Collecting Entertainment Memorabilia

A Brief History of the Entertainment Memorabilia Market


In the past 35 years, the Entertainment Memorabilia auction market has gradually emerged to become an important and unequivocal collecting category. The seminal MGM Studios auction in 1970 was a watershed moment for film scholars and the auction business, which essentiality created a new market for an area of collecting that previously only existed among a few film enthusiasts. The studio's objective was to simply consolidate space on an already overcrowded lot by creating a three day film memorabilia auction to clear seven soundstages. A vast assortment of costumes, film props and related property from the studios beginnings dating from the 1920s were cataloged, tagged and placed on the auction block.

In and among the multitude of items that were placed under the gavel were 350,000 plus costumes, furniture and decorative-art related items, automobiles, busses, trains, tanks, boats, ships, airplanes and space capsules that were previously incorporated into studio productions. Highlights recall the full size sailing ship from "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), Elizabeth Taylor's wedding gown worn in "Father of the Bride" (1950), Clark Gable's trench coat worn in several films, a group of swimsuits worn by Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller's loin cloth worn in "Tarzan" films of the 1940s. However, the most coveted pieces sold were from "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) which included a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland that hammered on the auction block for $15,000.

With the auction's blockbuster success, film enthusiasts and collectors soon recognized film memorabilia as a fertile and profitable area of collecting. In the following years, small boutique shops, specialty companies and private brokering businesses began to crop up and thrive selling recognized film props and screen-seen objects. By the late 1980s, the market was rapidly escalating as another pair of ruby red slippers sold for a stunning sum of $165,000. At the roughly the same time, perhaps the two most iconic movie props known in existence surfaced for auction; the signature hat and cane used by Charlie Chaplin sold for $150,000, and Marilyn Monroe's trademark halter-top dress worn in the famed scene as she stood above a blowing New York subway grill in 1955's "The Seven Year Itch" sold for the same price.

Based on the increasingly escalating prices paid for Hollywood's tangible past, larger auction houses such as Christie's, Sotheby's, Butterfield & Butterfield, and Camden House formed their own departments devoted to Hollywood memorabilia, eventually becoming premier sources for collectors. Today, Entertainment Memorabilia is recognized as an important collectable category with hammer prices continuously growing within several sub-categories. The main affiliated areas include important film and television costumes, props, set pieces, posters and important rock & roll related items.

Iconic costumes and props used in popular films and television shows continue to hammer record breaking prices. In October 1999, Christie's hosted a sale featuring the personal property of Marilyn Monroe, fetching a landmark price of over one million dollars for the dress she wore at the famous 1962 Birthday tribute to President John F. Kennedy where she sang the controversial and sultry birthday serenade. In recent years, Christie's has had further success with another Entertainment Memorabilia highlight with the sale of yet another pair of ruby slippers worn by Garland in the "The Wizard of Oz" (MGM, 1939). The final pair available (of four known in existence) sold for the stunning price of $666,000 (four pairs of ruby slippers are known to exist).

Prices of important television series costumes have also been selling at increasingly high prices. Fifteen years ago, a pair of original "Batman and Robin" (1966-1968) costumes worn by Adam West and Burt Ward during the original television series sold for roughly $5,000. In 1999 the same costumes sold at Sotheby's for $68,500. During the early 1990s, "Star Trek" (1966-1969) tunics worn by William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy were selling in the $500/1,000 range. Today they can easily sell in the $20,000/50,000 range.

The vintage film poster category has also become widely collectable and highly valued among collectors worldwide. Some of the most desirable posters date back to the early horror films produced by Universal Studios. In 2000, a "Frankenstein" (1931) reproduction three-sheet poster from 1938 sold for a remarkable $43,125. The following year, a one-sheet (the most sought after poster size, measuring 27 by 41 inches) "Mummy" (1932) poster hammered for $117,087. Also popular are posters from classic films of the 1950s and 1960s. In 2000, A "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) one-sheet met success by selling for $10,800.

Unique property from important rock & roll entertainers including instruments, clothing, handwritten lyrics and related personal effects have also become recognized as sound investment choices for collectors and fans alike. Items from artists such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors and more recently from Nirvana's Kurt Cobain are increasingly desirable. John Lennon's handwritten "Instant Karma" lyrics sold for $42,177 in 1997, while Eric Clapton's trademark black Fender Stratocaster known as "Blackie" sold for almost one million dollars in 2004. Rock & roll collectors are now recognizing Kurt Cobain as a cultural icon, seeing some of his personal effects fetching impressive prices. Also in 2004, Julien's Auctions sold a pencil caricature drawing of President Ronald Reagan composed by Cobain during the 1980s for $14,400.

A vital factor in buying and selling Entertainment Memorabilia is determined by provenance; credibility of previous ownership that connects the item to the performer. It is highly desirable to a have clear photograph or related image of the artist with the piece. Equally important is a credible Certificate of Authenticity or Letter of Authenticity that directly traces the piece to an artist's colleague, family member or friend. These types of documentation should be requested prior to making a purchase, but in some cases cannot be provided. In cases such as these (occasionally sellers are family members who wish to remain confidential); it is in the buyer's best interest to perform due diligence and research why. Be aware of un-credible documents in these formats that offer no solid link to the artist. Without a photograph or documentation, the market value can diminish up to 50%.

Accumulating these coveted treasures is often a twofold endeavor; obtaining tangible nostalgia and making a sound investment choice. Acquiring such a collection gives buyers the opportunity to gain intimacy with fond memories anchored in the property. The other reason is based on the steadily increasing prices, which has been recently noted as a solid asset for Wall Street investment bankers and executives around the globe.

Acquiring Entertainment Memorabilia offers those with a keen sense of appreciating film and music a chance to be included in celebrating one of America's greatest achievements and art forms; the entertainment world. Of course, the sentimental value associated with this collecting field is priceless and can offer great satisfying returns.

The Collector's Guide

Please note: the following information is provided only as a useful guideline. For further information, please contact Julien's directly.

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