet was practically unheard of in the post-war years.

After the death of the Countess Bunny Esterházy, Bellmans was able to help take care of her beautiful home in Belgravia, and her remarkable collection of paintings, porcelain, and horse racing prizes. Bunny’s choice of décor in her London apartment pays homage to a lifelong love of horse racing, but also, very appropriately, the Countess also had an impressive collection of charming bunny-themed porcelain, even including them in her wedding at St Mary’s Church, Chelsea to Dominic Elliot, son of the Earl of Minto, in 1962, where a sugar rabbit topped her wedding cake.

Harrison Goldman, specialist in charge of the auction, said: “This collection at Bellmans Auctioneers from the home of the late Countess Bunny Esterhazy provides a glorious insight into the world of the socially glamorous, aristocratic and horseracing elite of the 20th century. Countess Esterhazy curated a fine collection of equine portraits, Meissen porcelain and decorative works of art in her Belgravia (and formerly Monte Carlo) apartment which are all for sale at Bellmans this October.

“Countess Esterhazy is fondly remembered by her contemporaries and her debutante presentation ball at Claridge’s was one of the most spectacular, with decorations by renowned theatrical designer Felix Harbord. Her wedding was covered by all the major newspapers and attended by HM Queen Elizabeth II, HRH Princess Margaret, the Earl of Snowdon and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.”

She continued: “This sale also offers notable possessions from her mother, Mrs. Etti Plesch, who counted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Sutherland, President Ronald and Mrs. Nancy Reagan, Orson Welles, Paul Getty and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco as friends and house guests. We are delighted to offer for sale all of Mrs. Plesch’s horseracing prize-winning trophies and memorabilia as well as some of her beautiful jewellery, including several pieces by Van Cleef and Cartier.”

These include Bunny’s fabulous Cartier ruby and diamond ring, estimated at £8,000-£12,000 and Etti’s lucky brooch which she wore when she won her first Derby – a huge amethyst surrounded by turquoise stones, also designed by Cartier, which is estimated at £1,500-£2,500.

In her memoir Horses & Husbands by Hugo Vickers (published in 2007), Etti Plesch looked back at the 1961 Derby Day and recalled: “For the occasion I wore a green Balenciaga suit and my lucky amethyst brooch, which only comes out on very special occasions.” She also stated that “.. with winning the Derby and meeting the Queen, it was the most marvellous day in my life.”

Unsurprisingly, the collection includes several horse paintings, including Bon Marche standing with Alexander Baltazzi by Julius von Blaas from 1906, which carries an estimate of £1,000-£1,500; Horses Watering by Richard Benno-Adam (1906) is estimated at £700-£1,000; and a portrait of her grandparents’ horse Kisber by Harry Hall, which is expected to fetch £10,000-£15,000.

This is also a unique opportunity to acquire some of the fantastic trophies both women won in their racing career. Among them the 1961 Derby Stakes gold cup won by Psidium, beating the Queen’s horse – it is estimated at £18,000-£20,000. The 1980 Derby Stakes at Epsom cup, won by Henbit is also included and expected to sell for £10,000-£12,000. The collection of trophies, which also comprises the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Coronation Gold Cup from 1959, is expected to achieve £47,000-£55,000 in total.

The remaining collection is made up of furniture, porcelain and works of art, among them an impressive selection of pug ceramics – one of the pairs of pugs carries an estimate of £2,500-£3,500.