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Marilyn Monroe Nude Photos Back on Market

Celebrities: After two failed efforts, a Ventura man again seeks a buyer who is willing to pay $1.25 million for the 'Red Velvet' series.

September 14, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marilyn Monroe is back on the market.

At least some of her most famous photographs are, a series of early nudes that once graced the pages of Playboy and helped rocket the blond bombshell to stardom.

After coming away empty in back-to-back efforts to sell the so-called "Red Velvet" series, Ventura photographer Tom Kelley said this week that he is again seeking a buyer for the world-famous images of Monroe lounging against a ruby-red velvet curtain.

The offer includes six images generated during the 1949 shoot that produced the centerfold for Playboy magazine's inaugural issue. It also includes the intellectual property rights--negatives, copyrights and Monroe's signed release--that will allow the buyer to use the images for trade and advertising purposes.

"We would still like to find a buyer somewhere who fits the bill," said Kelley, whose photographer father, Tom Kelley Sr., took the pictures.

After much deliberation, Kelley and his Northern California agent, Gary Saal, decided early last year to test the market with the Red Velvet collection. In a move that generated international attention, Butterfields Auctioneers in Hollywood and its then-parent company, EBay Inc., put the images and rights on the auction block in March of last year.

As a collection, the photos fetched $475,000, an offer rejected as too low. Offered individually, the photos drew bids totaling $840,000, still below the minimum price set by Kelley of $1.25 million.

No sale was made, and the photographs remained in Kelley's possession.

Then in March, Kelley and Saal found a private buyer for the collection. But that deal recently fell through, prompting a lawsuit filed on behalf of Tom Kelley Studios alleging breach of contract.

According to the lawsuit, filed in July in Alameda County Superior Court, New York-based psychic and composer Biond Fury and Biond Fury Entertainment agreed to pay $1.25 million for the six images and associated rights. However, Fury failed to make a $50,000 down payment and has not made any of the $240,000 monthly payments outlined in the sales contract, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks to hold Fury liable for damages and other costs.

"He just failed to make any payments," said Oakland attorney Charles Drexler, who filed the suit on behalf of Tom Kelley Studios. "We retain the right to license [the photos] and develop them for sale."

Contacted Friday, Fury said he didn't want to comment on the lawsuit.

However, he did say that he had several concerns about the sales contract. He believed that the contract contained a licensing agreement giving him the right, while the sale was unfolding, to use one of the images to re-release a vintage Marilyn Monroe calendar. He later found out that no such permission was granted.

"That was my motivation in buying [the images] in the first place," Fury said.

Saal, president of Pacific Licensing, the agency that represents Tom Kelley Studios and hammers out agreements for use of the Red Velvet images, said that while the idea for a calendar project was discussed, it was made clear from the outset that such a project would have to be part of a separate licensing agreement until Fury owned the images outright.

"Once he owned [the images], he could do whatever he wanted," Saal said. "But it was never part of the original purchase agreement."

Now the hunt for another buyer begins. Until one is found, Kelley won't exactly be heartbroken that the collection will remain in his possession.

Monroe was not yet famous when Tom Kelley Sr. first met her.

He witnessed a minor car accident in which she had been involved on Sunset Boulevard. He gave her $5 for cab fare and a business card from the Hollywood photography studio where he did advertising work.

Kelley hired her for a couple of modeling jobs before asking if she would be interested in posing nude for the kind of cheesecake calendars popular at that time in auto shops. When he passed away in 1984, the Monroe photographs became part of the studio's archives.

The younger Kelley said he considered selling the photos for several years, even as he relocated the studio to Ventura in 1992, but the timing was never right.

Now it is. Advances in computer technology have opened untold opportunities to make commercial use of the images, he said. But he also wants to share the images with a larger audience, and perhaps bring long-overdue recognition to this area of his father's work.

"If a qualified party is interested," he said, "we'll listen to all available and reasonable offers."

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