Aristocratic venue gets common touch

Auction: Christie's is as likely to market glitzy celebrities as it is dusty aristocrats, and the auctioneer is more nextdoor New Jersey than across-the-pond British.

Sun Profile

October 26, 1999|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- On this particular day at Christie's auction house, the sale is "Magnificent Jewels." Real ones, alarmingly multi-carated and one accidental nose-itch away from having to mortgage the house.

The crowd awaits the auctioneer; surely he will be the silver-tongued Brit of countless Hollywood portrayals who ratchets up bids in a blur of fast talk and cool charm. Instead, in strides Barbara Strongin, all smiles and straightforward demeanor, next-door New Jersey rather than across-the-pond British.

But if she is unexpected, perhaps so too is Christie's, circa 1999.

Tomorrow and Thursday, Strongin and other gavel-wielders will preside over the kind of sale that founder James Christie surely never envisioned when he began auctioning aristocrats' belongings in 18th-century London.

There will be television lights and breathless on-site news updates, spectacle and camp, outrageous amounts bid giddily rather than judiciously on used shoes, tattered books and old frocks.

This is not just anyone's garage sale. These are the possessions of the eternal goddess, Marilyn Monroe, the latest dead celebrity whose stuff is going to auction.

Like that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Elvis Presley, Monroe's aura surely will add a premium to the prices that the 1,500 items in the auction might normally command.

Among various pots and pans, a white piano and the certificate of her conversion to Judaism that are for sale, the highlight is lot No. 55: the shimmering flesh-colored gown that she was literally sewn into for a breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

Seven figures, goes the latest speculation on how much the dress will cost someone.

After auctions in which Onassis's triple strand of plastic pearls went for $211,500 and an ancient piece of the Duke and Duchess' wedding cake went for $29,900, anything can -- and usually does -- go at these celebrity sales.

"It's pure desire at play," said Bruce Wolmer, editor-in-chief of Art & Auction magazine. "These objects have no benchmark value, unlike, say, Impressionist or modern art. This material has only subjective worth, so it really is a pure expression of desire what someone will bid for them.

"People want these items for the same reason medieval pilgrims used to visit a saint's reliquary," Wolmer said. "These celebrities are the great icons of the culture, and their possessions have an almost magical quality."

While they garner the lion's share of the public's attention, celebrity sales still comprise just a sliver of business at Christie's and its twin pillar of auctioneering, Sotheby's. But they serve an increasingly important role for the auction houses as the once stuffy, British-founded companies slowly open the door to, well, commoners.

Someone too intimidated to bid on a Jasper Johns might have no similar qualms about Marilyn's bluejeans or her jotted-on cookbooks.

Unlike the more traditional auctions, these sales can turn festive and party-like. People dress up, celebrities such as Joan Rivers and Tommy Hilfiger join in the paddle-waving and any buyer's remorse is still off in the future.

"The regular sales are very controlled. The celebrity sales, they're out there," Strongin said. "You get your groupies. These people will just start talking to you, `Oh sure, I'll take that.' "

Part of the lure of the auction, of course, is the temporary entree to a rarefied world of suave British auctioneers (think Hugh Grant in the recent movie, "Mickey Blue Eyes") and lavish catalogs with items quaintly identified as "The Property of a Lady" or "From an Important New York Estate."

Those attending the Marilyn Monroe auction will get a taste of all that with Christie's chairman, Lord Hindlip, wielding the gavel on opening night.

But Strongin will take a turn the next day. If there is someone who can make the auction experience less threatening and more accessible, less Etonian and more American, it is Strongin.

"I don't have a British accent, I didn't go to a fancy school, this is not the world I grew up in by any means," Strongin said.

She is from Hampton, N.J. -- "which has nothing to do with the Hamptons," she notes wryly -- and graduated from Rutgers with a degree in advertising.

Failing to find work at any of the agencies, she was hired at Christie's on the basis of her one marketable skill: really fast typing.

"I typed party invitations," she said.

Strongin had never been in an auction house. She had no burning desire to work surrounded by art. It was just a job. But six months later, her boss left, and she was suddenly head of the customer services department.

She has worked mainly in the operational end of things -- developing procedures for telephone bids, for example, and scheduling auctions and auctioneers. And then 12 years ago, one of those auctioneers called in sick. On a staff-light Saturday. Five minutes before the sale was to start.

An auctioneer was born.

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