Objects of desire and investing in Monroe
Memorabilia associated with Marilyn Monroe continues to haunt the world's auction rooms commanding record-breaking prices.
By Andy Round
Margaret Barrett, the director of Entertainment Memorabilia for Bonhams & Butterfields is on the phone from LA. She says she is sitting beside a table that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe with a book of Jim Morrison poetry on top of it. “Two of my favourite icons together in one place,” she laughs down the phone. “Sometimes people come into my department and start moving things around to sit down and I tell them to be really careful, some of those things used to belong to Marilyn.”
Barrett has to good reason to be careful, celebrity memorabilia is big business and it doesn’t get any bigger than Monroe. If you want a major return on your millions forget shares or property, you need an item of clothing that once hugged the curves of the world’s most famous screen goddess.
In 2011 the LA auction house Profiles in History sold Monroe’s famous white ‘subway’ dress from The Seven Year Itch for US$5.52 million. It was a new world record for a movie costume and shattered the previous record held by Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s sold for US$807,000 in 2006.
When it comes auction house box office the glamour of Monroe outshines everyone. Christie’s 1999 US$1.2 million auction of the dress she wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ is still the most expensive gown every sold. Even for smaller items the prices are stratospheric. “I recently attended a sale at Julien’s and watched in disbelief as a white terry robe that belonged to Marilyn sold for US$120,000,” life-long Monroe collector Scott Fortner tells Portfolio. “In 1999 it sold for US$18,400.”
Gainsborough Roberts is a collector, wresting promoter and retired banker
So what’s behind these incredible prices? “You ask little kids today and they know who Monroe is even if they have never seen her films,” says Barrett. “I think the further we get away from her life the more mysterious she becomes. You see so many celebrities reinventing her look and so many pictures of her everywhere that she doesn’t seem real. I think memorabilia reminds us that she was a real person.”
Despite dying tragically of an apparent overdose at the age of 36 in August 1962, Monroe’s seductive continues to endure half a century later. “If she had lived she would have been well into her nineties but we will never see her ravaged by time,” Monroe collector, former wresting promoter, probation officer and retired investment banker David Gainsborough Roberts says. “I’ve probably spent about US$450,000 on my collection but it’s worth a gigantic amount now, possibly even US$20 million. But at the time I didn’t buy to sell, I don’t buy to sell anything.”
Gainsborough Roberts is a flamboyant legend in memorabilia circles. He was first inspired to collect as a child when his grandmother gave him a piece of wood said to be from Nelson’s Victory. Today his collection includes 20 dresses as well as dozens of other items of memorabilia such as pill boxes found with Monroe when she died and a postcard stating ‘No, I’m not pregnant’. Many of these items are on display at the American Museum in Britain until October 30 
'I have a mink fur collar she wore several times in 1955 and 1956'
Like Gainsborough Roberts, Fortner has also loaned dozens of items from his “six-figures-or-more collection” to exhibitions dedicated to the star. “My favourite items? I feel particularly protective of items in my collection that Marilyn considered favourites when she owned them such as a mink fur collar she’s photographed wearing several times in 1955 and 1956,” says Fortner. “I also have items from when she was young such as her first camera.”
Both collectors source their material from reputable auctions as well as reliable individual sources. Gainsborough Roberts says he became friends with Monroe’s masseur Ralph ‘Rafe’ Roberts before he died. “He saw her almost every day for three years and was probably one of the last people who spoke to Monroe before she died,” the collector says. “He’s always maintained that she didn’t kill herself and that it the overdose was a terrible accident.”
Monroe is also a focus for hero worship from contemporary celebrity collectors. Lindsay Lohan who recreated Monroe’s ‘Last Sitting’ Vogue photo session with original photographer Bert Stern for New York, told the magazine she had bought an apartment where Monroe once lived and filled it with “a lot of Marilyn stuff”.
'Tommy Hilfiger bought back a pair of his company's stiletto heels'
During the landmark sale of Monroe’s estate by Christie’s in 1999, singer Mariah Carey bought Monroe’s childhood piano for US$662,000 (“It belonged to her mother and was a piece of her childhood,” the singer said); Tommy Hilfiger bought a pair of her jeans and boots for US$112,000 and Massimo Ferragamo bought back a pair his company’s red stiletto heels for US$42,000. The highlight of the auction, however, was the sale of that dress Monroe wore to sing a breathy Happy Birthday to US President John F Kennedy.
“The fact that the sale achieved a total of US$13.4 million from 576 lots is a reflection of the incredible enduring appeal of Monroe’s legend,” Bonham’s memorabilia expert Katherine Williams tells Portfolio. “A lot of actresses get lost in the midst of time but Monroe endures whether it’s in Warhol paintings or her association with historic figures, there is no doubt she is an icon.”
And new Monroe memorabilia is always being discovered. No matter how insignificant or bizarre, if an item has been touched with the magic dust of Marilyn it’s worth a fortune. American auction house Julien’s recently sold X-rays of Monroe’s chest taken in 1954 for US$45,000 and the couch she used to sit on when she visited her psychiatrist for US$2,625.
'Marilyn had lots of assistants and every week we're shown things that are fake'
“Can you imagine the stories that couch could tell?” says Darren Julien, the company’s CEO, speaking from Tokyo. “Why am I in Asia? Well, in China and Japan, there is a fascination with Western pop culture and plenty of large bidders. The combination of Monroe’s troubled private life, her appearance in incredible films, a tragic death and her personal connection to iconic personalities in America’ history from JFK to Joe DiMaggio is an intoxicating celebrity mix. Some celebrities may just be well known in specific countries. But Monroe like Elvis or The Beatles has an international fan base.”
So where do you begin if you want to add a few Monroe pieces to your own investment porfolio? “Always start with provenance, Julien warns. “We do not sell anything that we cannot authenticate through photographic evidence or reputable sources,” he says. “Marilyn had a lot of assistants and every week we are shown things that are fake. On one occasion we were offered hair curlers that were supposed to be Marilyn’s but they had been manufactured in the 1970s long after her death.”
Barrett at Bonhams & Butterfields says the most heart-breaking part of her job is telling would-be sellers that a studio assistant probably signed the ‘Marilyn’ autograph they have just inherited from their grandmother. “There are also a people who think you can buy a 1950s fur add a fake letter of authenticity and sell it for a fortune,” she says. “The good thing about Monroe is that she was photographed every day of her life so it’s comparatively straightforward to check items.”
'Even in an ID picture she looked glamorous.'
But when a genuine item arrives at an auction house, the sensation is indescribable. “I can remember handling an identity card that once belonged to Monroe and it was a genuine electric thrill,” says Barrett. “Even in an ID picture she looked glamorous.”
For Gainsborough Roberts that electricity is overwhelming. “These things are linked to real people, not images in a photograph or actors in a film. The sensation is childlike. I actually own this piece of history! And it’s actually in my front room! People say that I could have had a holiday for what I paid for an item, but I don’t want a week in France I want this excitement.”
Collector David Gainsborough Roberts.
“I must have 20 costumes including the black cocktail dress she wore in Some Like It Hot, it was so tight she had to be picked up and lowered into the bicycle for the last scene. I started collecting in 1991 when I bought my first Monroe dress for about £15,000. In those days it was a lot of money and everyone was saying who is that crazy man? From then I was married to Marilyn. There was no getting away from it. How can I afford it? I don’t have a wife, I don’t have children and I don’t have a mortgage.”
Collector Scott Fortner
“There is just something magical about Monroe. She’s a modern day Cleopatra. Young modern starlets are often compared to her and that’s amazing considering she died nearly 50 years ago. The Marilyn I find most fascinating is the woman that longed to be taken seriously as an actress as she struggled to move away from the typecast roles of the dumb blonde. Bidding at auction is a tough call at times. You make decisions based on what’s happening around you. But today the demand for her property is increasing with prices shooting through the roof. She is a golden investment.”
Bonham’s memorabilia expert Katherine Williams
“The provenance or source of memorabilia is always of paramount importance. The items in the 1999 sale of Monroe items were directly from her estate and impeccable. I always advise anyone who wants to buy memorabilia to buy from a reputable auction house or dealer. At Bonham’s we have research teams that ensure the history of an item and the story of the seller match up. Do plenty of homework and buy something to which you have an emotional, personal response. It may not go up in value but at least you can live with it if you love it.”
CEO of juliensauctions.com Darren Julien
“Why do people collect memorabilia? They want a piece of film or rock’n’roll history. Some people may want to diversify their portfolios and regard memorabilia in the same way as an original work of art, but most collect because they are passionate about their favourite star. Once I was being shown around an unnamed celebrity’s home and they asked what could be done to improve the collectability of their possessions. The answer is for them to pass away. When celebrities die it makes a big difference because their output ceases. A few years ago we sold George Harrison’s Gibson SG from the late 1960s for US$560,000 it’s probably worth over a million now. And Lennon is still the most collectible of The Beatles.”
Director of entertainment memorabilia in LA for Bonhams Margaret Barrett
“Are there other icons like Monroe? Michael Jackson died young and tragically. When a celebrity is huge in death they have been huge in life. Michael Jackson’s music has touched the lives of several generations. People get sentimental. When he died I was with someone who was 15 years younger than me and we both felt a very strong sense of nostalgia. Now he is gone, he will never sign another thing again.”
Times journalist Sara Buys who recently visited Gainsborough Roberts’ exhibition to try on Monroe’s clothes
“Monroe was five feet, five inches, just over eight stone and probably a 30E. What made her body extraordinary was the 13-inch difference between her chest and hip measurements and her waist. In her younger years she would have been 36, 23, 35.”
rst past us and accelerate down the slope. With a little distance we can now see the cause of our jungle red alert. Two juvenile gorillas have converted themselves into a fast moving fur ball by holding each other’s hands and feet like hairy circus clowns. Then with a little momentum, plenty of gravity and a lot of gorilla push and pull we nearly became tourist skittles to the youngsters’ bowling skills. Whew. Just kids messing about.