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Los Angeles' Hollywood legacy is an auction house dream

Norma Shearer's monogrammed silk sheets, a Charlie Chaplin bowler — many entertainment-world treasures long lie forgotten in L.A.'s attics and garages. About 400 will be up for auction Sunday.

November 18, 2012|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Entertainment memorabilia specialist Lucy Carr holds Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat and cane at Bonhams auction house in Los Angeles. They go on the block at Bonhams at 10 a.m. Sunday, one lot in an eclectic assortment of more than 400.
Entertainment memorabilia specialist Lucy Carr holds Charlie Chaplin's… (Christina House, For The…)

Norma Shearer's silk sheets sat for years in a Los Angeles garage, with no one to admire the embroidered monogram: NST, for Norma Shearer Thalberg.

The starlet's Louis Vuitton steamer trunks waited in vain to voyage. One was dedicated solely to protecting Shearer's shoes — some of its 30 leather-trimmed drawers still bearing hand-written labels like "silvered lizard sandal evening" and "gold kid sandal evening high heels."

This was Golden Age glamour. It was an auction house's dream.

PHOTOS: Hollywood memorabilia on the block

Bonhams on Sunset Boulevard got the call.

"There were her scripts, stacks of her publicity photographs from MGM. It was really pretty much a time capsule," said Catherine Williamson, Bonhams' erudite director of both entertainment memorabilia and fine books and manuscripts.

Last year, Shearer's shoe trunk sold for $30,500, her ivory sheets for $1,220.


Who knows what the latest Hollywood relics to emerge from the dust will fetch when they hit the auction block Sunday.

Treasures are everywhere here, amassed by stars and the many who have played crucial supporting roles in their success.

In a junk shop, you might not give the black bowler hat a second glance, given its broken band and general state of wear. Your eyes probably would flick right past the slight bamboo cane beside it, never noticing the inked notation: "CCLT 36."

CC stands for Charlie Chaplin, LT for Little Tramp, and 1936 was the year Chaplin retired his famous character and posed for a wax bust by Katherine Stubergh Keller — L.A.'s Madame Tussaud of the day. Chaplin gave her the mementos, which 30 years later she passed on to the proprietor of a wax museum more than 2,000 miles away.

Recently, the Mammoth Cave Wax Museum in Cave City, Ky., went under. And little bits of the Little Tramp found their way home to Hollywood.

The hat and cane have a combined auction estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. They go on the block at 10 a.m., one lot in an eclectic assortment of more than 400.

As auctioneer, Williamson will spend maybe four hours moving through it all — work by Disney animator T. Hee and "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, an "Annie Hall" script, Beatles bobbleheads, an alto sax Charlie Parker once pawned, Jimi Hendrix's turquoise jewelry, Bing Crosby's straw hats and scuffed golf shoes.

A Crosby-phile could score 900 of his canceled checks — and so accompany the crooner vicariously on an African safari. A "Harry Potter" buff could grip a battery-illuminated wand wielded by actor Daniel Radcliffe in two blockbusters.

"To me, there are two big impulses for these kinds of collectors: One is, 'I want to know more about the person I admire.' The other is, 'I want to know more about the film that I admire, so I want to know more about the process,'" Williamson said. "And if you look at all of this stuff, it falls in one or the other category."

Bonhams' auction room has about 70 comfy chairs. Many will be empty Sunday as offers come in by phone or online. Some will be occupied, possibly by people in flip-flops and shorts, Williamson said. In New York, they still dress to bid. But not here.

Photos from the silent picture days, a wicker chair from Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca," a flesh-colored, foam-rubber alien from "The X Files'' — the objects on offer range from yesteryear to yesterday, from already much ogled to intimate.

Jimmy Stewart's childhood room in Indiana, Pa., had two mahogany-stained twin-size beds. When he left home, his father gave them to someone who worked at his hardware store. One eventually found its way to the Jimmy Stewart Museum. The other, with extra-long rails to fit the lanky star's frame, has an estimate of $4,500 to $6,500.

John Belushi's brown bathrobe, a red jacket from Elvis Presley's last tour — you could buy them and, if you so chose, put them on. (But be warned: Sammy Davis Jr.'s suits are so small that they have to be displayed on women's and children's mannequins.)

Paddles will go up. The gavel will go down. Objects will depart the premises, leaving room for new ones.

Can you blame the auction experts if they drive our city streets thinking: What's in that attic? That shed? What will be coming our way next?

[View the story "Hollywood treasures head from attic to auction" on Storify]

PHOTOS: Hollywood memorabilia on the block

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