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CULTUREGRAM : Going, Going, Gone Hollywood : Movie and Rock Memorabilia on the Auction Block

March 17, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some might say the ersatz Beatles suits worn by the Bee Gees and Billy Preston in the ill-begotten 1978 movie "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" should've been burned. Inexplicably, they got saved, and now these duds from a dud are being sold off over a couple of days, with loads of other entertainment memorabilia by Butterfield & Butterfield, a Hollywood auction house usually devoted to the finer things.

An impeccably dressed man has appeared out of nowhere midway through the Monday night sale and is standing near the auctioneer's podium, casually but steadily holding up his bidding card, letting everyone see he plans to beat all comers. The bidding is feverish, but he's not going to lose. Finally his persistence pays off at $7,000.

Catching up with the mysteriously single-minded purchaser at the cashier, we have to know: Who could so badly need these gaudy relics of a notorious film failure?

"It's for a client of mine" is all he says, with a slight--we might even imagine sinister--smile, leaving us to speculate wildly about who'd blow that much disposable income.

Scenario No. 1: The Brothers Gibb, about to go out to Tatou for the evening and wanting that ever-popular triplets look, search their closets and realize "Hey, our ersatz Beatles suits are gone!"

Scenario No. 2: The man in the suit is a servant of Scratch, and the suits are going to be used in nefarious satanic rites!

Scenario No. 3: Anything-- anything-- once touched by a celebrity will be perceived as potentially of value by some investor or another in the increasingly lucrative entertainment memorabilia market.

To be fair, most of the items auctioned at the two weekend bidding wars carry a real, not just imagined, value. And few have such sordidness connected to them as the "Sgt. Pepper" outfits--though a glitzy matching set of '70s Osmond Brothers jumpsuits comes close. And then there is Sid Vicious' actual wardrobe, which includes studded leather accessories, ripped T-shirts and a cream-colored tuxedo jacket; one can scarcely imagine what stubborn stains might have been washed out prior to display.

The film-related stuff tends to be more touching: The now-battered carousel horse Dick Van Dyke rode in "Mary Poppins" (sold for $5,000, not including 10% surcharge or tax). A "Gone With the Wind" second edition, inscribed by Margaret Mitchell to the housekeeper who inspired the Mammy character ($6,000). A costume design sketch of Marilyn Monroe in a bathrobe outfit from her aborted final film, "Something's Got to Give" ($8,500).

Many framed personal letters are sold, representing Chaplin to Dali. None is more poignant than a handwritten note from Monroe to her acting teacher, which reads in part, "Dear Mr. Chekhov, Please don't give me up yet--I know (painfully so) that I try your patience. I need the work and your friendship desperatley" (sic) ($7 , 000).

Less sentimentally, you could have Freddy Krueger's razor-sharp glove ($2,500), or Linda Hamilton's slashed and blood-stained tank top from "Terminator 2," perfect for jogging in Los Angeles if you want that already-ravaged, leave-me-alone look (a steal at $550).

Top movie seller: A "Batman" cowl worn by his batself Michael Keaton, for $11,000. If that sounds like a batlot, consider the going price for the top rock item: John Lennon's felt-tip handwritten lyrics for "Instant Karma," definitely not to be smudged at $17,000.

The appeal of much of this stuff is its appreciation value and its suitability for framing.

"Animation cels, especially, are a runaway success with all the auction houses now," says James Comisar, independent consultant to Butterfield & Butterfield on entertainment artifacts and self-proclaimed owner of the world's largest TV memorabilia collection. "Some cels have gone up 400% in the last three or four years, even in a depression. And you can't get a stock certificate and put it on the wall and enjoy it. Bonds get 3% or 3 1/2%, and I figure probably the worst piece here will ascend that much in the next 12 months."

Of course, sentimental value can get in the way of the cash value. "For the true collector, we don't give a (hoot) about market value," Comisar admits. "It ascends in value at a fiendish rate, and that's a healthy rationalization that any true, sick, lunatic collector has: 'Yeah, I could auction it to put my kids through college.' You know there'd have to be some sickness in the family before you'd liquidate anything, but I guess it's that reality that keeps us all going."

To the curmudgeonly inclined, the elevation of Spock's tunic or an Elvis gumball machine to the fine-arts auction block is a sure sign of the impending close of Western civilization. But to pragmatists, it's merely another signpost along the baby-boom set's awkward trek through middle age.

Comisar admits that Butterfield, which is actually one of the last major auction houses to open an entertainment department, has met with some skepticism from the old guard in treating these artifacts with the same care and research involved in paintings or guns.

The culture clash is evident occasionally as the dryly good-humored auctioneer himself has a little trouble getting his mouth around newfound names such as Bon Jovi (which he gives too much dignity as " bone zsho-vee ") and Lynyrd Skynyrd (" lin-rid skin-rid "). It's all he can do to keep his requisite Butterfield straight face taking bids for an artifact of Terence Trent D'Arby's: "Isn't that nice. One hundred for the smashed guitar; 125, 150 for the smashed guitar . . . "

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