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Leary's Little Treasures Going on the Auction Block

Memorabilia: L.A. will get a preview of the '60s iconoclast's personal items before the New York sale.

January 22, 1998|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Timothy Leary was living proof that you could be famous, live in Beverly Hills and still be flat broke.

A few weeks before he died, I watched as he sat in his breakfast room, hunched over in his wheelchair as he painstakingly signed colorful sheets of paper handed to him, one by one, by a polite young man.

The sheets were perforated so that they could be torn into 36 postage stamp-size sections. The visitor described the sheets as "blotter acid art," a throwback to a time when LSD--the psychedelic drug Leary championed in the 1960s--was illegally transported on the backs of real stamps.

These sheets of "art" stamps were merely decorative and not impregnated with any drugs.

It was a business transaction. Leary, whose body was so wracked by cancer that he had to stop and rest after every few signatures, was being paid several hundred dollars to sign the sheets.

When he was done and wheeled away by an assistant, I chatted with the blotter artist. Times photographer Rob Gauthier and I were there to gather material for articles on Leary's final days.

I asked the artist about his marketing plans.

"I won't be selling them right away," he said.

"Why not?" I asked naively.

"They'll be worth more," he explained as he packed up, "afterward."

Leary was at different times of his life a ground-breaking psychologist, academic rebel, convict, politician, fugitive and lecturer. But he was also a celebrity, and thus his possessions and associated artifacts shot up in value the instant he died on May 31, 1996.

The business transactions therefore continue. On Friday and Saturday, Christie's in Beverly Hills will host a public preview of some of the Leary possessions that will be auctioned next month in New York.

The L.A. preview will showcase 17 of the 79 Leary lots that will be on the block.

The auction will also include artifacts associated with several music figures who have passed on, including John Lennon, Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Hank Williams and Jimi Hendrix.

The Leary pieces range in assessed value from his paperback copy of the W. B. Yeats book "A Vision" that includes some handwritten notes, to artworks given to him by Keith Haring and Ed Ruscha.

The book carries a Christie's estimate of $400 to $600. Bidding on the Haring ink work "Weeping Woman" is expected to reach $8,000 to $12,000. The Ruscha painting, entitled "TL," is expected to fetch $15,000 to $20,000.

This is hardly big money for a celebrity auction. At the same sale, guitars once owned by Williams and Marley are expected to sell for $150,000 to $200,000 each.

But this is the first time a major collection of Leary's possessions is being offered at auction, and it is clearly the star of the show.

"If Tim could see how much even little things he had were worth now, he'd have a good laugh," said Vicki Marshall, who worked as his administrative assistant for almost 12 years.

After Leary died, she was hired by heirs of his estate to organize his huge archive and his possessions.

Over several months, she assembled pieces for Christie's examiners.

"There were things they obviously wanted, like the artwork," Marshall said.

It was also no surprise that they wanted the mounted photograph (estimated auction value $1,000 to $1,500) from Leary's bedroom that showed him in a Montreal hotel room with John Lennon and Yoko Ono for the recording of "Give Peace a Chance."

"But they were especially interested in little things, personal items," Marshall said.

Leary's tattered 1979 California driver's license was given an estimated auction value of $600 to $800. His 1982 passport, $1,000 to $1,500. Eight sheets of blotter art, $1,500 to $2,000.

Also included in the sale are canceled checks, Christmas cards from Ringo Starr and Ken Kesey, and even a book of matches.

"They told me people were really interested in that kind of stuff," Marshall said.

Christie's passed on most of the document archive--which includes letters and other materials from many of the luminaries of the beat and psychedelic eras. It remains the property of the estate.

This was ironic, because in his last year, Leary--who could no longer earn money through his writings or lectures--believed the archive would save him from financial ruin.

"Allen got, like, a million for his," he once said hopefully, referring to his close friend, the late poet Allen Ginsberg.

But tentative deals with several universities fell through and, in the end, friends quietly helped Leary pay his rent and other expenses.

There are still bills to be paid. The IRS is likely to get first dibs on auction proceeds.

One of the reasons Leary wanted to earn money at the end was so he could stage a public final send-off. He had hoped that his death would be broadcast live via the Internet.

But in the end, he died quietly at home, with several friends--and two Times staffers--at his bedside.

About an hour after he died, I walked down the hall to his office and sat at his well-worn desk to type some notes.

The desk, too, is going on the block. Christie's believes it will fetch $2,000 to $4,000.

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