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Debbie Reynolds Auction Breaks Up Historic Hollywood Collection

by Cari Beauchamp
June 19, 2011 5:30 AM
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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
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood
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
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  • Hollywood Game | January 2, 2013 7:34 AMReply

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  • Charyl Gentner | June 24, 2012 8:55 PMReply

    Debbie -
    I was sorry to hear your collection had to be dissolved, but understand. I donated several items to the museum 12 or so years ago in Las Vegas; hope they helped at the auction. Always -

  • Nadia Suliman | June 10, 2012 11:57 PMReply

    Does anyone know who owns the beaded gown that Audrey Hepburn to the ball in My Fair Lady?

  • Joyce Burns | February 12, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    Dear Debbie, I have just been looking at some of your auctions and was thinking since you know so much about celeberty memorabila you might be able to tell me something about a
    mirrow I have. it is about 34/22 inches and has two flamingos on it. and has a signature of
    Turner with a c in a circle. I thought it might be associated with the movie flamingo road
    which I believe is a very old movie.and it might be of some value.if you could let me know something about it I would really apprecitate it.I would try to take a picture of it if you would like to see it.looking forward to hear from you as soon as you have time.I know you are probly a very busy lady.and tell your daughter I make necklaces for the electronic gigarettes,my daughter has one and I make them for her. Thanks so much Joyce

  • Debbie | May 27, 2012 12:19 AM

    Sorry dear but you would need to take the mirror to an appraiser to be authenticated and appraised for value.

  • connie morgan | January 17, 2012 7:49 PMReply

    I would have loved being there debbie is one of greastest stars of all time but I live in kentucky and Iam straped down here with my dogs people throw away these dogs like garbage so we have about 60 right now and its getting to hard to feed and take care of them Iam not able to work any more and I was wondering I have a uniform worn by mel Gebson do you all sell theses item for just anyone I have the coa I dont want to have to sell it but I need to take care of my dogs please email me back thank you all so much and Iam really happy for you Debbie

  • Linda Schmick | December 26, 2011 8:04 PMReply

    It's bad,, but Debbie has been lugging those treasures around for years, and has been financially strapped because of them and those rotten husbands, so it is time for Debbie to sit back and smell the roses. She's a real trouper. She's been one of my favorite people since early high school in 1955. I have seen her show several times, and was able to talk with her during one visit and what a joy. She is so down to earth and that's why she's still loved and can bring keep a following at her age. She is a real entertainer. God Bless Her!!!

  • Jen | October 26, 2011 12:25 PMReply

    I agree. It is sad to see these classic Hollywood treasures to go away to a foreign country, where we will probably never see them again. Why is that there are so many greedy people out there, couldn't they donate any of these treasures to the Smithsonian? I would have loved to see Dorothy's dress & Marilyn's in there.

  • Aldus | July 13, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    I would like to know how to contact the auctioneer. I have a rather valuable piece used in a scene which made the career of a major sex symbol in American film.
    Any time is appreciated.

  • Bryden McGarry | June 24, 2011 8:10 AMReply

    The ruby slippers that Debbie Reynolds had were the first pair of "test slippers". They were more of an Arabian style.

  • Criss | June 23, 2011 11:58 AMReply

    Great story thank you to the writer for this article, i really enjoyed your piece.

  • JERILYN DARIA BIFULCO | June 21, 2011 11:06 AMReply

    I believe the original Ruby Slippers from the "WIZARD OF OZ" are on exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. It is very sad that a museum was not established to house these TREASURES. But I am thrilled for Debbie who was so gracious to my Mother & Aunts years ago in Vegas and her museum in her Casino housed some of this collection. Debbie escorted my Mom & Aunts into the museum to see these treasured costumes. Brava Debbie****I am so happy for Debbie that she should make millions from this auction. It's about time Debbie has things coming up ROSES.**** Looking forward to the auction of Dame Elizabeth TAYLOR'S collection which should also bring in millions but sad that this icon and great humanitarian's bright light is gone from our world.

  • Dan | June 21, 2011 5:11 AMReply

    Another correction should be noted: Reynolds did not own the actual ruby slippers that Garland wore in the film. The ones that were auctioned were a pair of 'test' slippers that didn't even resemble the pair seen in the production.

  • Barbara Cook | June 20, 2011 3:44 AMReply

    I think it is really sad that with all the money that is available in Hollywood such a collection should be split up and lost to the nation that created them. I am not from the US but haved always loved and still love and watch the films that gave these items their provenance. Surely someone in Hollywood cared enough to keep this collection where it belonged. A very sad day for the US and for all those great stars that do not seem to matter now.

  • Todd Fisher | June 20, 2011 2:57 AMReply

    Great job on this story, I wish some main line reporters had your skills.

  • Deborah Akwei | June 20, 2011 2:26 AMReply

    Shame on America for letting such a valuable treasure slip away. We can only hope that what was sold was only a piece of the best treasures. Hopefully Ms. Reynolds was able to satisfy her debt and America will write tens of thousands of checks for $10, $20, $50 dollars to make sure an auction like this never happens again.

    If major institutions and the US Government doesnt think preserving these National Treasures a worthy enough treasure then let there be a movement for and by the people to show them they are wrong. We can help Ms. Reynolds build our own institution to preserve what remains and what is yet to come.

    Ms. Reynolds, just let me know where to send my check....

  • Wow | June 20, 2011 2:07 AMReply

    Heartbreaking to know that Hollywood doesn't seem to care about the history and culture of its own art form. Now some of the greatest Hollywood treasures will go to Japan and Saudi Arabia, probably to be lost forever.

  • Kandice Brown | June 19, 2011 11:52 AMReply

    While I don't have any Idea aboutwhatis going on with these treasures, I wold love to get some idea. I saw a quick item on my local TV channel in San Francisco on the evening ig June 18 but I missed most of the information. If you could help supply more information or give me an e-mail address at whitch I that I might reach someone involved in the CARRIE FISCHER OR DEBBIE REYNOLDS Auctions. I am such fans of both of the ladies. My address is 355 Elm Street, San Carlos, CA 94070 Telephone: 650 594 0251. Thank you for anything you might do on my behalf, Sincerely, Kandice Brown

  • jim k | June 19, 2011 11:03 AMReply

    Any word on how much Ben Affleck's 'sock' went for?

  • Jerry McCoy | June 19, 2011 8:13 AMReply

    As suspected iconic artifacts of our nation's cultural history will forever leave our country. The most painful is Marilyn's subway grate dress, which could have easily been purchased by an individual or group of Hollywood filmakers (and we all know who they are) and presented to the Smithsonian Institution.

  • rosalind | June 19, 2011 6:35 AMReply

    thanks for this inside view. i went to see the costumes on thursday and was astounded at the collection. i found myself glued to the computer screen all day yesterday watching the live bidding, and kept wondering what was going on in the actual room.

  • Linda | June 19, 2011 2:08 AMReply

    Sorry, I hate spelling errors. Your sentence, "But almost nine hours had past and I was starting ......." should actually be, "But almost nine hours had passed..."

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