Magazine article The Spectator

Cult of Celebrity

Magazine article The Spectator

Cult of Celebrity

Article excerpt

There is something sad about old clothes. Even - or perhaps, especially -- Marilyn's. All the inevitable razzmatazz surrounding Marilyn: The Private Property of Marilyn Monroe as it tours the world (sponsored by International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc.), prior to its dispersal at Christie's New York later this month, only highlights the inherent awfulness of selling this kind of intimate and not so very enduring material. While the bevy of fake or would-be Marilyns pouted before fake or would-be paparazzi at the London preview, the real Norma Jean's long-empty frocks, jeans and voluminous bikinis lay upstairs -- a cocktail dress, its bust crushed implausibly flat by ironing, bore the traces of moth; strappy gold sandals stood tired enough for Oxfam. Worse still, all around us were blown-up black and white photographs of Marilyn wearing these clothes and looking absolutely ravishing. Inspecting a rack of her favoured Pucci, her nightshirt, her bikinis, was like rifling through somebody's wardrobe while they were out of the room. I could not leave fast enough.

For the auction house, of course, as for her most ardent fans, Marilyn seems like a gift from heaven - and heaven alone knows precisely what preposterous figure her famous `Happy Birthday, Mr President' dress will make, that crowd-silencing sheath of sparkling flesh-coloured souffle gauze sculpted around her naked body for the Madison Square Garden rally. Billed now as the last and possibly most extraordinary celebrity sale of the millennium, Marilyn indeed comes as the climax of a spate of recent high-profile memorabilia sales that mirror the decade's cult of celebrity.

First came Nureyev in 1994 (L7.9 million), then Jackie O ($23 million). Diana's dresses fetched $5.7 million in 1997; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's effects, another $23 million (estimate $7 million) the following year. Geri Halliwell's Spice Girl mementos notched up L146,000 last year; Fashion of the Oscars, $786,000 earlier this year. As I write, the cocktail suit worn by Marilyn on her marriage to Joe DiMaggio has just changed hands for $33,000 at Sotheby's Cocktails sale in New York, and the Halper collection of baseball memorabilia notched up an incredible $21 million. (Lou Gehrig's last glove and his Yankees road jersey both fetched ten times the amount of Marilyn's suit.) No less interesting are the figures for the sales of $85-or-so commemorative catalogues, and for the numbers of potential new clients who walk through the door for such views. Well over 30,000 went to see the Windsor material, and some 31,000 bought catalogues.

No one but the Big Two could carry off such large, glamorous and media-orientated dispersals of celebrity memorabilia -- after all, they did invent the genre - but they do beg the question of whether they affect the firms' credibility as serious fine art auctioneers. In fact, the collectors and curators of the world could be forgiven for thinking that the as yet unannounced radical restructuring of Christie's London is a clear indication that the firm is far more interested in the likes of high-profile second-hand frocks than they are in all but the most glamorous antiques.

The problem besetting the auction houses is that, despite phenomenal sale totals and large annual turnovers, their traditional business remains remarkably unprofitable. …

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