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Big bucks for famous bricks

Celebrity collectibles: a strange new form of recycling

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Elvis left the building long ago, but astoundingly and predictably, his nasal douche remains. Approximately 32 years after the tiny glass tube with a nipple-shaped bulb at one end last irrigated the King’s talented but inflamed sinuses with warm salt water, it is being offered to the highest bidder at a summer sale orchestrated by an outfit called Julien’s Auctions. The event will take place later this month at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. Other items on the block include eight of Elvis’ most cherished pill bottles, 30 pairs of Ann Miller’s false eyelashes and two bricks from Marilyn Monroe’s patio.

Oh, the glamour! Oh, the sleazy strip-mining of every mundane artifact a famous person ever touched! In every celebrity memorabilia auction catalog, there is more intrigue, tragedy, comic relief and cultural illumination than is found in all but the greatest of novels. Take, for example, Marlon Brando’s Sears card, which is expected to sell for $200-$400. Or the receipt a bike shop gave Monroe after she rented an English three-speed for a month for $18. Was there really a time when life was so egalitarian that the world’s most fabulous movie stars shopped at bargain department stores and paid for recreational equipment out of their own pockets? Today, no self-respecting reality-TV contestant with at least four episodes to his credit would ever dream of shopping anywhere less prestigious than, say, Armani Exchange. And luxury car manufacturers would be lining up to give a star of Monroe’s caliber free SUVs and tune-ups for life, just on the off chance that she’d get a drunk-driving ticket while commandeering one of their vehicles.

At least in death, Monroe gets the respect she deserves: A collection of her rusty hairpins is expected to fetch between $1,000 and $2,000. In contrast, Miller, who starred in dozens of movies and enjoyed a nine-year run on Broadway in Sugar Babies, had the misfortune to live a happy, or at least long, life, and thus you can get 30 pairs of her false eyelashes for just $50-$100, which is less than you’d have to pay for a comparable quantity at Wal-Mart or Target, even though the ones they sell have no star pedigree. Many pieces of Miller’s wardrobe are bargain-priced as well: You can get her calf-length Christian Dior lynx coat or one of her sequined dance leotards (with matching handless gloves) for as little as $400.

But that would be missing the point, of course. Ebay is for bargains. Celebrity memorabilia auctions are for paying way too much for Ozzy Osbourne’s ugly candlesticks. Ostensibly, the appeal is the sense of intimacy such artifacts confer. (“Please note the sheets and comforter do not accompany this lot,” the Julien’s catalog disappointingly advises in the copy describing a Cher-owned mahogany bed.) In reality, one suspects, the real appeal lies in showing the world that while you’ve already filled every inch of wall space in every one of your homes with incomprehensible paintings, you’ve got so much more money than you actually need that it’s still burning a hole in your hand-dyed raw denim jeans. So, as a kind of conceptual art, you pay $1,000 a pop for Elvis’ empty prescription bottles of Vibramycin and Urecholine, or, better yet, $600 for a couple of bricks from Monroe’s patio.

That is, while the bottles harbor some amount of historical relevance, given the huge quantities of prescription drugs Elvis apparently consumed in the months leading up to his death, the bricks are just bricks—who knows if Monroe’s naked star feet ever touched them, or if they were mostly just trod on by gardeners, pool boys and neighborhood cats? To pay hundreds of times more for them than what they’re instrinsically worth is an act of supreme selfishness that must feel incredibly liberating, a statement that one is so free from want that people of ordinary means can’t comprehend it. At the same time, it’s also an incredibly virtuous act. Instead of buying fancy new cars or other environmentally destructive status items, the people who collect celebrity memorabilia are recycling. They’re also engaging in a form of wealth redistribution no tax collector could ever attempt without inciting armed insurrection: In the name of conspicuous consumption, they shell out big bucks for famous bricks and other celebrity effluvia that most people wouldn’t bother to pick up if they were sitting on the curb for free on garbage day. Let the bidding begin!

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