A star is worn as fans buy into nostalgia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am


Would you buy a second-hand bra for more than US$7,000? How about a worn glove for US$500,000? You might, if you knew their original owners were Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson.

Celebrity memorabilia, through a combination of interest in the subject and in investment, has become big business. Marilyn Monroe's white dress from The Seven Year Itch fetched US$4.6 million; Michael Jackson's red-and-black Thriller jacket sold for US$1.8 million; and Judy Garland's The Wizard of Oz frock netted almost US$1 million.

The reasons behind collectors' interest can vary. In the case of the Thriller jacket, its new owner will take it on tour to raise money for children's charities. But for many others, it's just a way of getting close to the celebrity. 'Entertainment memorabilia has a nostalgic value that other markets don't have,' says Stephanie Connell, head of entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams. 'People can instantly relate to it [and] a lot of memorabilia is quite accessible. You can pick pieces up for a few hundred dollars all the way up to several million dollars. It's a broad-ranging market.'

Connell says most collectors who buy at auctions are people who want pieces in their homes. Other auction houses agree. Neil Roberts, head of popular culture at Christie's, says: 'The most specialised tend to be connoisseurs of a particular star, musician, item or genre, who will be always seeking that one special item to complete their collection.'

Dr Hoffman Ma is one such connoisseur. The Macau-based businessman bought his first piece of memorabilia - the bejewelled single glove Michael Jackson wore to the Grammys - after his uncle, also a collector, considered buying it for his own collection.

'I thought it would be a better to share it with all of Michael's fans in the China region,' he says. His gallery at Ponte 16 in Macau exhibits the glove, along with 40 other Jackson artifacts, for free.

Scott Fortner collects and exhibits for a similar reason. As one of the world's foremost collectors of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, Fortner started out by collecting books on the actress when he was a child. He soon moved up to collecting her personal items after stumbling across them in an auction catalogue.

'It's amazing just to hold the piece in your hand, whether it's a shirt or a dress that she wore, a cheque that she signed, or some make-up that still shows trails of her fingertips,' he says.

Fortner regularly exhibits his collection around the world, finding pleasure in sharing parts of Monroe's life with other enthusiasts. But with many of the blond bombshell's pieces selling for high premiums these days, would he ever consider cashing in? 'I couldn't imagine selling anything,' he says. 'It's my passion.'

But despite Fortner's lack of monetary interest, some collectors are starting to see investment opportunities in celebrity memorabilia. 'People in financial institutions are starting to look at it more like a serious investment,' says Darren Julien of Julien's Auctions, which hosted the region's first celebrity memorabilia auction in Macau last year. 'These artifacts are one of a kind and they are ways to diversify the portfolio as part of investing in art.'

A little black dress worn by Monroe originally sold at a 1999 Christie's auction for US$23,000. It went back on the block at Julien's last May and fetched US$348,000.

Chetan Trivedi is CEO of Marquee Capital, a fund that invests solely in celebrity memorabilia. He has seen the value of the fund rise 23 per cent since it was launched in 2007. Much of that is due to exhibition touring - a clever way of using fan interest to boost value.

For example, its Simply Madonna exhibition recently finished its run at Macau's City of Dreams. It featured a collection of the pop diva's stage costumes, accessories and personal items. Trivedi considers the Madonna pieces as long-term investments believing that, in 10 to 20 years, the singer's status will be on par with Marilyn Monroe.

'She hits all the boxes,' he says. 'Her costumes after 1993 don't even come on the market and it's her iconic status that will help the investment portfolio.'

For memorabilia to be easily sellable, it must be 'unique, or at the very least, very rare and you need to invest in items that others aspire to own,' he says.

The more personal the items are, the more you can expect to fork out - and, of course, get back in return.

'The items are going to continue to increase because of supply and demand,' Julien says.

'They will continue to increase as these celebrities are immortalised.'