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Back Page: Ghosts of Gift Guides Past

It is the most wonderful time of the year to look back on Ultimate Gift Guides past. The December 1991 issue, which featured our eighth annual gift guide, stands out for many reasons, beginning with its unique cover. Traditionally, our December covers have been graced with a beauty shot of a notable car from that issue’s gift guide, but we chose a different approach that year. Instead of a photograph, we commissioned automotive artist Ken Eberts, a founding member and current president of the Automotive Fine Arts Society (www.autogallery.com/afas), to create an original painting titled The 1992 Bentley Continental R on a Holiday. Not coincidentally, the issue also included an article on purchasing automotive art and the AFAS, which now includes 32 members and is a regular exhibitor at the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. The Bentley that Eberts depicted (then priced at $261,000) was one of the guide’s 24 featured gifts, which were collectively worth more than $150 million (nearly $200 million in today’s dollars).

Most of that grand total was represented by a single item: the $110 million Casa Batlló, Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí’s fantastic eight-story palace in Barcelona, Spain. The home was built in the 1870s, completely remodeled by Gaudí in 1906, and then refurbished in 2000—in time for this year’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Gaudí’s birth. We described Casa Batlló as resembling an undersea palace, “with rooms that emulate water-worn caves or the polished interiors of vast seashells.” Today, the palace is closed to the public, but its façade featuring “balconies that hang like birds’ nests huge pillars reminiscent of elephants’ feet and a humped and tiled roof that looks like the scaly back of a sea monster” is a Barcelona landmark. Casa Batlló remains the most expensive home ever to appear in the gift guide. (The most expensive gift ever appeared in the 1994 guide, when readers were offered the opportunity to purchase an indoor water park for their backyard for $200 million.)

Despite its grandeur, Casa Batlló was not the most remarkable gift in 1991. That honor went to the weeklong trip to the Mir Space Station. At the time, the gift seemed fantastical, but, of course, fantasy became reality a decade later when rocket scientist turned financier Dennis Tito visited the International Space Station. Tito was wise to wait, because, as happens with so many high-tech high-ticket items, the price eventually came down, from $35 million for the Mir gift to the $20 million that Tito reportedly spent for his trip.

As further evidence that we were ahead of our time in 1991—and not above a little whimsy—the gift guide included True Country, a $225,000 sculpture of a young Elvis Presley made from black coral and accented with a collar, guitar, and boots made from 18-karat gold. Given the level of interest that surrounded the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death this year, and that his latest compilation album rose to the top of the charts throughout the world, there is no telling what True Country would be worth today.

The introduction to the 1991 gift guide notes that some of the gifts were chosen “strictly for fun.” Perhaps the Elvis sculpture fell into this category, but there is no doubt about the intentions behind the inclusion of  the Rockin’ Coffin, a custom-made casket fitted with a Pioneer AM/FM receiver, a CD player, a Sound Stream 12-inch subwoofer, and other powerful audio components. The gift, which was priced at $3,200, was “large enough for a 6-foot-4-inch-tall person to stand comfortably inside”—well, as comfortable as one could be standing inside of a coffin.

Although the gift was intended as a gag, Steven Collotta, who owned the audio equipment company that built the coffin, confirms that a few months after the issue appeared, a reader purchased the morbid music machine and had it shipped to London. We can only presume that it rests there in relative peace, because Collotta never heard from the buyer again. However, he has received a number of inquiries from prospective purchasers. “Eleven years later,” says Collotta, “and I’m still getting calls about the coffin.”

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