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Auctioning Off Silver Screen’s Golden Past

Christie’s New York, one of the world’s largest auction houses, is searching for Hollywood movie memorabilia for a June auction.

Collectible’s expert Eric Alberta arrived in town Wednesday to give free appraisals of movie props, autographs, photographs, costume designs, costumes and other personal artifacts of the stars.

Every 15 minutes for more than eight hours, scores of memorabilia holders filed into Alberta’s temporary office in Beverly Hills on Rodeo Drive, each owner bearing some unique piece of Hollywood history lifted from the silver screen to be placed on the auction block.

“It’s insane, isn’t it?” said 58-year-old John Hunt, a retired Whittier museum curator who arrived early in the morning loaded down with several Marilyn Monroe photos and negatives, a signed Greta Garbo photo, Clark Gable’s brass dressing room tag from MGM and a personal letter from Norma Shearer explaining why she turned down the role of Scarlett O’Hara.

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Alberta’s day today is booked solid with more appointments, and on Friday he is expected to make house calls to appraise larger items and entire collections that cannot be carried in by hand.

“This is the 50th anniversary of 1939, which was a historic year for classic film,” Alberta said. (“Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gunga Din,” “Goodby Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Wuthering Heights” were among those released in 1939.)

“It’s been a long time since then,” Alberta continued, “and it’s finally hitting home that this is part of our American heritage. Movies represent one of the greatest technological advances, as well as one of the greatest art forms, of the 20th Century. Whereas painters painted with a brush, (Cecil B.) DeMille, David O. Selznick and D. W. Griffith were painting their canvases on the screen.”

Hollywood memorabilia has suddenly become big business for auction houses and an undeniable investment for collectors. Appraisers such as Alberta have found it difficult to affix value to artifacts because there are no established buying patterns, so quickly has the popularity of Hollywood collectibles risen.

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In an auction held by Christie’s two years ago, Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and floppy shoes were expected to bring in about $30,000. They sold for $150,000. A Gothic Revival oak desk used by DeMille, expected to sell in the neighborhood of $10,000, went for $121,000 in October.

In December, Sotheby’s sold one of two pianos used in “Casablanca” (1941) for $154,000; a 1938 radio type-script from “War of the Worlds” for $143,000, and a black-and-white Walt Disney animation cel from “The Orphan’s Benefit” for $135,000.

“The items that go for those prices are one-of-a-kind items,” said Dana Hawkes, head of Sotheby’s collectible department in New York. “But there are no precedents for prices; the market determines the price.”

It used to be that there was no market at all for Hollywood memorabilia. In the early years of film, costumes and props were mostly regarded as studio castoffs.

“Nobody gave these things any value--the studios never gave the property any value,” said Gary Milan, a Beverly Hills dentist whose personal memorabilia collection includes one of several Maltese falcons used in the film of that name and the “Casablanca” piano that appeared in Rick’s Cafe (he owned both pianos, but sold the upright piano used in the Parisian cafe flashback scene at the Sotheby’s auction).

“After the film was made, the property was given to actors, thrown out or even destroyed,” Milan said. “Because after the picture was made, the piece had absolutely no worth to them.”

Beginning in the early 1980s, lost or forgotten Hollywood memorabilia items--for a long time sold and traded privately--began to surface in public auctions one by one, culled largely by collectors who salvaged them from the studios. The potential for financial windfall in Hollywood collectibles was realized in 1982 when Steven Spielberg paid $61,000 at a Sotheby’s auction for one of the “Rosebud” sleds from “Citizen Kane.”

But the floodgates really opened wide last June, when a pair of ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz"--one of seven believed to be in existence--was auctioned off by Christie’s for $165,000.

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And experts believe that may be just the beginning.

Michael Shaw, an MGM childhood actor who is working now as a tour guide for Universal Studios, also has a pair of ruby slippers among his extensive private collection.

“Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have told me if I wait and auction them off, my shoes will probably bring a million dollars,” he said. Although he would not confirm it, one source reported that Shaw originally bought the slippers for about $2,500 in 1970.

Christie’s cattle call for Hollywood memorabilia has herded together a new batch of artifacts, with owners eager to capitalize on the rising auction fever.

“The more provenance someone can show us the more likely they will get a good price,” Alberta said. “For example, if you get a piece brought in by someone close to the Hollywood figure or studio and that can be verified, the price jumps. If the piece actually appeared in a movie, the price jumps. If it was used by someone famous, the price jumps again. And if it’s a one-of-a-kind piece, the price jumps even higher.

“One major mistake is people think that every piece is a ruby slipper.”


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