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Debbie Reynolds Auction Breaks Up Historic Hollywood Collection

Thompson on Hollywood By Cari Beauchamp | Thompson on Hollywood June 19, 2011 at 5:30AM

Wasn't the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thinking about creating a Hollywood museum? The Academy sent no bidder to Debbie Reynolds' historic costume and prop collection assembled over 50 years, which crowds checked out over the past few weeks at the Paley Media Center until its auction Saturday. It was strange to conjure images of Yul Brynner sitting on the throne from The King and I, Charlton Heston or Ingrid Bergman putting on their armor for Ben Hur or Joan of Arc (pictured below), Gary Cooper putting on his World War I uniform as Sergeant York (below), Julie Andrews strumming her guitar from The Sound of Music, or anyone small enough to slip into Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra gown or Cecil Beaton's My Fair Lady Ascot Race dress for Audrey Hepburn. They made their actresses smaller then.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Wasn't the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thinking about creating a Hollywood museum? The Academy sent no bidder to Debbie Reynolds' historic costume and prop collection assembled over 50 years, which crowds checked out over the past few weeks at the Paley Media Center until its auction Saturday. It was strange to conjure images of Yul Brynner sitting on the throne from The King and I, Charlton Heston or Ingrid Bergman putting on their armor for Ben Hur or Joan of Arc (pictured below), Gary Cooper putting on his World War I uniform as Sergeant York (below), Julie Andrews strumming her guitar from The Sound of Music, or anyone small enough to slip into Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra gown or Cecil Beaton's My Fair Lady Ascot Race dress for Audrey Hepburn. They made their actresses smaller then.

Now the collection of memorabilia has been broken up via some record sales; many of the valuable pieces of Tinseltown history went to Saudi Arabia and Japan. Big sellers were Judy Garland's test dress and ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Marilyn Monroe's white subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch, which sold for $4.6 million, a record price for movie memorabilia. UPDATE: CNN reports: "With the auction company getting a $1 million commission, the buyer will pay $5.6 million. It had been expected to sell for $2 million, the auction house, Profiles in History, said."

Cari Beauchamp reports from inside the auction:

Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
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Thompson on Hollywood


With an hour to go before the auction was scheduled to begin, the theater of the Paley Center in Beverly Hills was already full and the downstairs gallery was filling up. When Debbie Reynolds walked in, looking perky in a white pants suit, the crowd rose and applauded as she took the podium to say a few last words before hundreds of her costumes and props went under the gavel. "I've been collecting for 45 years and I'm only forty," brought appreciative laughs and her eyes welled up as she thanked everyone for coming -- and bidding. While she has passionately and lovingly tried to save this slice of Hollywood history, the years of accumulated bills necessitated this sale. But the anticipation hung heavy in the room. The people filling the theater looked more like observers and fans than capable of coming up with major bucks, but one truth of auctions is that all it takes is two people who want the same thing to drive prices sky high.

Within minutes of starting, the second item, Valentino's "Suit of Lights" from Blood and Sand, went for over $200,000 to an anonymous phone bidder. Debbie and Joe Maddalena, head of Profiles in History, the company running the auction, were all smiles and soon another phone bidder paid $110,000 for one of Chaplin's "Little Tramp" hats and a Harpo Marx hat and wig (pictured) went for $45,000 to an internet bidder.

The real shocker of the early afternoon was Judy Garland's blue cotton "test dress" from The Wizard of Oz. When the bidding hit $600,000 Joe Maddelena was squealing into the phone as he apprised someone on the other end of progress. Dorothy's dress eventually went to a private buyer in the room with a foreign accent who was soon rumoured to be representing Saudi oil money. When the gavel finally came down, he had bought it for $910,000-- before some 20 percent buyer's premium and taxes. The auction was paused for long enough Debbie to go over and give him a kiss. The same buyer then picked up the next item, an early test for Dorothy's sequined ruby shoes, for $510,000.

When a lock of Mary Pickford's famous curls was on the block, the auctioneer prodded bidders with the suggestion that scientists were doing "great things with cloning." (It went for $3,500.) When bidding for a couch from Greta Garbo's Camille (pictured) lagged at $9,000, Debbie yelled out "I paid ten." (It went for 11.) And when Edward G Robinson's pipes and slippers were up, Debbie's daughter Carrie Fisher reminded everyone, "tomorrow is Father's Day."

Debbie's family was there to support her: Carrie (occasionally puffing on an electronic cigarette) and her brother Todd, as well as Carrie's daughter and ex-husband, CAA's Bryan Lourd (who made a purchase or two).

In between, the items came and went and a considerable percentage of costumes (suits worn by Humphrey Bogart, Bill Powell, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard as well as dresses worn by Garbo, Norma Shearer and Katharine Hepburn to name a few) went to bidder number 247 in the room, who was generally acknowledged to be representing a museum in Japan. As he picked up costume after costume, Randy Habercamp of the Academy shook his head as it sunk in how many iconic pieces were leaving this country for good. "Well," he said, seeking to put it all in some perspective, "it happened to the treasures of Greece. It happened to Italy. I guess now it's our turn." (Randy was there for the experience -- the Academy did not send an official representative to bid on costumes.)

As the auction went on, it became clear that there are sub-categories of collectors. Mystery buffs and Sherlock Holmes aficionados pushed props and costumes such as Basil Rathbone's cape up to $40,000. It made a difference in which film the same actress wore a costume -- Grace Kelly's brown suit from Mogambo fetched $15,000 while her coral knit in which she drove Cary Grant through the hills of the South of France in To Catch a Thief went for over $400,000.

But when it comes to stars, the unquestioned queen for collectors is Marilyn Monroe. The red sequined gown in which she sang "Two little Girls from Little Rock" with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes started at $200,000 and jumped quickly to a final price of $1.2 million to a phone bidder. Then the red MG that she and Cary Grant drove around in Monkey Business started at $20,000 and went for $210,000. But it was Marilyn's "subway grate" dress from The Seven Year Itch that had been advertised as the biggest draw of the day and was expected to bring at least a million. It started there, but higher and higher it went, with at least half a dozen different bidders sending it to $4.6 million dollars (to a different phone bidder than the one who bought the red gown). The theatre burst with applause, Debbie hugged her kids and Joe and turned to give the audience two thumbs up. Almost half the items remained to be sold, but she knew she was finally out from behind the financial eight ball.

I had arrived that morning thinking I would see some friends and spend an hour or two. But almost nine hours had passed and I was starting to get the feeling I was in a casino with the same stuffy air and little sense of reality when it came to both time and money. Few others seemed anxious to budge, but it was getting too surreal for me. It was time to return to the -- relatively speaking -- real world.

Thompson on Hollywood

This article is related to: Genres, News, Classics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.