Buying Hollywood's History: Carrie Fisher, Paul Newman Memorabilia Hot at Auction

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From Audrey Hepburn's Givenchy couture to Carrie Fisher's 'Empire Strikes Back' script, celebrity and film memorabilia has become the hot commodity at auction.

Box-office numbers for 2017 may be lagging behind 2016's record-setting year, but don'’t confuse lack of interest in movies with lack of interest in movie stars.

A look at the fall auction schedule reveals that sales of celebrity and film memorabilia are hotter than ever, with eight events planned between now and Thanksgiving. What's behind this surge in activity? "We know people are passionate about this subject matter, and it's partly because we are feeling very nostalgic at the moment," says Martin Nolan, executive director of L.A.-based Julien's Auctions, which is planning back-to-back events in November: "Icons and Idols: Hollywood" on Nov. 17, and "Treasures from the Vault: Joseff of Hollywood" on Nov. 18. "Increasingly we're also finding that collectors are adding this as part of their investment pie: Next to art, real estate, jewelry, cars, and stocks and bonds, a fun slice has been carved out for collectibles."

Consecutive auctions in London this week promise to illuminate the off-screen lives of two of film's most iconic actresses. On Tuesday, Sotheby’s presents "Vivien: The Vivien Leigh Collection," the first-ever auction of the actress best known for her Oscar-winning roles in Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. But other than an assortment of film-related items in the 321-lot auction — a leather-bound Gone With the Wind presentation script and her wig from Streetcar among them — many pieces offer a never-before-seen look into Leigh's life.

"She died more than 50 years ago [in 1967], so it's easy to forget she was a real person who lived a life," says Frances Christie, head of modern and post-war British art for Sotheby's. Among the items expected to draw intense interest: an assortment of costume and fine jewelry, including a bow brooch featuring cushion- and circular-cut diamonds, estimated to fetch between $33,100 and $46,300; and an oil-on-canvas study in roses, painted by Sir Winston Churchill and gifted to Leigh by the former British prime minister in 1951, carrying a pre-auction estimate of $93,000 to $133,000.

"When you think of a Hollywood icon, you don't automatically think of an intimate friendship with Winston Churchill, immortalized by a painting of roses he gave to her," Christie says. "What's special about this auction is that it's not just memorabilia, the things she kept from her stage and screen career. This person who was put at a distance on the silver screen, you're able to learn so much more about her."

On Wednesday, Christie’s London presents "Audrey Hepburn: The Personal Collection," a 256-lot live auction that represents the first time Hepburn’s two sons, Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti, have released any of their mother's possessions for sale. An online auction kicked off last week and features 231 items, from costume jewelry and clothes — Givenchy and other labels — to items like Hepburn's button and ribbon box and a 1964 telegram from Cristobal Balenciaga; bidding ends Oct. 4, with bids on many items already surpassing estimates.

 "One of the reasons we split the collection between the online and live platforms is that it was a very democratic way of reaching the most people," explains Adrian Hume-Sayer, head of sale and director of private collections for Christie's London. "Her sons were particularly keen to make the event as accessible as possible."

That means accessible in price as well. A few lots are expected to garner lofty prices — two of Hepburn's dresses by Hubert de Givenchy, one worn in 1963's Charade, are among the highlights, while Hepburn's Breakfast at Tiffany’s working script, with her notes written throughout in turquoise ink, is estimated between $81,480 and $122,220 — but the auction also pointedly includes a handful of lower-priced items, including a circa-1960 sleep mask and a 1965 telegram from photographer Richard Avedon. "Everyone involved in the auction is aware that Audrey Hepburn's fan base extends far beyond the serious collector," Hume-Sayer says. "It was very purposeful to add several things starting at £100, including the eye mask and some silk flowers she wore in her hair. We want everyone to feel like they could walk away with something."

How fandom evolves to collector: Joe Maddalena says he understands that idea all too well. "This was Debbie's wish," notes Maddalena, president and CEO of Profiles in History, which is presenting "The Personal Property Auction of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds" Oct. 7-9. "She wanted the things that mattered to her back in the hands of collectors because she was a collector. She knew that these things last forever, and you're just a caretaker."

In addition to Audrey Hepburn's iconic gown from 1954'’s Sabrina and one of Reynolds's dresses from 1952’s Singin' in the Rain, the three-day, 1,419-lot auction includes several costumes — including pieces designed by Elsa Schiaparelli for Mae West for 1937's Every Day's a Holiday — as well as wide variety of clothes, furniture and decorative objects from Fisher's and Reynolds's homes. "Because I knew Debbie so well, I saw how she interacted with these things, so all of them are intensely personal to me," says Maddalena, who first met Reynolds in 1977. "But every day we are finding new collectors. Because we grew up with movies, and those are a big part of our memories."

High-value items in the Debbie Reynolds/Carrie Fisher auction include the Sabrina gown, estimated between $80,000 and $120,000, as well as a selection of Fisher's Star Wars scripts: An Empire Strikes Back shooting script, filled with Fisher's personal notes and changes, is expected to go for between $30,000 and $50,000, while her presentation script for Star Wars, given to Fisher by George Lucas at completion of filming, carries a pre-auction estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. But like the Christie's Audrey Hepburn auction, Maddalena felt it was important to offer a wide range of pricing: A carved rose-quartz vase from Reynolds' home carries an estimate of $100 to $200, while the kitschier items from Fisher's home include everything from antique tin containers to a "Princess Leia" rubber duck on a soap dish; both lots likewise carry an estimate of $100 to $200. "They both had their own fans, of every generation, and we organized this event so the most people might take away their own memory of these two incredible women," Maddalena says.

At the other end of the spectrum, expect one lot at "Winning Icons: Legendary Watches of the 20th Century," set for Oct. 26 at Phillips New York, to capture the highest price of the season — and possibly set a record. Among the 50 timepieces up for auction that evening is the one considered the holy grail of status watches: the Rolex “Paul Newman” Cosmograph Daytona, famously owned and worn by the actor (the auction takes its name from Newman's 1969 film, Winning, which reportedly inspired his love of auto racing). "Amazingly, this watch found us," says Paul Boutrous, Phillips' head of watches for the Americas, of the Rolex's journey from Newman's wrist to a former boyfriend of his daughter, Nell, to the auction block. "It had become this mythic thing of hope for collectors. Once we knew of its availability, we built an entire sale of iconic watches around this incredibly special piece."

Other timepieces in "Winning Icons" include a circa-1951 Patek Philippe, the brand's first perpetual-calendar chronograph, estimated between $600,000 and $1.2 million, and a circa-1927 Cartier Tank Cintree in platinum, with an estimate set between $250,000 and $500,000. With just 50 watches in the auction, has the Paul Newman Daytona been positioned as the climax of the evening? Not with so much global interest, Boutros says. "We have to be mindful of international bidders," he notes. "For watches of interest to Asian and European clients, we have to consider compatible time zones. We haven't decided yet on the lot number for the Paul Newman, but you can count on it being more toward the beginning of the evening, rather than later."

At press time Boutros and Newman's Rolex were still on a world tour, visiting interested collectors in Geneva, Hong Kong, Taipei and points beyond; Boutros will bring the watch to L.A. for viewings Oct. 12-14. The pre-sale estimate has been set at "in excess of" $1 million (a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Nell Newman Foundation); a similar model not owned by Newman was sold in May at a Phillips auction for $3,717,906. But Boutros demurs when asked if he thinks Newman's fabled Rolex might go for a record price. "We tend to be very cautious, because you never know what can happen at auction," he says. "Numbers get thrown around, and it makes us worry, for sure. We don't want to discourage anyone. We expect bidding from all types, from interested parties to seasoned watch collectors to museums."

Indeed, heightened interest in celebrity and entertainment memorabilia from museums, especially as it relates to fashion, should come as no surprise. "We find more and more that successful museum exhibitions are those with a fashion or celebrity theme," Nolan, of Julien's Auctions, says. "But it makes sense, because that's our contemporary history. Look at David Bowie [at London's Victoria & Albert museum in 2013] or Pink Floyd, which is there now and tracking to be bigger than Bowie. They're drawing huge crowds and extending hours to meet the demand. That's why there's more and more competition to own especially the truly iconic pieces that become available."

The Nov. 17 "Icons & Idols: Hollywood" auction includes more than 70 costumes and memorabilia owned or worn by Judy Garland, including her red velvet dress by costume designer Irene Sharaff, worn in 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis (pre-sale estimate: $6,000-$8,000), while the Nov. 18 "Treasures from the Vault: Joseff of Hollywood" auction could prove to be a boon to museums and fans alike. More than 500 pieces will be featured from the archives of Joseff of Hollywood, the costume-jewelry house founded by Eugene Joseff in the 1930s, culled from an extensive collection still kept in an unmarked Burbank warehouse. Joseff of Hollywood produced thousands of costume jewels between the 1930s and 1950s (Eugene, who ran a parallel business crafting aviation parts, died in a plane crash in 1948; his wife, Joan, took over both businesses, which remain in the Joseff family). The Nov. 18 auction includes such A-list pieces as a necklace and earrings worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind; a spray of diamond stars worn by Greta Garbo in Camille; and a gold-plated belt and cuff bracelet, both featuring snake embellishments, worn by Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

Julien's toured the Joseff pieces, taking them to museums in Ireland and Atlanta, where Nolan says interest was intense from collectors and casual fans alike. "Of all the memorabilia out there, jewelry is the easiest to be worn," he points out. "How great is it to show up at a dinner party, and you're wearing Elizabeth Taylor's bracelet or Marilyn Monroe's earrings? It's the talk of the party."

Bonhams has partnered with Turner Classic Movies since 2013 (at their first auction collaboration, the screen-used titular statue from 1941's Maltese Falcon sold for $4.085 million, while a Givenchy hat Hepburn wore in 1957's Funny Face quadrupled its estimate, selling for $87,500). The latest auctions — "TCM Presents … Vintage Movie Posters Featuring the Ira Resnick Collection" on Nov. 20 and the sci-fi-centric "TCM Presents … Out of This World!" on Nov. 21 — reflect both the changing tastes and the growing sophistication of memorabilia collectors, says Catherine Williamson, director of entertainment memorabilia for L.A.-based Bonhams. "We're seeing that people who were children in the '60s and '70s are coming into their mature collecting phase, which for most of us is middle age and up, when kids have gone off to school and you can focus on the thing that means a lot to you," she says. "With the Star Wars generation, which grew up in the '70s and '80s, they're now collectors with change in their pocket, and they're looking to collect the totems of their youth."

As its name implies, the Nov. 20 auction highlights vintage posters from renowned collector Ira Resnick, author of the 2010 book, Starstruck: Vintage Movie Posters from Classic Hollywood. Most of the posters featured in the auction from the 1930s, Williamson says: "That was the decade that produced some truly spectacular posters using stone lithography, and because people didn't think about collecting movie posters then, they're much rarer." If Williamson had to pick one favorite from this auction? "The most beautiful is a one-sheet from Gold Diggers of 1933 — the film included a lot of big stars at the time, but none of them really appear on the art," she says. "It's primarily a beautiful illustration of dancing girls and really bold typography." The poster's pre-auction estimate is $20,000 to $30,000.

Hot lots in "Out of This World!" include a screen-used light saber from 1983's Return of the Jedi, which carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000, as well as the iconic Robby the Robot from 1956's Forbidden Planet; Bonhams is offering that estimate only "on request." A variety of other items are available even if you're not a sci-fi fan, including Joe Mankiewicz's leather-bound presentation script from 1950's All About Eve, embossed on the cover with the writer-director's initials. "People call us because they have this material, and it's the right time to sell because the marketplace is ready," Williamson says. "We also have to be flexible. Everybody in the auction business has to be aware of the trends; it's a little bit like fashion that way."

Ultimately, what's the reason for this uptick of interest in memorabilia? Nolan  has a theory. "There are a lot of harsh things happening in the world, and this is a throwback to something that's very constant," he says. "These days we find ourselves going back to comfort food and constant things in our lives. No matter what, we can always watch It's a Wonderful Life or The Quiet Man, and these items we connect to conjure thoughts of happy days and happy memories."

Christie agrees. "The wonderful thing about these historical collections is that they bring people together with a moment in history that, for whatever reason, speaks to them," she says. No matter whether any of the items set to go on the Sotheby's block Tuesday end up in the hands of serious art collectors or passionate film fans, Christie shares the sentiment of any auction expert who has lovingly curated a collection: "I hope they all go to good homes."

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