Help! I’m obsessed with... these cursed celebrity auctions

No point saving for a mortgage these days. Why not buy Kurt Cobain’s pill bottles instead?

by Douglas Greenwood
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11 May 2021, 11:33am

Celebrity possessions auctions

More often than you’d think, celebrities’ prized possessions (and worn underwear) wind up being trawled through and put up for auction when they die. Often that auction house is Julien’s in Beverly Hills. Be it the handles from Judy Garland’s casket or Kurt Cobain’s pill bottles, lots of things seem to pass through there, and on her Instagram account @westwood_village_mortuary, curator, writer and former i-D cover star Alissa Bennett is picking out the most fascinating ones.

Her grid brings together some of the most weird and grotesque lots that have appeared at Julien’s over the years, which holds a reputation for being a little less sniffy about what they list than the high end houses only interested in selling iconic pieces steeped in (mostly) unproblematic history. The dress Madonna wore to her wedding to Sean Penn would be of interest to most auction houses in LA. But the polo shirt Truman Capote died in? Not so much. “Sotheby’s is not selling the clothes Truman Capote died in because it’s too craven,” Alissa says. ”But to the fan, this is as close to the body as anyone will ever get.”

What Julien’s provide is exactly that: a new form of fandom in which celebrity is excavated so deeply that we pluck at the scraps of what’s left of them when they’re gone. “These sales are always about violation,” Alissa says, “about forcing a connection with an object of idolatry who can no longer say no. There’s something really violent about buying what is ostensibly the excess of a celebrity’s life.”

It’s deeply unsettling — Alissa knows that, and calls it “necrophilia” — but watching what crops up is compulsive, like a wild obsession that exposes the roots of stan culture. “I’m very very obsessed with fandom, and these sales are the apotheosis,” she says. In some ways, there’s a flipside to these auctions too, “about trying to resuscitate the dead star — we are looking for an intimacy that can only be located in objects once the body is gone.”

The format and purpose of Alissa’s account is simple: a screenshot of the lot, paired with a caption that explains the piece’s estimated value alongside its final bid. If there is a history, she explains it, as she does with “Lot 380: Elvis Presley Quaalude Prescription Pill Bottle”; others, like the bed Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson’s characters share in The Shining are simply described.

Then there’s a whole, thousands-of-words-long story attached to some lots, like the sale of the handles of Judy Garland’s original casket. The lucid description of the man who owned them, saved from the garbage tip as Judy’s first casket was thrown away after she arrived poorly embalmed in New York from London, is jaw-dropping. “That story becomes so emblematic of how we killed her, right?” Alissa says. “Like, there is never enough, so we start to go for the actual body.”

There is, among the horror shows, a lot of lucrative mundanity. A handwritten book report from a young Britney Spears sold for $320. A gas station receipt signed by River Phoenix sold for $125.

Alissa herself says she’s only ever been drawn to “dead lots”; items that have sold already. She bid on a set of Greta Garbo’s headscarves but bailed once the price went over $200 (“I wanted to use them, not enshrine them”). The one thing she wishes she did own represents so much of what makes celebrity such a fascinating if miserable concept: a gold money clip gifted by Marilyn Monroe to her friend, the makeup artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder. On it, an inscription reads: “Whitey dear: While I’m still warm, Marilyn”.

The history of The Misfits, a film on which Whitey and Marilyn worked together, is one of Alissa’s key interests. Some read the piece as proof of Marilyn doling out wealth in exchange for friendship. It sold for $21,250, nearly four times the lower asking price. As for why she likes it? “It’s an incredible work of art,” Alissa says.

After all, so many of these things become art when blessed with the touch of someone famous. Much like with car crashes on motorways, and violent serial killer documentaries, when it comes to the dismal objects of a famous person’s life being fobbed off for profit, there’s nothing more intriguing than gazing at the horror on show.

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