Art market

Marilyn photos sales flop; one set was just too expensive, the others were fake

A sign that even this highly popular market for images of the screen icon has its limits–and danger


The first was on the West Coast, where Butterfield’s and Ebay stirred up a blizzard of publicity for their (live and online) auction of five famous "Red Velvet" nude pics of Marilyn Monroe, snapped by Associated Press photographer Tom Kelley in 1949. They were to be sold along with intellectual property rights, which would allow the buyer to use the images for commercial purposes. The hype was to no avail and on 22 March the pictures and rights were left unsold.

Why? They were grossly overvalued. Ebay/Butterfields was asking a whopping $700,000-$1million; simply too much for the set.

New York photography dealer Howard Greenberg commented, “The collectors of photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and there are many, aren’t generally used to paying those kinds of prices. $5,000…up to $20,000 for something special, but when you get close to $1 million, you’ve got to be a serious fetishist, and you’ve got to have serious extra money.” Apparently, five bidders came up with a total of $840,000, but this did not meet the images’ undisclosed minimum price.

Catherine Williamson, director of entertainment memorabilia for Butterfields, attributed the photos’ failure to sell, in part to market instability, and her analysis was confirmed by Howard Greenberg, who noted, “A year ago, [the "Red Velvet" photographs] might have sold, because that’s when all the…money was around…it would have simply taken the right person who had just made a million on the stock market, but now you’ve got a more sober attitude out there. And you’ve got something that’s outrageously highly estimated. It’s a recipe for failure.”

The second set of pictures never even made it to auction, for a different reason: the ever-present danger of faking in a strong market. Earlier this year, the British site icollector announced it was offering 10 images of the actress, supposedly taken two weeks before her death by Hollywood photographer Bert Stern. The pictures were to be sold as one lot at an estimate of $90,000-110,000.

They were withdrawn, however, before being posted on the site: according to icollector spokesperson Susan Barber, “We did research on them and contacted the photographer, who said he had not taken them: they were duplicates with faked signatures”. The group was returned to the vendor, believed to be a US auction house.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as: Marilyn photos flop