How Julien’s Auctions Leads the Booming Market in Celebrity Memorabilia

Julien started working for Kruse. He knew that he didn’t have the confidence to be an auctioneer, so he dreamed of being a ringman—the person who keeps an eye on bidders and relays information to the auctioneer with hand signals.After he graduated from high school, Julien expanded a business selling pneumatic tennis-ball-serving machines which he’d

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Julien started working for Kruse. He knew that he didn’t have the confidence to be an auctioneer, so he dreamed of being a ringman—the person who keeps an eye on bidders and relays information to the auctioneer with hand signals.

After he graduated from high school, Julien expanded a business selling pneumatic tennis-ball-serving machines which he’d started as a teen-ager, with a friend’s father. The work got him out of the Midwest—once, he went to the U.S. Open with Andre Agassi, whose father had advised on the machine’s design—but the upside was limited. “The tennis-ball-machine business wasn’t going to take me anywhere,” he said. In the mid-nineties, Julien returned to Indiana to run Kruse’s Labor Day auction. A few years later, he was on Johnny Cash’s tour bus, celebrating a successful auction of the singer’s classic cars, when Cash asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life. Julien confessed that he loved auctions but hated cars. It was the stuff that appealed to him.

In August, 1926, Rudolph Valentino died, at the age of thirty-one, from complications of a ruptured ulcer. Three months later, his business manager, George Ullman, put Valentino’s possessions up for public sale—not only his speedboat, his onyx pocket watch, and his black velvet riding habit but also his spats and silk underwear and a hundred and forty-six pairs of his socks. The auction drew oil millionaires, “flapperish girls,” and “tourist wives of Middle Western farmers,” according to newspaper accounts. Almost everything the actor owned—even his pet dogs and horses—was for sale. But Ullman held a few things back: collar buttons, cuff links, certain pairs of shoes. The items “almost talked to me,” Ullman told a friend. “I couldn’t stand to watch them go to strangers.”

Celebrity auctions typically used to be a result of “the three ‘D’s—death, divorce, or debt,” Laura Woolley, a longtime pop-culture appraiser and a managing director at Julien’s, told me. The most iconic sales involved celebrities who were elegant, wealthy, and no longer living. When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s estate was auctioned off, in 1996, Sotheby’s sold more than a hundred thousand copies of the catalogue. In 1987, Wallis Simpson’s jewelry collection brought in fifty-five million dollars from bidders including Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins.

According to George Newman, a professor of organizational psychology and marketing at the University of Toronto who has studied celebrity auctions, the psychological principle driving buyers is the idea of contagion, sometimes summarized as “once in contact, always in contact.” On some level, we are convinced that a person’s essence passes into the objects that he handles. “It’s nothing material—it’s more like a magical belief that these objects have acquired . . . something,” Newman told me. “And that belief seems to have a real effect on the amount of money people are willing to pay.” A researcher who interviewed members of the Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club in the nineties found that their most valued items were “things in the collection that actually touched Barry”; in an experiment, when subjects were told that a celebrity-owned sweater had been sterilized, their willingness to pay for it declined significantly. (The opposite was true when it came to infamous people. Subjects tended to say that they wouldn’t wear a sweater owned by Hitler; sterilizing the hypothetical sweater, though, made them regard it more favorably.)

Julien eventually left Kruse and moved to California, where he made connections with the collectibles department at Sotheby’s. “He was extremely persistent and very earnest,” Dunbar, of Sotheby’s, said. In 2srcsrc3, Julien established his own auction house; Martin Nolan, a tall, droll Irishman with a background in finance, later joined him as the company’s chief financial officer and, eventually, its co-owner.

In 2srcsrc6, Cher enlisted Julien’s, which had a half-dozen employees, to run a sale. She was redecorating her home—“going from a neo-Gothic look to Zen Buddhist,” Nolan recalled—and had lots of candelabras and heavy oak lecterns to off-load. She also understood that an auction could promote a living celebrity. “She said she’d rather put needles in her eyes than have a bad catalogue,” Nolan said. Specialists from Sotheby’s, which co-sponsored the sale, appraised the obviously high-value items—diamond jewelry, Bob Mackie gowns—while Julien kept an eye out for objects with more personal qualities, such as her dictionary and her high-school biology workbook. He fished a table lamp made from a taxidermied armadillo out of the dumpster after Cher told him that it had been a gift from Gene Simmons, whom she had dated. On the day of the auction, Cher was so nervous that she’d be judged for selling her stuff—or, worse, that no one would want to buy it—that she arranged to be out of the country. But the lots sold even faster than Julien had expected; the armadillo lamp went for upward of four thousand dollars, more than ten times the estimate.

These days, any sense that it’s unseemly for living stars to auction off their things has evaporated. “Ringo, he was the last person who was really concerned about that. Now nobody cares,” Julien said. “All these people have storage units. And Live Nation doesn’t take a cut of memorabilia sales.” As streaming has reduced the revenue that comes from making albums, such sales have proved appealing to musicians. When I visited the Julien’s Auctions headquarters, in a warehouse building on the industrial fringes of Los Angeles, I spied a stack of glossy catalogues featuring various celebrity names, Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan among them. These were mockups that Julien’s uses to entice potential clients: the auction catalogue as a kind of ghostwritten autobiography, a life told through objects.

Wringing money out of a star’s image and objects can be emotionally and ethically precarious. In 2srcsrc8, Julien’s was hired to clear out Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson’s fantastical estate near Santa Barbara, and prepare its contents for auction. The job had an air of desperation to it. Jackson was in dire financial straits. The property—twenty-seven hundred acres—had sat empty for some time, and the on-site amusement park had an eerie, weathered atmosphere. Julien’s hired a crew of thirty to sort through everything. “There’s the house, the theatre, the zoo, the tepee village, the big railroad station, the small railroad station,” Nolan said. “We were working day and night.” Julien thought that the auction would net at least fifteen million dollars, so the company took out loans to finance the job. (Julien’s typically receives about a thirty-five-per-cent commission.) “Everything was dependent on this,” Julien said. “How we agreed to take it on, I have no idea. We were naïve.”

In April, 2srcsrc9, a month before the auction, Jackson’s production company, M.J.J. Productions, sued to stop it, claiming that Julien’s was attempting to sell items that were “priceless and irreplaceable,” and which Jackson had intended to keep. (“We have been accommodating any requests made by Michael Jackson for the past eight months,” Julien told CNN. “If it is true, and he is stating that there are items he does not want sold, why would he have ever given us the items in the first place? We are an auction house, and that is all that we do. We are not a mover or storage facility.”) As the case made its way through the courts, Julien’s installed an elaborate auction preview in a former department store in Beverly Hills. Ultimately, Julien’s and M.J.J. Productions agreed to a settlement, and the possessions were returned to Jackson; two months later, he died.

By the time the auctioneer, wearing a bow tie and thick-rimmed glasses, introduced the first lot at the Hard Rock Café, the room was fizzy with anticipation. The big item that night was Eric Clapton’s 1964 electric Gibson, believed to have been a gift from George Harrison. “You feel like you’re going back fifty years by just picking it up,” one middle-aged man told me reverently. Most bidding at Julien’s auctions happens remotely, either online or over the phone, but some prospective buyers still like to show up in person. A group of chatty, buoyant people sat at a table cluttered with drinks. Across from them, a man in a dark suit sat alone, a sheaf of papers in front of him, his shoulders braced in the tense posture of someone who has been authorized to spend a million dollars of his boss’s money. This was Larry Hall, who was bidding on Clapton’s guitar on behalf of Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts and a major collector of pop-culture objects. Irsay’s collection, which he hopes to turn into a museum one day, includes the original scroll manuscript of “On the Road,” Muhammad Ali’s boxing shoes, John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair, and a “Wanted” poster for John Wilkes Booth.

Various people in the memorabilia world had pitched me on the idea of celebrity-owned objects as undervalued assets. “Clients are looking at these pieces like they would a piece of art,” Dunbar, who left Sotheby’s to run her own business appraising pop-culture memorabilia, said. “You could have a Warhol on your wall, or you could have Michael Jordan’s Game One 1998 N.B.A.-finals jersey.” Some of Julien’s clients have bought high-profile pieces and flipped them a few years later for a significant profit. Earlier that week, Julien had spoken with a bidder interested in the Clapton guitar. “I said, ‘Look, if you got this for two million, it would be a steal,’ ” he told me. “ ‘You could probably resell it in a few years.’ ” As we waited for the guitar to come up for sale, I asked one attendee, a vice-president at Credit Suisse, who didn’t want to be named, if he thought of his purchases as investments. He gave me a pitying look. “That’s what you tell your wife,” he said. “No, this is purely a passion business.”

The auctioneer, straight-faced, declared the Gibson, with its “custom psychedelic finish,” to be “the greatest guitar in the history of guitars.” Within seconds, Hall had bid a million dollars. Julien conferred on the phone with another prospective buyer, then gave a decisive negative shake of his head. The auctioneer swooped his hands like an orchestra conductor, trying to coax more money from the room. Even the boozy table grew hushed. “Clapton became the man he is, the guitarist he is, on this guitar, and you can have that for $1.25 million,” the auctioneer said. No one moved; it seemed as though we might be cheated of the drama of a bidding war. The auctioneer banged his gavel and declared the lot sold, and Hall’s face spasmed with joy. “We got it!” he said to no one in particular. “We got it!” Later, I watched him grasp the hand of a well-wisher. “I feel like I just stole a guitar,” he said.

Chad Cobain left the auction early. Kurt’s guitar was slotted to come up for sale the next day. “I’ll probably just watch from the hotel room,” he told me. “It’s going to be emotional.” (The Mustang ended up selling for $1.5 million, to a Japanese businessman who plans to put it on display in a music-themed café.)

Although the market for seven-figure guitars is limited, auction houses see memorabilia, and collectibles more broadly, as an area of “great growth potential,” Natasha Degen, the chair of the art-market-studies department at F.I.T., told me. “It appreciated dramatically during Covid,” Dunbar said. “People were at home, they were nostalgic, they had money, the auctions were accessible. And it was sort of a circle—the more people bid the prices up, the more people got interested.” Celebrity auction houses like Julien’s have been taking cues from the world of sports. Fanatics, the sports-collectibles juggernaut, has been particularly ingenious at capitalizing on the fandom economy. The company sells collectibles featuring small slices of balls, bases, pucks, and nets from N.H.L. and M.L.B. games; for fifty dollars, you can buy a Yankees-branded pen that comes with a sprinkling of “authentic game-used dirt.”

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