For several years now, auction sales related to pop culture have flourished. From French music to video games via the Star Wars saga, auction houses have been exploring new segments. A panorama of these wide-appeal niches.
Mylène Farmer’s military jacket, Maurice Chevalier’s boater, a childhood videogame or the robot R2-D2, the pipe smoked by singer Georges Brassens… The list of fetish objects from what is known as “pop culture” is long… and sells well! Once reserved to an obscure minority of underground collectors, for several years in France now, the purchase of memorabilia from childhood, the stars of music, film or television, has been transposed to auctions. So is this an auction-house strategy to reconquer market shares? Or is there a genuine demand for these objects? In any case, this new category of memorabilia is gaining more and more fans.
Of course, it’s not new for these astonishing relics to exercise a power of fascination. In the 1970s, MGM studios would auction off objects from every category in their possession, including over 350,000 costumes. “Marilyn Monroe dresses and Elvis clothing articles were sold for around $1,000,” explained, in 2011, Darren Julien, founder of the auction house Julien’s Auctions, to Alex Ritman from the website theNational.ae. Around a decade later, in about 1980, Drouot in France began holding auction sales of the personal belongings of Claude François or Édith Piaf. But what is surprising these days is the sudden recurrence, ever since the start of the 2010s, of sales focusing on popular culture: French music, videogames, Star Wars… Is this the emergence of a new market?
Culture geek icons
In Paris, the auction house Millon & Associés has set up a specific department for pop culture, directed by Alexis Jacquemard. “It was a matter of opening up to a new type of clientele, to amateurs not necessarily accustomed to auction sales,” he explains. Behind the creation of the pop-culture department in 2013, Alexis Jacquemard mentions the challenge of gathering fans, finding enough rare merchandise, and the development of “culture geek” sales in particular. “Buyers are mostly professionals who resell the goods on Internet or else specialist stores. Others are collectors nostalgic for the games that they knew from the past, or else consumers who still play.” The upshot is that in most cases, 75 % of lots have sold, yielding a turnover per sale ranging from €39,000 (for the last sale) and €70,000 without expenses (for the first), with a record of €10,000 for a mythical game, Dino Force by Unipost Japan, released in 1992, of which only two copies are now left. But there’s an exception to this tendency: only 50 % of lots sold at the sale organised on 28 June 2014, while producing proceeds of €65,000. This difference can be explained by the huge number of lots offered at this one sale: 645 compared to 350 at the first sale, 485 at the second. Generally, Millon & Associés sells between 300 and 500 lots per “geek” sale. “Difficulties come from the sizable competition of Internet. We also have trouble finding very important pieces and the associated clientele,” specifies Alexis Jacquemard. In its almost four years of existence, the department has therefore not entirely settled down. But on this point, the auctioneer remains optimistic: “We have very good media coverage. We’re spoken about in the press and on television. We have regular sellers and buyers, and it’s not rare for a new collector to turn their interest to the auction house’s other departments. When asked about his projects, Jacquemard overflows with ideas: “More prestigious sales later, to reach out to overseas buyers, to find rare pieces, to develop the department with sales on more varied themes such as film or specialist topics. We’re also thinking about online sales of shoes customised by graffiti artists. In the meantime, our next culture geek sale will be on in June 2017.”
Meanwhile, valuer Camille Coste describes videogames as the tenth art, now also finding a market. “The first aim was to promote videogames by offering a historic sale showing their evolution over some 40 years of history, their technical innovations,” he explained in 2013 on the website France.retrogaming. “The second was to advocate the artistic touch in videogames by paying homage to all those people who work like elves in the dark without their work being talked about, to thumb our nose so to speak at the media by showing that games are not just about violence, but that there’s retrogaming.” While the results of the first sale were not extraordinary without being catastrophic either, the retrogaming community was divided about the auction event, fearing a rise in prices due to strong media coverage. “Auctions are just another way to find things, no more, no less. There are stores, websites, forums, second-hand stores, eBay and company… All these purchasing options already exist and have cohabited for a long time. Prices are naturally rising because collectors and players interested in old games are increasingly numerous; prizes are not stable for now, but fluctuating. The market will stabilise by itself. A popular art remains an art, and if it starts being collected in certain forms, it takes on value – this is inevitable.”
The star market
As chance has a habit of doing things right, it was in 2013 – the same year that culture geek sales started at Drouot – that comic-book valuer Christophe Fumeux decided to set up the sales company Coutau-Bégarie, with the first auction wholly dedicated to Claude François. Stage outfits worn by the singer or his gang of female accompanists the Clodettes, gold records, everyday objects belonging to the artist… The public flocked and media spread the word, to the great delight of Drouot. Raising a total turnover of €180,000 and driving a few ex-groupies to fainting point, the sale was a first success. The next sales, widened to French and international music, combining memorabilia from a range of songster stars, would confirm this trend: a total of €270,000 in 2014, then €390,000 in 2015, finally €235,000 in 2016, notching up a number of records… €17,000 for a stage costume that belonged to Claude François, €15,000 for Michel Polnareff’s Harley Davidson or €8,500 for a handwritten page by Serge Gainsbourg. Not forgetting numerous gold records including that of Johnny Hallyday, dating from 1976, selling for €5,000.
And what about the February 2017 edition? “The star market is very difficult to build up. It’s poorly structured, not well organised, with not many objects. There are a lot of fakes around as well,” explains valuer Christophe Fumeux. “There’s also something particular about collectors: they group around a certain artist. So everything becomes rare and it’s long and fastidious to form a collection. I think that this is what limited the emergence of this type of sale in France.” How do we explain, then, the sudden take-off of pop culture at auctions? According to Christophe Fumeux, Internet, far from being a rival, is a key towards finding goods. “Ever since the appearance of Internet, and then social networks, it’s been simpler to locate objects and collectors who gather in forum discussions, on Facebook or else on blogs.” He continues: “Auction rooms should simply be viewed as an extra intermediary. There’s eBay, leboncoin, second-hand stores and specialist stores. And there are auction sales.” Is it difficult to keep reinventing oneself? The valuer smiles at this question. “We’re currently organising, in collaboration with Lynda Trouvé from the sales company Art Valorem, an auction called ‘Kiki et Montparnasse’.” Some astonishing souvenirs to look forward to!
Competition from the international market
Pop-culture auction houses do not yet seem to be well-rooted in Paris, with their sales lagging far behind the main pop-culture sales overseas. “The bulk of the market is elsewhere,” observes Anne d’Artigue, a communications officer specialised in the art market. “In Los Angeles, the auction house Julien’s Auctions (‘The auction house to the stars’) specialises in entertainment memorabilia. In other words, souvenirs from celebrities and anything to do with pop culture.” A record setter in the domain, this auction house leads the market. And what’s the most remarkable souvenir that the house’s founder Darren Julien has ever sold? “The kidney stone of actor William Shatner, sold for $75,000,” he replies. “And two empty boxes of pills that belonged to Marilyn Monroe, sold for $18,750.” Buyers, according to Darren Julien, are everywhere and above all, high in number: “We have clients all over the world, from France to Asia.” Why, then, does the United States remain the nerve centre of this speciality? “We have the goods. Our auction house is based in the middle of Hollywood. No need to go out looking any further.” Combined with an established reputation and smooth communication (including excellent media coverage), success relies on the resonance of each event: on 26 October 2016, the auction house organised a Memorabilia Day devoted to souvenirs of the Beatles, in partnership with Beatles Story from Liverpool. Julien’s Auctions has no further need to prove itself; for example, at its last three sales, respectively dedicated to Jane Fonda and Joanne Carson on 9 October 2016, to Hollywood icons (which widened to include Steve Jobs) on 24 September, and Jane Fonda’s diverse collection on 23 September, all raised turnovers of over $8 million, with a rate of 98 % of lots sold. “Everyone buys at our sales. Not just fans with more or less financial means, but also real investors. Today, it’s not ridiculous to wager on certain pieces gaining value. This is for example the case of the Happy Birthday dress worn by Marilyn Monroe at Kennedy’s birthday. Who knows how much it will be worth five to ten years form now?” Offered on sale on 19 November, it yielded a record price of $4.81 million, exceeding its high estimate of $3 million, alongside the platinum and diamond watch worn by the actress, selling at $225,000. The sale thus reached a turnover of nearly $11 million, after going on display for nearly a month in London, a few days at the Newbridge Museum in Ireland, then in Los Angeles, on the auction house’s premises. “Obviously, international stars are the ones who sell the best,” believes Darren Julien. “Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Audrey Hepburn continue to fascinate and attract buyers.”
On 29 June, it was Bonhams in London that offered for sale Audrey Hepburn memorabilia, including a series of letters handwritten by her from 1951 to 1960, selling for £11,250, at double their estimate. Also at the same sale, buyers found the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, signed by the four band members, selling for £74,500. There was also Freddie Mercury’s notebook in which the singer wrote a few of his most famous songs, including I Want It all and The Show Must Go On, which went for £62,500. In total, the Bonhams sale scored £568,200, expenses included (€638,310). Encouraging results for the entertainment memorabilia departments in Britain and the United States. “The memorabilia market keeps on growing steadily, not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of the number of sales and buyers,” explains Stephen Maycock, a consultant specialised in rock’n’roll and film for Bonhams. “We’re the only auction house to regularly organise this type of sale, both in the United States and Britain,” advances Katherine Schofield, director of the Entertainment Memorabilia department. “We’re looking forward to finding out the results of our next sales. The Maureen O’Hara sale in New York, on 23 November, and our yearly film memorabilia sale, have already been very successful. The leading lot was a Dorothy dress made for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, estimated at $100,000 to 150,000, which sold for $1.46 million, expenses included. In London, our 15 December sale promised a few fine surprises: an acoustic guitar that belonged to Jimi Hendrix went for £209,000.” The giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s aren’t missing from this picture either. It was at Christie’s New York in 1999 that Marilyn’s dress sold for $1 million. Julien’s Auctions develops several partnerships with one or other of the big houses every year.
Despite a recurring problem – fakes –, both in memorabilia and in pop-culture-related toys and derivative products, auction houses gradually seem well inclined to take on this unusual speciality. Is it a form of modern-day voyeurism? The cult of the celebrity, the fantasies surrounding an era? In any case, the pop auction market seems to be burgeoning. “What’s really new is the sale of memorabilia from living figures such as Lady Gaga’s shoes,” notes Anne d’Artigue. The silvery high heels designed by Giorgio Armani for the singer in 2010 sold for €8,000 at Cornette de Saint Cyr, in association with the valuation firm Chombert & Sternbach, in Paris on 11 February 2013. A one-off economic model in France? Not necessarily, thinks Christophe Fumeux. The valuer already has other projects in mind… As does Darren Julien in Los Angeles, who declares, to conclude, that “Pop Culture is tomorrow’s art”!