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Issue: Fall 2011

The Afterlife of Hollywood Stars: Personal Keepsakes Cross the Auction Block


When Marilyn Monroe was sixteen she wrote an eight-page letter describing the details of her wedding to Jim Dougherty and her married life in vivid detail.  The teenager was writing to her foster mother Grace Goddard.  Marilyn had no way of knowing that the letter she signed with her real name Norma Jeane Dougherty would sell for $52,460 on April 20, 2011 at Bonhams Auction House in Hollywood.  The auction’s estimated price range for the letter was from $25,000 to $35,000.  But, the worldwide bidding soared.  The letter also revealed she was interested in establishing a relationship with the man she thought of as her biological father.  It was described as “the greatest Marilyn Monroe letter in the world” by collectors Charles Williamson and Tucker Fleming, the sellers. 
Marilyn Monroe cocktail dress features hand-tailored black silk, a plunging, gathered neckline, and weights sewn into the lining of the bottom hem, which kept the dress hanging correctly when worn
Beyond films Hollywood stars have made, props from these films, and their personal belongings have also provided them with an “afterlife” among fans and collectors all over the world.  It’s an offshoot of their success the celebrities may not have expected.

According to Catherine Williamson, Ph.D., Director of Fine Books, Manuscripts and Entertainment Memorabilia at Bonhams’ Hollywood office, “First and foremost their legacy lives on through their films, and secondarily through their memorabilia.  One helps the other. The auction house offers live and internet bidding worldwide for its Hollywood auctions.

“The market for both old and new Hollywood collectibles continues to grow.  In every sale there is at least one item that sparks a major bidding war.”  One of these star wars took place when a photograph of Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara (from Gone With The Wind) went on sale.   The photograph had been inscribed by the star for George Cukor, the first director of the movie.  The estimated price ranged from $1,500 to $2,000.  The final sale price was $10,980.

The most desirable Hollywood items are those associated with the most popular films, according to the director of entertainment memorabilia. These items include Oscars, scripts, costumes and props.  Second to that would be personally owned property like clothing, books, things that are identified with the celebrity but not used in a film.

Charlie Chaplin’s trademark bowler hat and cane from his iconic Tramp costume sold for $139,250.    
Sometimes items sell for a lot more than the auction house estimate.  An oil on canvas portrait of Tyrone Power was painted by his friend and fellow actor Claire Trevor in 1958, the year of his death.  Initially estimated to sell for from $400 to $600, competitive bidding pushed its final price to $39,000.

In connection with the June 2011 sale Dr. Williamson pointed out, “We saw strong participation online and in the sale room for iconic pieces from the classic films of yesterday and today.”  One of the bullwhips used in a stunt sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark had an estimated sale range from $50,000 to $70,000.  It sold for $61,000.

Also for sale at that auction was a document in which Lauren Bacall gave amusing responses to questions by Parade Magazine.  When she was asked for her reaction to a comment by actress Joan Fontaine that actresses are hard to live with Bacall replied, “I’ve never been married to one.”  For her final remark she quipped, “A dame is a dame is a dame.”  She signed it using her real name Betty.  The document, along with several other pieces of memorabilia, had an estimate of $800 to $1,200.  They sold for $1,586.

A Ronald Reagan manuscript pitching an anti-Communist episode for G.E. Theater, which he hosted from 1953 to 1963, had an estimated price range from $5,000 to $7,000.  It sold for more than twice that amount at $15,860.

Oscars are not the only awards given to stars. Ethel Merman was appointed an honorary Deputy Sheriff of Los Angeles by E.W. Biscailuz, Sheriff of Los Angeles County.  A green paper card signed by both Merman and Sheriff Biscailuz conferring the honor on the entertainer was sold at auction with a bidding range of from $300 to $500.  It sold for $122.

Swashbuckling obviously rates high with those who buy Hollywood memorabilia.  A one sheet framed poster for the Douglas Fairbanks film The Black Pirate recently sold for $14,640.  It had been estimated to sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. 

Movie poster for silent film The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks sold for $14,640 The duffel bag Montgomery Clift slung over his shoulder in the movie From Here To Eternity, was stained, worn, and had some small holes in it when it went up for auction.  The owner inherited the bag from his stepfather Brooks Clift, who inherited it from his brother Montgomery Clift.  The bag sold for $2,684.  It had been estimated to sell in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. 

The children of Hollywood stars usually inherit their estates, according to Dr. Williamson.  If they don’t have children other descendants or sometimes charities are left their belongings, she pointed out.  Ann Miller divided her estate between The Motion Picture Country Home (which helps entertainment industry members in their time of need) and an animal rescue organization.

When the estate of Jennifer Jones went on sale in December, 2010, Dr. Williamson noted, “She had a house full of beautiful things she had collected with all of her husbands.  There was a portion of memorabilia from her screen career including a few scripts.  One of the most exciting pieces was a headdress from The Song Of Bernadette.  We had a lot of success selling Jone’s personal wardrobe, which was very elegant, but not ever worn on the screen.  The clothing spoke of the grande dame of Hollywood.”

Among the items for sale were three military awards from the 1950s and 1960s with an auction price of from $300 to $500.  One of them was a sterling silver medal from the Special Services engraved to Jones thanking her for entertaining the troops in Korea and Japan in 1951, included with related certificates and other paperwork from this trip.  They sold for $98.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to Jennifer Jones was what her son Robert Walker wrote at the beginning of the auction catalogue section that was dedicated to her belongings. 

“She left this life as she lived it, in radiant beauty.  For these last six years, my wife and I and our two small children were so fortunate to be able to care for her and she showered us with blessings and laughter in return.  Mother’s generosity knew no bounds and during her life she gave away much.  It pleases me greatly that some of these remaining treasures may find homes with others who also loved and admired her.”

Editor’s Note:  In addition to Bonham’s Auction House (7601 Sunset Blvd., (323) 850-7500), special thanks are due to Julian’s Auction House (9665 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 836-1818) and Heritage Auctions (9478 W. Olympic, (800) 872-6467) for their generous assistance in providing photographs of memorabilia from celebrity estates they have represented in auction.