The lucrative appeal of celebrity memorabilia

Amid the excitement surrounding the recent auction of works by American writer Joan Didion, a handful of seashells and rocks – collected from beaches over the years and left to dust in drawers – have seems most surprising.

he estimates a modest $100, the final price being $7,000. For seashells.

Why? Because they were brought together by a writer as distant and aloof as she is revered – as the auction declared, ‘an icon of America’.

As a result, Didion’s effects – everything from her writing desk to a few Le Creuset vases – are worth more than they are worth. In auction trade, it is the difference between the ‘intrinsic’ value and the actual value. And it can be a serious enhancement.

The sunglasses Didion wore in an ad campaign for Celine sold for $27,000 – once listed at $400-800. They rise steadily in the battle between three anonymous contractors. Her desk cost $60,000, about six times its estimate.

So the galleries surprised?

Yes and no, according to Lisa Thomas, director of the fine arts department at Stair Gallery in New York, who handled the purchase.

“We weren’t surprised by how much profit the sale brought in, but we were surprised by some of the very high prices,” she said.

How do they price such a collection of items?

Most of it has little value without personality

“The estimates for the artwork are based on recent sales comparisons at the auction. Estimates for decorations are based on the value of those items without adding the ‘unknown’ of celebrity ownership to be added.

“What we saw during the sale was that Didion’s origins brought a significant increase in value to everything in the sale.”


“Many people who love Didion feel an emotional attachment to her and want to possess something she once owned, like some kind of amulet.”

Stuart Cole, director of Adam’s fine art auction houses in Dublin, says this type of sale is becoming more common.

“You will definitely see more of it, given the possibilities surrounding online auctions. But you need a personality to change that kind of material. Much of it has little value without character.”

Previously, he said, items that went up for auction would have their own value – art collections or fine furniture, for example – and that would be enhanced by ownership. . Now, however, a character iconic enough can sprinkle fairy dust on the most trivial of items.

Near home, he cites the 2021 sale of items in the homes of auctioneer and former restaurateur Peter White on Wellington Road, and by fashion designer Sybil Connolly’s in 1998.

“We have stuff for sale there that we won’t put up for auction at St Stephen’s Green galleries,” he said. It’s a different kind of vibe, he added.

He points out that there are different levels of collection.

The most important level is very private – correspondence, notes, related documents. Then there are related items – like a writer’s desk; their pen or typewriter. Then you have items that create a feeling of intimacy and closeness to that person. At the lowest level are items of obvious origin, such as from a real estate sale – but less relevant.

So what could be the resale value, such as on Joan Didion’s Le Creuset vases?


Joan Didion in her New York apartment. Photo: Star Tribune via Getty Images

“Value depends a lot on the eye of the beholder,” says Stuart deftly.

“It’s a piece of dialogue, and you hope the buyer will be happy to own them – but the resale value is probably not great.”

Matthew Haley is head of books and manuscripts at Bonham’s, who previously sold author Christy Brown’s archive – it is still intact – to Dublin’s Little Museum for €45,000.

He told me that, in 2009, he sold a toothpick by Charles Dickens for over $9,000.

“It’s gold and ivory,” he pointed out. “Not just a stick of wood. That said, the intrinsic value would be around $200.”

It was the Dickens factor that made it soar. He’s currently selling Dickens’ Chinese inkpot featuring a bee reading a book (it costs between $6,000 and $8,000, if you’re interested).

​A few years ago, Healy was involved in the sale of Sylvia Plath items.

“Has her dress, leather wallet, her reader card for the local library, her membership card for the poetry association of America. They did a great job,” he recalls. “When you have multiple items in a sale, people are drawn to people who don’t necessarily bid on a single item in a mixed sale.”

More mixed sales, he said, are for serious collectors who follow items belonging to a particular celebrity (e.g. Napoleon), or time period (such as the War of Independence). Ireland), auction these items anywhere. they go up.

Real estate sales are for the more amateur among us, who might think: ‘I love Sylvia Plath, I want to own something of her.’

Thus, the closer the item is, the more it sells. But there is also one thing that is too intimate.

He said: “The flowers of Queen Victoria appear quite often. “She has a habit of wearing them once, then giving them to people.”

These can sell for “hundreds”. That’s a lot for an old pair of panties, but not what you imagine Queen Victoria’s effect can have.

So are these items deployed for use or just kept for display?

Thanks to technology, you can bid on anything, from anywhere

“That will depend on the item,” says Healy. “I know someone who bought one of Sylvia Plath’s dresses, and she wears it on certain occasions.

“We recently sold EM Forster’s armchair – it sold for £17,850 – and I know that chair is being used in the person’s living room. Of course, the jewelry is made. out to wear, and usually is.

“However, correspondence and documents are more sensitive and will not be processed.”

Ian Whyte of Whyte’s auctioneers in Dublin agrees that celebrity-driven real estate auctions are a growing trend.

“Thanks to technology, you can bid on anything, from anywhere, meaning there are different types of bidders, rather than the more traditional type, who can focus on one time. modern and regional – world war medals, for example.”

Whyte adds that online bidding, like many similar activities, has really grown during the pandemic.

I wonder if it’s a bad thing to split up archives that might have academic value if kept together?

“It’s definitely a consideration,” Whyte agreed. “As an auctioneer, your first task is to the seller, getting as much money as possible. But sometimes we have a conversation and ask, ‘Can we find a way to keep this together?’

“In that case, you could extract some of the items that don’t add anything of value and leave the rest as is and sell it to an institution – like a museum – where it will be valuable to others. public, for students.”

He cites the example of the property sale of Ernie O’Malley – writer, critic, soldier during the War of Independence – which Whyte handled in 2019.

“He kept everything,” Whyte said. “Every library card, notes on every exhibit he’s ever seen. We divided it into a military archive, sent to UCD, and a literary archive, sent to NYU. Then the art collection is sold separately at a later stage.”

Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby’s, points out that there is a very long history of people cherishing objects associated with famous people – he refers to Victorians and their enthusiasm for curls .

We don’t care so much about curls these days – but again, he points out, the more closely associated an item is, the more valuable it is.

He quotes Sylvia Plath’s tarot cards – which cost £150,000.

“It’s about stories,” he said. “When you have an audience with a story to tell and connect with a historical figure who also has a compelling story to tell, that’s value. We sold the key to Oscar Wilde’s cell – and it sold for £15,000.”

Sotheby’s is going to have a sale in a few weeks on a copy of Lord Byron’s Plutarch poems – engraved by Byron to say he “stole it from his lady’s palace” (of course he did). It is listed at £12,000-18,000 and Heaton expects it to perform very well.

This type of sales of related items “is one of the least predictable,” he said.

“You can get the feeling that ‘this is going to go well’, but it’s much harder to get a sense of where the bidding will end.”

Everyone I spoke to shared the same opinion – that collectors are very private and rarely want to express themselves.

“Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid people won’t understand them, or will think their enthusiasm is silly. Often, even their partner doesn’t understand or share an interest.”

According to Stuart Cole, the mentality of contempt is especially strong in Ireland. He quoted Antique roadshow went to Ireland and saw no shortage of people coming to own valuables – but almost none of them were ready to go on TV.

So, if these experts venture to guess, what makes them feel motivating people? What do their customers expect from Plath’s wallet? Didion’s hurricane lamp? Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Gold Justice Collar?

“It’s an icon,” Matthew Healy said. “They were looking for something that represented one of their heroes. The thought is: ‘The person has touched this thing, living with this thing, I will feel closer to them when I have it.’”

For Gabriel Heaton, it was that, and more. Writers like Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath can access and control the remote at the same time. They are knowable and unknowable – revealing a lot in their writing, but there is always a tantalizing absence there, all of which they would never have told.

Owning something they love is a way to see the distance, to bring them a little closer together. No wonder we’re digging.

Bizarre and Wonderful Auction Story

Andy Warhol’s cookie jar collection sold for $247,830 in 1988, after being listed at $7,000. Two of the jars were purchased by artists Jeanne-Claude and Christo, who are better known for wrapping architectural landmarks such as the Pont Neuf and Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Berlin Reichstag, in cloth. .

​Jane Austen’s gold and turquoise ring was sold for £152,450 in 2012 to American singer Kelly Clarkson. However, the export of the ring from the UK was blocked by the then British Culture Secretary. Eventually, the museum based in Jane Austen’s home raised money to buy it back.

In a 1996 Jackie Kennedy memorabilia auction, her rocking chair fetched $453,500, once listed at $3,000-5,000. For comparison, her car — a 1992 BMW four-door — costs just $70,000.

Just last month, a pair of worn-out, worn-out Birkenstock sandals once owned by Steve Jobs sold at auction in New York for a whopping $218,750. The lucrative appeal of celebrity memorabilia

Fry Electronics Team

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