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Christie's Puts Pop on the Block

June 15, 1989|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Hollywood rummage mongers, trash pickers and garage-sale mavens listen up. There are diamonds among secondhand celebrity pickings; gold to be found in star dust bins.

How about Elvis Presley's black-belt karate degree? Or Boris Karloff's driver's license application? Frank Sinatra's cigarette lighter, Brooke Shields' Calvin Klein blue jeans or John Lennon's wristwatch?

They're worth thousands of bucks, according to Christie's East, which hosts its annual pop memorabilia auction Wednesday. Public display of the Manhattan auction house's stellar-priced kitsch begins Friday after today's press preview, which Christie's chief film buff and memorabilia auctioneer hopes will hype interest in the 448 items to an unprecedented fever pitch.

"It's totally unpredictable," said Eric Alberta, who will be handling the four-hour sale. "I know that there will be a piece in this sale that will go far beyond my expectations. Price valuations get real tricky. You can't predict what kind of emotional tie a buyer might have to an item."

But Alberta tries. Some items are easier to price than others.

He figures some bidder's emotional tie to a psychedelic 1956 Bentley that once carted the Beatles around London will be worth between $800,000 and $1 million. Christie's considers the Beatles' Bentley a rich enough item to rate its own 12-page full-color brochure. The car, which was once on display at Buena Park's Movieland Wax Museum, currently belongs to photographer Yulla Lipchitz and New York psychic Biond Fury. In the brochure, Fury quotes from his upcoming book, "John Lennon and Biond Living at the Point of Magic," about the moment he found the Bentley in a Kansas City bank garage:

"First the Bentley was solid white, then it turned into all of the colors of the rainbow as it drove out of the darkness coming toward me in vision with the headlights shining, shining through the night. It was almost as if it were coming to me from the other side, from the spirit world. It was almost as if it were moving from the astral plane, moving into the light of reality, moving into materialization on the material or earth plane."

If the vintage sedan with its Peter Max-like exterior and purple leather interior commands even the low figure, it will be the single most expensive secondhand celebrity collectible that Christie's has ever sold, according to Alberta.

Currently, the record is held by a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" that were bought last year for $165,000, Alberta said. Another set of slippers sold back in 1981 for $13,000, he said.

It isn't simple inflation in the ruby-slipper market that has jacked up prices, Alberta said. Any nostalgia item that smacks of movie or pop music has suddenly become big business.

"I got into it because I've always liked the fun art rather than the fine art," he said. "But people are starting to recognize the fun art as fine art. There's a lot more freedom in collecting in the last part of the 20th Century."

Who would ever have thought one of Elvis' guitar picks (initialed E.P. and accompanied by a notarized letter of authenticity from two of Presley's cousins) might go for $200 to $250? Or that his concealed-weapons permit, issued by the Denver Police Department, might command $2,000 to $3,000?

There are the predictable items (autographed record albums, movie costumes, signed publicity stills, etc.), but there are plenty of bona fide one-of-a-kind unique pieces too. Alberta's personal favorite is the Cowardly Lion's "Witch Remover" from "The Wizard of Oz"--a 28-inch-long spray can that Bert Lahr used when stalking Margaret Hamilton in the Haunted Forest. Asking price: $15,000 to $20,000.

The item that promises to bring on the most interest from serious students of Hollywood is screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz's bound manuscript of the original scripts for "Citizen Kane" (see accompanying article). The expected auction price is $70,000 to $90,000, including several other scripts and letters turned over to Christie's by the writer's sons, Frank and Donald Mankiewicz.

"I also like the telegram from Leslie Howard to Jack Warner," Alberta said.

For $3,000 to $4,000, a movie buff can have Howard's framed 1934 cable from Glasgow, Scotland, in which the actor threatened not to appear in the film version of the hit Broadway play "The Petrified Forest" unless the actor who played opposite him was also cast in the picture. The telegram reads:

"Insist Bogart play Mantee. Stop. No Bogart no deal. Stop. L.H."

Warner backed off on his first choice for the role of fugitive Duke Mantee, Edward G. Robinson, and cast Humphrey Bogart opposite Howard and Bette Davis. The picture is credited with making Bogart a star.

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