At Julien’s Auctions this past weekend, the starting bid for Truman Capote’s ashes was a mere $2,500. In rising increments of $2,500, bidders from all over the world, both calling via telephone and clicking in their bids online, raised the price to its highest bid of $35,000. After fees, lucky bidder number 841 could expect to pay approximately $45,000 for an ornately carved wooden box that’s contained Capote’s ashy remains since 1984, as well as its accompanying certificates of authenticity.
Other detritus from Capote’s final days on earth went to a bidder who ponied up $4,000 for more than a dozen plastic prescription pill bottles (Valium, Tofranil, Librium, and Halcion were some of the more intriguing labels). The polo shirt and Madras shorts Capote died in were also up for auction.
These macabre items, along with some less ghoulish ones — hats, snapshots, crocheted pillows — made their way to Julien’s auction house through Joanne Carson, a dear friend of Capote’s and the ex-wife of Johnny Carson. “Pop culture items are more like fine art than they are collectibles at this point,” said Darren Julien, the Indiana native behind the “Auction House to the Stars.” He first saw the potential of the Hollywood memorabilia market while selling ritzy cars at L.A.’s well-established car auctions. He knew Carson personally, and when she died, several items from her estate were given over to Julien for auction. “It’s one of those things that has really taken off in the past decade or so,” Julien says. “It’s the new art market. And it’s fun.”
Also up for auction were Joanne and Johnny Carson’s wedding documents (and ring), neckties once worn by Steve Jobs, the wig Elizabeth Taylor donned while filming Cleopatra, event programs from Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding, a set of chairs once owned by Charlton Heston and a pair of Keanu Reeves’s sunglasses.
“We sell buyers on the fact that a lot of this stuff is a great way to diversify portfolios,” Julien said. “Like the John Lennon guitar we sold for $2.4 million. The guy who bought it is a big impressionist art buyer. But a guitar is a lot sexier to hang on the wall than a Picasso or a Manet. A few years from now, it’ll likely be worth several times what he paid for it. These items are good investments.”
In attendance for the day’s auction were three types of people: employees, media people, and collectors.
The auction people sat mostly plugged into computers and telephones at tables lined along the left side of the memorabilia-draped auction floor of Julien’s Auctions. These employees were responsible for communicating with bidders who couldn’t make it to the West Hollywood auction house for the sale, but still wanted to participate.
Then there were the media people, who clustered in some seats near the front of the room. A small array of American and European journalists (myself included) were utterly boggled by their first time in an auction house dedicated to selling Hollywood memorabilia — a first print design of a Charlie Chaplin poster was sold to a bidder in China for more than $30,000.
Sprinkled throughout the remaining 30 or so black folding chairs arranged in neat rows down the auction room’s center were about a dozen collectors. “I’m a bit of a Capote scholar,” explained a fluorescently blonde woman of about 60, before telling me she was uncomfortable talking any more. She later spent nearly $1,000 on one of Truman Capote’s trademark straw hats.
As for his ashes, they sat in a locked glass case at the foot of a stairway to the auction house’s second level, surrounded by eight unlit tea-light candles and enclosed in a Japanese-style carved wooden box. While Julien recognizes some folks might have ethical quandaries with the auctioning of human remains, he argues that Capote, ever the fame hound, would have enjoyed the fact that his ashes were sold to the highest bidder
“It’s their opportunity to get as close as they can get to their idols and to their icons,” said Tim Luke, one of the two auctioneers working the floor of the Icons & Idols auction. “They might not have been able to meet them in real life, but owning something they touched is a way to keep their icons alive not only in their minds, but also in their collection.”
A bespectacled man who wanted to be identified only as Joe explained—after having spent several thousand dollars on various knick-knacks from the estates of Joanne Carson and Jack Larson—how Julien’s Auction keeps stars alive after they die. As he recalled, Julien’s auctioned off the entire contents of the room Michael Jackson died in.
“I was able to get one thing. I tried to bid on a lot of it, but it was just going for too much money. I got an artificial flower in a really ornate vase. And if you look at the pictures that they took of where he died, you can see it on the shelf. The only thing they didn’t sell was the bed he died on.”
The artificial flower cost Joe $750. But, as he continued, “I’m happy I have it. I’m able to look at it and think about how I own a piece of history.”