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Hollywood auction draws devoted fans, rich collectors

From the moment AJ Palmgren learned of Lot 397, he knew he had to have it.

But he had never bid at an auction before, and as he took a seat toward the back of the gallery, his nerves took over.

"I hoped I wasn't going to space out," he said.

A mustachioed auctioneer was disposing of lots quickly, sounding off prices and signaling winners with a rap of his gavel. Nearby, several employees sat at a long table, receiving bids from clients on the telephone and Internet. All around them, collectibles gleamed behind glass in hulking display cases.

It was time for Lot 397. Palmgren fidgeted in his seat, gripping paddle No. 129 tightly. Early online bidding had already pushed the price to $3,700.

Palmgren listened as auctioneer Michael Doyle shouted out the asking price. Palmgren made his move.

He thrust his paddle into the air, making a bid at $4,000. The room fell silent. Doyle asked whether there were any other bidders. Palmgren scanned the gallery, trying to suppress a smile.

When the gavel came down, Palmgren let out a "whoop!" that sent the room into wild applause.

He'd just won the front bumper of a KITT car from the 1980s television series "Knight Rider."

The company putting on the event, Julien's Auctions, had expected the item, being sold by star David Hasselhoff, to fetch as much as $800. But Palmgren, 42, a commercial real estate investor who has dubbed himself a "Knight Rider" historian, believed he had scored a deal at five times that much.

"I have a special place in my home for it," he said.

::

Palmgren was at a swanky auction in Beverly Hills, but the two-day event last month wasn't your typical sale of Old Masters paintings or vintage wines.

He's just the sort of buyer that Julien's cultivates.

"For me, that is the reward — when you have given someone like him the chance to buy something important to him," said Martin Nolan, executive director of Beverly Hills-based Julien's. "He may take a few months to pay off his credit card, but for him, he has a treasure."

Founded in 2003 by a former Sotheby's consultant, Julien's is a major player in the world of Hollywood memorabilia. The company has held auctions of collections related to or from Cher, Barbra Streisand, the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Its next sale, a music-themed auction to be held Saturday in New York, will feature items connected to Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley.

As part of the company's for-the-masses bent, its auctions are free and open to the public.

"Sotheby's and Christie's … they have this persona that you have to be a moneyed person to attend — that's one of the things that we've tried to break down," said Darren Julien, the company's founder and president. "We want fans here. You never know who is going to become a long-term client."

::

Before jerseys worn by Ice-T's pet bulldogs and lifeguard buoys used by Hasselhoff on "Baywatch" could be auctioned, the first day's afternoon session started off on a serious note: the sale of 99 lots from Glenn Brown, a collector of film costumes who long worked in movie studio MGM's archives department.

Brown, 68, couldn't bear to attend the auction and instead spent the day taking care of his 92-year-old father in Dana Point.

"It's an emotional thing. I've had the stuff for 40 years," said Brown, who amassed most of his collection at a 1970 auction of items owned by MGM, acquiring 1,500 costumes, props and furniture for a total of $1,500.

The auction began with two costume pieces from the 1937 MGM film "The Good Earth." Expected to fetch as much as $400, the lot went for $450. The next two items — a costume from the film "The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg" and a prop from Hal Roach Studios — didn't sell. It was a middling start.

But things would heat up. Lot 271, a taupe corduroy ensemble worn by early Hollywood star Mary Pickford in the 1921 movie "Little Lord Fauntleroy" sold for $11,000, well above a pre-auction estimate of $6,000 to $8,000.

Although only about 10 people sat in the gallery — and few were bidding — a slight man in a yellow baseball cap perked up when the auctioneer called out Lot 274. He cradled an iPad, and the auction catalog in his lap was filled with neon Post-it notes.

The item, a pale green beaded gown worn by actress Carole Lombard, loomed large for Brown. He'd acquired the dress at a Christie's auction in 1990 for $1,000. At the time, it was described as having been worn by actress Florence Vidor in "Doomsday," he said. But Brown later researched the gown and found a publicity image of Lombard wearing it, establishing a higher-profile provenance.

Bidding began at $3,500 and increased in $250 increments. At first the contest was between several online and phone bidders, but most dropped out when the man in the yellow cap entered the fray at $6,000. From there, he went up against a bidder who was on the phone with Nolan.

The price shot past $10,000 and kept rising in $1,000 increments. The man in the cap signaled his bids with a nod, or by calmly raising his hand.

The phone bidder pressed on, and Nolan whispered into the microphone of his mobile phone's headset, keeping his client apprised.

When Nolan's bidder offered $27,500, auctioneer Tim Luke set his sights on the man in the cap.

"I need an even $30,000, looking for $30,000, one more at $30,000," Luke intoned. "Are we done? Fair warning...."

The gavel cracked. Phone bidder No. 825 had won the dress.

But the man in the cap didn't come away empty-handed. He later won a costume from "Singin' in the Rain" for $3,250 and another worn by Julie Andrews in "Darling Lili" for $3,000, in addition to other items.

He declined to give his name or comment, saying that he represented an "institution" and was not authorized to speak publicly.

A handful of local museums, including the Hollywood Museum, have been known to acquire collectibles at auction. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is planning a $300-million film museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus that would include artifacts such as costumes and props.

::

The man in the cap left after all of Brown's items were auctioned, apparently not interested in the offerings from Ice-T and Hasselhoff.

A few more visitors trickled in for the session that would include items from those celebrities. German film and television crews milled about, taking footage of a 14-foot-long figure of a shirtless Hasselhoff that was used in Nickelodeon's "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie." The grinning statue had caused a stir in the lead-up to the auction, having appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," where it served as a divan for the host.

Sprays of rapid-fire German filled the air, and the foreign language and constant references to "The Hoff" did not go unnoticed by observers.

Frank Fastner, a producer of the German entertainment news TV show "Explosiv," said his program was covering the auction because Hasselhoff is "of course a well-known celebrity" in Germany. "I was hoping, to be honest, for more fans in here," he said.

There were still little more than a dozen or so people in attendance. Throughout the event, much of the bidding took place online, where more than 4,000 people had registered to bid, said Julien, who, along with Nolan, stars on Lifetime's "Celebrity Home Raiders."

Things now moved briskly. Some of the Ice-T items, including a signed book and the bulldog jerseys, sold below estimates. The Hasselhoff sale, however, had some big hits. A Pontiac Firebird customized to look like a KITT car — but not used on "Knight Rider" — sold for $120,000. A golf cart modified to look like the TV show's car went for $7,000.

"In case you have a little mini-me that drives around with you, this one's for them," auctioneer Doyle said.

When he announced that the oversized Hasselhoff replica had been pulled from the auction, no one seemed to mind. (Nolan later said that the actor had grown attached to the prop and decided to keep it.)

The auction ended with a historical palate cleanser of sorts: Several Houdini-related objects and celluloids from Disney animated classics such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pinocchio" sold for thousands of dollars apiece. Although Julien's was still ringing up sales that would total $532,500 that afternoon before buyer's fees, only two women remained in the seats.

Palmgren drifted away from the gallery to give interviews to two German outlets.

"The television crews were a bonus to a really cool day," he said, "but I succeeded at something I had really wanted to do — acquire a piece of history."

daniel.miller@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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