Last October, when the gavel came down on the two-day Christie’s auction of Marilyn Monroe’s personal property, approximately 1,000 items had been snapped up for a total of $13.4 million. One of the top lots was the form-fitting, flesh-colored dress that Monroe wore when she sang a sultry “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. The dress, which cost Monroe $12,000, sold for $1.26 million to Gotta Have It!, a shop on 57th Street in Manhattan that sells popular-culture memorabilia. “I thought we stole it at that price,” says Gotta co-owner Robert Schagrin.
|Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura dressed up in drag for the 1996 photograph Self-Portrait, b/w, (Actress) After Marilyn Monroe. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, NY|
“My partner and I believe that Marilyn Monroe is one of a handful of historical icons who will transcend time,” Schagrin explains. “Along with the Beatles and Babe Ruth, she’s what we call an investment-grade subject for collecting. She’ll hold her historical significance and increase her value over time. It’s an amazing investment.”
Monroe the American legend has become Monroe the collector’s dream. The Christie’s sale made clear that almost anything associated with the actress is a hot commodity. (Other auction items: a printed certificate of her conversion to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller sold for $90,000, and an assortment of kitchen utensils went for $9,200.) Photos of the star—often from publicity shoots and magazine stories—fetch high prices. Only a handful of images by photographers are normally offered on the market each year, whether at auction or directly from Hollywood lensmen like George Barris, Bert Stern, and Milton H. Greene. And many contemporary artworks that portray Monroe—from 1960s paintings by Andy Warhol to 1990s conceptual photos by Yasumasa Morimura—are also in demand. The mystique of Marilyn, the film actress who died in 1962 from a drug overdose at the age of 36, still holds sway.
Among Monroe’s personal property auctioned at Christie’s were prints by top photographers. one 1956 Cecil Beaton gelatin-silver print of Monroe lying on a bed and holding a rose sold for $36,800. The same photo, mounted in a silver triptych frame with a two-page letter from Beaton (“If this star is an abandoned sprite,” he wrote, “she touchingly looks to her audience for approval. She is strikingly like an overexcited child asked downstairs for tea”) went for $145,500. The auction’s highest-selling photos didn’t include Monroe, but her white puppy, which Christie’s identified as Maf. (According to Hollywood lore, Frank Sinatra gave her the dog, which she named Mafia.) A group of six of these photos brought $222,500. No one knows for sure who photographed the dog inside the actress’s house, but it’s possible, according to Christie’s staff, that the pictures were taken by Monroe.
George Barris met Monroe in 1954 and had three sittings with her that year, and three in 1962, the year she died. “The last picture I took is the one everyone’s interested in,” Barris says, referring to a photo of Monroe on the beach in Santa Monica, wrapped in nothing more than a Mexican sweater. The image was on display at Christie’s, where the hand-knit cardigan sold for $167,500.
Barris leases images for commercial use and has sold signed prints to private collectors as well as at auctions and galleries. He charges upward of $20,000 a photo, depending on “size, supply and demand, and what the buyer feels he can afford.” He says he still has many unseen photos taken before Monroe died. “I decided not to release them,” he explains. “They were personal; they bring back many memories. Her passing was quite traumatic for me. I spoke to her the day before she died; it was a tremendous shock. There are a lot of photos. Maybe someday I will release them.”
Another key photographer, Bert Stern, shot Monroe for Vogue at the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles in 1962, six weeks before she died. The photographs from those sessions have been made into a book of 2,700 images, Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting(Schirmer Mosel, 2000). “She was fabulous to photograph,” he recalls. ” Beautiful, funny, talented, and very inquisitive.” He said Monroe kept badgering him to tell her the purpose of the shoot. “And I said, ‘I don’t know what my premise is,'” he laughs. “‘I’m just here to take pictures.'”
Stern says he is partial to the photos of Marilyn wearing nothing but jewelry and some sheer scarves. “It was a pretty free sitting,” he recalls. “I could do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t see any reason to bring any clothes along. And when she saw that, she said, ‘Well, what do you want? To do some nudes?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s a pretty good idea, now that you mention it!’ And we did.”
Monroe wanted photo approval, but Vogue refused. Still, Stern decided to send over a third of the color proofs he had taken. “The ones she didn’t like she scratched out with a Magic Marker,” he says. “One of the photos had a big cross, like a crucifix.” Years ago, Stern sold 25 prints of Crucifix Marilynfor $15,000 apiece. He currently sells limited-edition prints of other images for about $2,500 to $5,000. More work comes up periodically at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Stern is represented by the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York. “The market seems to be growing,” says codirector Taki Wise. “There is more and more interest in Marilyn all the time.” Wise says her gallery handles a number of Stern prints, though some are no longer available. Among the most popular prints, she adds, are Monroe with junk jewelry and certain nudes, which range from $3,500 to $12,000.
Richard Avedon had one sitting with the star, in New York in 1957. The resulting black-and-white prints, sold by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, show Monroe in a black-sequined dress, gazing off into space. “The market is very good,” says gallery director Frish Brandt. “As the availability goes down, the prices remain strong.” She says the prints, depending on size and format, sell for $8,500 to $50,000. And photos by Greene, who died in 1985, and who, with the actress, launched the film company Marilyn Monroe Productions, can be requested online from the Milton H. Greene Archives at www.archivesmhg.com.
The question of who owns Marilyn Monroe came up last year in a $10 million lawsuit filed by photographers against Rizzoli International Publications and RCS Libri & Grandi Opere, S.p.A., which issued the 300-page book Marilyn Monroe: The Life, the Myth. The photographers claimed that they had been told they were only lending the images for a 1995 exhibition in Rome. Instead, the photographs appeared in the book, without permission or compensation. Last fall the case was settled out of court in Italy for $90,000, or about $3,000 per photographer and text author.
“It was a horrible book,” says Joshua Greene, president of the Milton H. Greene Archives and the late photographer’s son. “Rizzoli took a catalogue of an exhibition and blew it up into a coffee-table book. We sued and won the lawsuit. As an outcome, the book was seized and destroyed. You won’t find it anywhere.” Ann Pryor, a spokeswoman for Rizzoli, said the company had no comment.
Most photographers who shot Monroe retain the rights to the images they took. However, the right to authorize commercial or promot
ional use of her image generally belongs to her estate, which for years was managed by the family of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s teacher at the Actors Studio in New York. (Monroe bequeathed her estate to him, which, after his death in 1982, was passed on to his second wife, Anna.) The Monroe estate is now part of CMG Worldwide, the exclusive business and licensing representative for the estates of many stars, including James Dean and Humphrey Bogart.
Prices for using the Monroe image commercially vary widely, depending on which image, how it is to be used, and the term of the license, said Scott Whiteleather, vice president of CMG. He declined to name specific fees, or even a range. “It’s the same as if you were negotiating to use a living actor in advertising,” he says. “The fee all depends on the use of the image, where it will appear, and for how long. Being on a billboard for two days is a lot different than being on a TV commercial several times a day.” The estate has a Web site, www.marilynmonroe.com, where interested parties can apply online to CMG for licensing.
Whiteleather says demand for Monroe’s image is greater than ever. Big companies that have gone through CMG to use her picture include Mercedes-Benz, Levi’s, and U.S. Bank, which put Monroe on billboards in California to announce that the Bank of Santa Monica’s name had been changed, just like Norma Jean’s. Since acquiring the Monroe account five years ago, says Whiteleather, CMG has entered into 700 licensing agreements centered on her image. James Dean, whom they have represented for much longer, has had 650 deals.
Monroe’s likeness is not only the stuff of billboards and car ads, but has been the subject of contemporary art for decades. “Warhol was obsessed with the idea of Marilyn,” says Tom Sokolowski, executive director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. And his paintings of her proved enormously popular. “They were snapped up when the canvas was still wet,” says Sokolowski, whose museum, he adds, only owns one “crummy little Marilyn.” “Whenever we do a Warhol exhibition, people want a Marilyn, even if it’s a show of still lifes.”
Although Warhol never met her, says Sokolowski, “he collected about 1,000 photos of her and he studied her up and down.” It was just after her death that Warhol singled out an image he would use in his work: a sleepy-eyed, seductive portrait of the star that he cropped from a publicity still made by Gene Kornman for 20th Century Fox to promote the 1953 film Niagara. “Of all those images he had, that is the one that was right,” says Sokolowski. “He said that was going to be the iconic one.”
Warhol used her image at several points in his career in silk-screen paintings and prints. According to Sokolowski, there are at least 25 paintings and 250 sets of 10 prints each, plus 26 artist’s proofs. They will be documented in a six-volume catalogue raisonné, to be published by Zurich gallery Thomas Ammann Fine Art, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and Phaidon Press. The first volume is due out in 2001.
The most ever paid for a Warhol at auction was one of his first paintings of her—the 1964 Orange Marilyn, which sold two years ago at Sotheby’s. The Warhol Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Gallery in London were all outbid by hotelier Steve Wynn and Condé Nast publishing magnate S. I. Newhouse, Jr. Newhouse got it for $17.3 million.
These early Monroe paintings “are quite rare and desirable,” says Vincent Fremont, the Warhol estate’s agent for paintings, prints, and drawings. “They hardly ever come up for sale.” More common, he says, are the multicolored reversal paintings (negative images against colorful backgrounds) done in 1978–79, which have become “extremely popular,” Freemont says. Sotheby’s has auctioned several of these reversals in recent years, at prices ranging from $100,000 to over $600,000.
More recent artists have rendered Monroe as well. Last year Emily Peterson, former owner of New York’s now-defunct E. Peterson Gallery, organized a group show called “Marilyn Monroe X-Times: Through the Eyes of Women.” Responding to the notion that, historically, most images of Monroe have been created by men, Peterson selected a group of women artists who represented the idea of the actress in their work. They included Jane Dickson, Robin Tewes, Ellen Driscoll, and Shonagh Adelman. Most of the works sold, says Peterson, for $3,000 to $20,000.
This year New York artist E. V. Day riffed on the idea of the blonde bombshell in two installations. For the Whitney Biennial, Day re-created the white halter-top dress that Monroe wore in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Day portrayed it as if in midexplosion, with bits of fabric suspended in the air by a network of wires. The Whitney acquired the piece for its permanent collection. Meanwhile, over at the Chelsea gallery Henry Urbach Architecture, Day gave a similar treatment to a silver–sequined sheath that resembled Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown. The Day dress sold for $28,000.
There are also the artists who have portrayed Monroe themselves. Yasumasa Morimura took many portraits of himself done up as the star in famous Monroe poses, including one in the nude—with strap-on prosthetic breasts—against a red-velvet background. Morimura’s photos are available from New York’s Luhring Augustine Gallery and range in price from $10,000 to $15,000 each.
Even “fan paintings,” works created by amateur artists and given to the star during her lifetime, have fetched high prices. “Fan paintings are a way of showing one’s total infatuation with a celebrity,” says Nancy Valentino, the Christie’s senior vice president who organized the Monroe auction. Christie’s sold ten fan paintings. One lot of four portraits painted in oil went for $60,000. Each shows a smiling, big-haired Monroe with dangling earrings and big breasts. “Some are good, and some, well, aren’t,” says Valentino, “but they were among the most popular items. They’re beautiful in their glitziness.”
Valentino, who also curated the preauction traveling exhibition of Monroe’s personal property, witnessed the frenzy around Monroe firsthand. “We had record crowds around the block in New York, London, Paris—even Los Angeles, where you’d think they’re not that impressed with that sort of thing. People were crying. Who else has that kind of drawing power?”
David Kirby is a regular contributor to the New York Times and writes for a number of national magazines. He last wrote about John Currin for ARTnews.