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Taking It on Blond Faith

THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Marilyn Monroe's fans spend extravagantly on memorabilia, paying $1.26 million for a dress. Some items are real, but more are fakes.

March 23, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Jill Adams of Tujunga, who runs a Marilyn Monroe fan website called forevermarilyn.com, groaned as she recalled the time her mother tried to surprise her with a pair of the late actress' shoes, size 9.

"Clearly, they weren't her shoes," Adams said. "Marilyn wore size 7. The person who sold it to her admitted it wasn't Marilyn's size but said her feet sometimes swelled. My mother got taken for over $700."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Marilyn Monroe: A Column One in Thursday's Section A said the museum that canceled an exhibit of Marilyn Monroe collectibles was the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. It was the Hollywood Museum.

If the collectibles market is to be believed, Monroe either signed, wore, owned or saved thousands of items -- clothing, lingerie, jewelry, shoes and hats -- that continue to sell for a pretty penny.

But there are only so many items Monroe could have possibly amassed before she was found dead of a drug overdose at the age of 36 on Aug. 5, 1962. What's more, Monroe wasn't much of a clotheshorse, says Ernest W. Cunningham, author of the book "The Ultimate Marilyn." Despite her glamorous image, Monroe "was known to wear bluejeans and sweatshirts most of the time. When she went to premieres or parties, she would go to the [20th Century] Fox wardrobe department and pick something out," he said. "If you look at many photos of her at parties, you can recognize the same dresses over and over."

Allegations of fraud, such as those lodged against a Long Beach exhibit of Monroe memorabilia, rarely get the attention of law enforcement. More often than not, it's buyer beware in the Wild, Wild West of Marilyn memorabilia.

*

The allure of Monroe, more than four decades after her death from sleeping pills, is still powerful.

Forbes.com recently published a survey titled "Highest-Earning Dead Celebrities," which compared the money the celebrities' estates earn annually from sales of licensed books, recordings, coffee cups, posters and advertisements, among other things. Monroe ranked seventh -- the only woman in the top 13 -- with earnings of more than $8 million a year. Elvis Presley ranks No. 1, at $45 million a year.

The official Monroe website, marilynmonroe.com, has received more than 2 billion hits since its inception about seven years ago, according to those who run the site on behalf of her estate. A signed 9-by-14-inch photo of the actress can command as much as $40,000. And in the last three months of 2005, EBay auctioneers sold more than 35,000 items identified as authentic Monroe memorabilia. By comparison, just over 40,000 Xbox video games -- the Christmas season's hot toy -- were sold on the site during the same period.

The value of Monroe collectibles skyrocketed in October 1999, sparked by the headline-grabbing sale of the sequined, flesh-colored dress she wore to serenade President Kennedy on his birthday in May 1962, just three months before her death.

The dress came from a trove of authenticated items that had been collecting dust in a Manhattan warehouse for years. They had belonged to her estate, which was inherited by Anna Strasberg from her husband, the late Lee Strasberg, who was Monroe's acting coach and confidant. Christie's auction house had placed an estimated value on the items of $2.5 million to $3 million.

Instead, the cache brought in $13 million.

"The market hadn't seen memorabilia like this," said Kathleen Guzman, a Christie's senior vice president at the time. "These were \o7Marilyn's\f7. These were things she chose to keep and she kept them close to her heart. You can't put a price tag on some of that stuff."

New York collector Pete Siegel and a partner bought the sequined dress for $1.26 million. He said it continues to be one of their best investments. "I can tell you we've been offered, numerous times, a heck of a lot more than double what we've paid for it." He noted that the dress, which is not for sale, is being kept for now by a private collector in "a beautiful apartment" in Manhattan.

In contrast to the dress, whose authenticity is proved in part by the grainy black-and-white news footage of Monroe wearing it at Kennedy's birthday bash, much of the memorabilia being bought and sold today requires a leap of faith.

The Internet has been flooded in recent years with items Monroe purportedly left behind while visiting friends and co-workers, including studio hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff; Monroe's personal makeup man, Allan "Whitey" Snyder; her personal secretary, May Reis; and Elaine Barrymore, the former wife of actor John Barrymore. All are now dead, making it nearly impossible to verify the "certificates of authenticity" that accompany items sold outside the oversight of her estate.

"About seven or eight years ago, items suddenly started appearing from 'Elaine Barrymore,' " recalled Greg Schreiner, an avid collector and a longtime member of the Los Angeles-based Marilyn Remembered fan club. "Clothing, jewelry, shoes, hats. All items that she said Marilyn accidentally left at her home when she was visiting. At first you think, 'OK, maybe.' But when it started getting into the 200 and 300 items, you have to go, 'Wait a minute.... ' "

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