Fifty years on, everyone still wants a piece of Marilyn

"They're one of a number of pairs she had," says curator Dwight Bowers, gently lifting them out of the beige steel cabinet they share with Christopher Reeves' Superman costume and the 10-gallon hat that JR wore in Dallas.

"They're white kid. They're very tiny and petite. And they show the decorousness of the 1950s," he explained. "There's a stain of ink on the left one … perhaps it came from giving an autograph to someone."

Donated by a private collector, the gloves make up the entire Marilyn Monroe collection at the publicly-funded Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest network of museums and, in principle, repository of all things Americana.

Bowers, who plans to include the gloves in an forthcoming Smithsonian exhibition on American popular culture, said it's "logical" for the museum to hold more Monroe memorabilia.

"But Hollywood material and Hollywood celebrities are big business in the auction world," he said in the windowless storeroom that's packed floor to ceiling with show-business artifacts from vaudeville to today.

"Private collectors are part of our competition – and private collectors have a much bigger budget than we have."

Blonde bombshell
Fifty years after her death, demand for anything related to Hollywood's original blonde bombshell – from the dresses she wore to the magazine covers she graced – is stronger than ever. And it's more global as well.

Many choice items can be seen at the Hollywood Museum in Los Angeles, where a handful of private collectors have pooled their most prized Monroe objects for a summer-long public exhibition.

It's a wide-ranging show, from the mortgage paperwork on Monroe's house to never-before-seen photographs and a host of garments like the black silk crepe dress she wore on her honeymoon with baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.

"It had been in storage for 35 years," Hollywood Museum founder Donelle Dadigan said. "When we received it, you knew who it belonged to, because the Chanel Number Five perfume still lingered … It was almost magical."

The bulk of Monroe's personal belongings went on the auction block at Christie's in New York in October 1999 at a historic two-day estate sale that raked in $13.4-million.

"They literally had everything from pots and pans to her brassieres," recalled Clark Kidder, a collector of Monroe-related magazines in Wisconsin and author of a 2001 guide to Monroe memorabilia who attended the sale.

Memorabilia market
The most expensive item then was a diamond-studded platinum eternity band, a gift from DiMaggio, her second husband, that Christie's experts had estimated at $50 000 tops. It sold for $772 000 and it's likely worth much more today.

Monroe's baby grand piano went, too, for $662 500, along with everything else from a pair of bikinis and a set of gym equipment to her driver's license – as well as the gloves that eventually wound up in the Smithsonian.

Such prices today would be considered bargains, due in part to the globalisation of the memorabilia market and an influx of cash-rich and reclusive Asian and Gulf collectors for whom price is no object.

"Some of the top prices for Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, in the seven figures, you may end up finding in China, in Japan, in the Middle East … it's just extraordinary," Dadigan said.

Last year, in Macau, Los Angeles auctioneers Julien's sold a gown that Monroe wore in the movie "River of No Return" for $516 600 and a signed nude from her "red velvet" session with photographer Tom Kelly for $16 250.

Earlier in 2011, the billowing dress that Monroe wore over that famously breezy subway grating in "The Seven-Year Itch" sold for a staggering $4.6-million – plus commission – in Los Angeles.

Custodian of memory
The seller was the actress Debbie Reynolds, who at 79 had no more room for her collection of 35 000 Hollywood movie costumes. The buyer, as is so often the case at auctions, opted for discretion and bid by telephone.

"A lot of these high-profile pieces, when they come up for auction, are going to the Asian countries," Los Angeles collector Scott Fortner, whose own Monroe objects are part of the Hollywood Museum exhibition, said.

"I find it disappointing that some of these pieces literally just disappear and we have no idea where they go," added Fortner, who has catalogued his entire collection – from a feather boa to make-up and eye drops – online.

Fortner sees himself not so much as a collector than as a custodian of the memory of a timeless motion picture icon. He's especially proud of one item in his possession – Monroe's humble Brownie snapshot camera.

"I have always found that piece very, very intriguing," he said. "It's the childhood camera of one of the most photographed women, if not the most photographed woman, in the world. There's an interesting bit of irony there." – Sapa-AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Robert Macpherson
Robert Macpherson works from Vancouver, BC. Research Associate @PWHS_UBC @ubcspph Robert Macpherson has over 120 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Man charged in Ferguson cop shooting

Police charged a young African-American man on Sunday in connection with the shooting in Ferguson that wounded two policemen.

In dark and cold, Americans cast first ballots

From a symbolic hamlet to a swing state neighbouring Washington to the storm-scarred streets of New York, Americans rose early to cast ballots.

Marilyn Monroe photos spark buzz ahead of Polish auction

Marilyn Monroe aficionados are flocking to Warsaw to see pictures of the bombshell and other stars snapped by celebrity photographer Milton Greene.

Court frees Monroe’s image for the world

It is a decision one imagines the Hollywood star might well have embraced: Marilyn Monroe, according to a new legal ruling, belongs to everybody.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes star Jane Russell dies at 89

Hollywood siren shot to fame in Howard Hughes's film <em>The Outlaw</em>.

Hollywood siren Jane Russell dies at 89

The Hollywood siren, who shot to fame in Howard Hughes's film <em>The Outlaw</em>, died at her home in California.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Vitamin therapy is for drips

It may be marketed by influencers, but intravenous vitamin therapy is not necessary and probably not worth the hype, experts say

Facebook, Instagram indiscriminately flag #EndSars posts as fake news

Fact-checking is appropriate but the platforms’ scattershot approach has resulted in genuine information and messages about Nigerians’ protest against police brutality being silenced

Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community

Mam’Ntshangase was described as a fierce critic of mining and ambassador for land rights.

Unite with Nigeria’s ‘Speak Up’ generation protesting against police brutality

Photos of citizens draped in the bloodied flag have spread around the world in the month the country should be celebrating 60 years of independence

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday