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Hollywood Memorablia: Lights, Camera, Collectibles

In 1999, Christie’s auctioned a black cocktail dress worn by Marilyn Monroe for $20,000. Two years ago, Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills auctioned the same dress, which fetched $380,000.

| BY Donald Liebenson

It is a testament to Hollywood’s once shortsighted regard to the value (not only cultural, but investment-wise as well) of its own history that many movie production items were trashed, destroyed, recycled, or otherwise not preserved. Reportedly, the iconic trenchcoat that Humphrey Bogart wore in “Casablanca” was rescued from incineration by Kent Warner, a costumer, who went on to amass his own private collection.

Animation buffs weep at the news that back in the day, cels that were the building blocks for classic Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons were either scrubbed and reused or—horrors—brought home for the animators’ kids to play with. Today, a vintage Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny still would fetch thousands of dollars.

Today, Hollywood memorabilia is on the A-list for collectors and investors who long for an authentic piece of movie history or a treasured artifact from a favorite film, star, director or genre. Movie memorabilia satisfies many of the criteria of what makes a solid investment. For starters, Hollywood memorabilia is the very definition of supply and demand. There were, for example, only four pairs of ruby red slippers used in “The Wizard of Oz.” They are considered to be the holy grail of Hollywood memorabilia. Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio led a group of benefactors including Steven Spielberg, whose gift allowed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to purchase the pair used for the close-ups of Dorothy clicking her heels to return to Kansas for its proposed museum.

Whether it be the boots Charlton Heston wore in “Planet of the Apes” or Clark Gable’s monogrammed cufflinks, these are truly one-of-a-kind items.

Depending on the star or the item, Hollywood memorabilia has been shown to appreciate significantly. In 1999, Christie’s auctioned a black cocktail dress worn by Marilyn Monroe for $20,000. Two years ago, Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills auctioned the same dress, which fetched $380,000.

Don’t let those prices scare you off. There is plenty of more affordable Hollywood memorabilia available, be they movie and TV scripts, autographs, or even cancelled checks or contracts.

But collector beware; “You need to have good provenance” said Mary Konke, director of books and manuscripts for Chicago-based Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. This means it either came straight from the estate or the celebrity or can be authenticated, something that can be more problematic with autographs. “History, affidavits, photographs of celebrity supporting the item that makes it a good investment.”

Another caveat: Prices fetched at auction may not reflect the actual value of the item. “That’s the nature of an open market,” Konke said. “A particular auction may get a lot of press and attention and attract bidders from all over the world. A lot of time the final bids only reflect the competitive bidding.”

Darren Julien, president and CEO of Julien’s Auctions, observes that the market has evolved over the past 15 years in which his auction house has been in business “It’s not just memorabilia, it has become a lucrative business,” he said. Beyond the ordinary collector we now see organizations that don’t really care about an item’s sentimental value, but the marketing value for their organization, such as a museum looking to buy something for an exhibition or display. A Marilyn Monroe can be a bigger draw than a Picasso.”

Julien, too, recommends budding collectors and memorabilia investors do their due diligence. “Only buy from credible sources,” he said. “Many auction houses offer free advice.”

If you are interested in a vintage movie poster, “make sure it’s not a reproduction,” he said. “If it’s a movie gown, beware forgers who may have sewn in labels to make an item look authentic.”

Who are the blue chip stars of the memorabilia market? Julien cited familiar iconic names such as Monroe, Elvis, Garland, and Hayworth. Not to be ghoulish, but a celebrity death can add significant value to their memorabilia. A Michael Jackson rhinestone glove fetched $30,000 when he was alive, Julien noted. After he died, it fetched $420,000

“But you just never know,” he said. “Look at Lindsey Lohan. If she came back and got her life straightened out and won an Academy Award, items from her career would be huge. That hasn’t happened yet.”

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.