Celebrity Memorabilia Takes a Starring Role Again

Thriller Jacket
Thriller Jacket

Showbiz memorabilia had its closeup in the past few weeks. The Marilyn Monroe dress that blew upwards in a gust of subway-grate air in The Seven Year Itch netted $4.6 million at auction. Michael Jackson's red and black leather jacket from the Thriller video was sold for $1.8 million. Judy Garland's frock from The Wizard of Oz fetched an over-the-rainbow sum of $910,000.

All were purchased by bidders whom you wouldn't recognize if their money slapped you in the face. It is often the non-famous who fork over big bucks for collectibles. Sometimes they buy them as an investment -- an iffy prospect, experts say. Or they use the collectibles as a fundraising tool -- Milton Verret, the purchaser of the Jackson jacket, said he would send it on tour for children's causes.

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But sometimes the reasons are more about the buyer than the actual value of the mementos.

"If you want to have a Freudian take on it, maybe it's a way for someone to slip into the celebrity's skin and the trappings of their lives," psychotherapist Joan Ingber told The Price of Fame.

The recent large purchases involved pop icons who died prematurely, so perhaps the tragedy enhances the value, Ingber speculated.

Impossible to Guess What Hollywood History Will Sell For

General Lee
General Lee

There are no guarantees in the commerce of Hollywood relics. John Schneider, who played Bo Duke in the 1980s TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, sold the show's 1969 "General Lee" Dodge Charger on eBayMotors.com for a staggering $9,900,500 in 2007. But the bidder later backed out, claiming someone hacked his account to make the outrageous offer. Schneider then tried a more closely monitored eBay auction and the bidding didn't even reach his $100,000 reserve price. (Cars, such as James Bond's Aston Martin, deserve an asterisk by their bidding prices because they have relatively high value to begin with.)

Trafficking in movie memorabilia seemed to slow down since the 2008 financial crisis. In 2005, a collector snatched up the last original poster from the 1929 film Metropolis for $690,000. But that's popcorn money compared to June's transactions.

Jackson's Thriller jacket was expected to fetch a mere $200,000 to $400,000, based partially on the fact that one of his trademark single gloves sold in 2009 for $350,000, soon after his death at age 50.

Pleated dress of Monroe
Pleated dress of Monroe

The price tag for Monroe's pleated dress dwarfed the King of Pop's latest offering on the block. She wore it in the scene from The Seven Year Itch that became perhaps her most iconic moment, other than singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK. But who can account for this: Around the same time her dress sold, three X-rays of her chest from 1954 fetched $45,000 at an auction in Las Vegas. Lately, she's been bigger than Elvis. One of the biggest recent sales of Elvis-ania was a peacock jumpsuit he wore in his 1974 act: It went for $300,000 in 2008.

The King was no match for the Wizard this month, either. At the same auction that sold Monroe's dress, two men battled over one of the test dresses Judy Garland wore during the first two weeks of shooting The Wizard of Oz. The bidding ended at $910,000, with the consignor, actress Debbie Reynolds, hugging the winner.

Said analyst Ingber: "I guess you could say buying this stuff is the clothes version of name-dropping."