Is Elizabeth Taylor Memorabilia a Good Investment?

Interest in Elizabeth Taylor memorabilia is soaring after the movie star died last week.
Interest in Elizabeth Taylor memorabilia is soaring after the movie star died last week.

Interest in Elizabeth Taylor memorabilia has surged since her death last week, sending eBay (EBAY) listings and sales soaring. A portrait of the screen legend by artist Andy Warhol is expected to fetch $30 million when it goes on the auction block in New York on May 12, and her jewelery collection sale could raise as much as $150 million for AIDS research. Prices of some Taylor merchandise has reportedly doubled since her death and her movies also are seeing renewed interest.

It's hardly the first time that death has increased a star's cachet. A similar phenomena was seen after last year's death of her good friend Michael Jackson. But, as an investment, is this stuff a good buy? Prices for Jackson's things, for example, remain strong, but not as robust was they once were.

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The market for memorabilia can fluctuate more wildly than stocks or bonds. The values depend on the celebrity and the mood of the public. Collectibles related to icons such as Marilyn Monroe tend to hold their value better than others, but even then there are no guarantees. Prices also may fall for a celebrity's merchandise as their fans die off. Most silent-movie merchandise, for example, is no longer worth as much as it was 20 or 30 years ago, except when it's tied to a superstar such as Charlie Chaplin.

But Taylor's merchandise is hitting the market at a prime time for cable television shows about collecting, which could give it a boost. Appraisers say that popular shows, such as Pawn Stars,American Pickers, Storage Wars, Cash and Cari, and -- the granddaddy of them all -- the Antiques Roadshow, may give the public the idea that pop-culture items can be investments, or even lottery jackpots.

Heartbreak Hotel

If many fans buy the same collectibles, though, those values are more likely to drop. Take an example from Storage Wars: Professional buyer Dave Hester recently thought his team had hit a big score when it came across an abandoned storage locker filled with 1977 newspapers reporting the death of Elvis Presley. According to pop-culture expert Gary Sohmers, a regular on the Antiques Roadshow, these papers are worth $5 a piece tops. "People went out and bought newspapers like crazy" after Elvis' s death, he says, adding that Hester has not begun unloading the papers yet.

A 1999 auction at Christie's of Marilyn Monroe's personal propriety set the bar for successful celebrity auctions. For example, a pair of her sunglasses, then estimated at a value of $1,500, sold for more than $27,000. Two pairs of the legend's shoes, estimated at $1,500, sold for $34,500. But it's unclear if Taylor's stuff will similarly beat auction expectations.

Antiques Roadshow pop-culture expert Simeon Lipman tells DailyFinance that he isn't sure if Taylor's merchandise will fetch Monroe prices or whether it will retain its value over time. "Marilyn Monroe -- her legend has been growing for 30, 40, 50 years," he says. "I wouldn't have thought that Taylor's memorabilia would bring that kind of interest, but you never know."

And that's the lesson that beginning collectors often forget. Truly iconic items, such as a bat signed by baseball legend Babe Ruth or lyrics by John Lennon, do hold their value and even can bring their owners a profit at a future sale. But most of the memorabilia out there is a risky investment.

Go High or Low

When the economy went sour, most mid-ranged items worth between about $500 and $4,000 lost some of their value. For instance, an autographed John Wayne picture -- worth $1,500 five years ago -- now fetches about $800 to $1,000 at auction, according to Rudy Franchi, an Antiques Roadshow appraiser.

This has been a serious problem for dealers, he says. "Junk is still selling and high-end pieces are doing better than ever," he writes in an email. "It's the mid-range material that is suffering a price decline. This is rather painful for sellers since this category is the bread and butter of the antiques trade. Dealers make 90% of their sales in this tranche and they are no longer able to use auction sales as reliable cash cows."

Part of the reason for the decline is that baby boomers are cleaning out their closets as they begin to retire, flooding the market with collectibles. Many of the mementos from their youth, such as Easy Rider movie posters, are not terribly expensive because millions of them were printed, says Franchi, who specializes in posters. "Every time you put one up for sale ... you have another five hit the market," he says.

The bottom line for wannabe Taylor collectors? Buy her memorabilia because you're a fan, but don't count on it for financial returns. Anyone hoping to make a quick buck may be disappointed.

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