It's a grim reality of celebrity culture that the unexpected death of someone famous can send collectibles' prices soaring. On June 14, a vest worn by Michael Jackson in the 1970s sold for $519 in a Bonhams & Butterfields auction in Los Angeles.
"Somebody got a real deal," said Margaret Barrett, director of Bonhams' entertainment memorabilia department.
"Once people have passed away, the items become more valuable."
At the summer edition of Bonhams' twice-yearly memorabilia sale and at a two-day Julien's Auctions event that concludes today in Las Vegas, home furnishings, clothing, autographed items, even liquor-store receipts have hit the blocks with optimistic pre-auction estimates. Some have been selling at surprisingly low, going-going-gone prices; others have sold at prices that suggest extremely emotional impulse buying.
At the Bonhams' auction, which attracted about 100 bidders, a blank check from the account of Marilyn Monroe sold for a mere $146; a contract with her signature brought in $3,660. Estelle Getty's 1987 Emmy Award nomination certificate fetched $397, and the purse she carried as Sophia on "The Golden Girls" went for $9,150. (All prices include a 20% premium that buyers pay to the auction house on top of their bid.)
The economy, Barrett said, has had little effect on the niche market.
"Whether times are good or bad, it's individual property that you just can't buy anywhere else," she said.
Comparing the blond bombshell and the Golden Girl is an apples-and-oranges proposition, Barrett said. Unlike antiques or decorative arts, celebrity-related collectibles have no established benchmark prices unless they have been auctioned before.
"You can't compare Estelle Getty's Emmy award to a couch," she said of the statuette, which cost the winning bidder $7,320. "There is only one Estelle Getty Emmy."
The value of Jackson memorabilia is expected to skyrocket at the Julien's auction ending today. Earlier this year, Julien's had announced a sale of 1,400 items from Jackson's Neverland ranch worth an estimated $10 million to $20 million. The auction ultimately was canceled, but the current sale includes 21 Jackson items consigned by the singer's friend, David Gest, the music promoter and ex-husband of Liza Minnelli.
"When we announce the prices we've realized, people will be saying, 'Recession? What recession?' " Chief Executive Darren Julien said.
Among the Monroe items on the block: furniture that Monroe purchased on a trip to Mexico to decorate the Brentwood hacienda where she was found dead on Aug. 5, 1962.