It’s no secret that the kind of ‘fine’ art that is traded through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s is often viewed as an investment opportunity rather than a recognition of the work’s intrinsic value. Million-dollar paintings often end up in bank vaults and may never see the light of day, let alone an appreciative viewer, until they are traded again years later.
Secondary to the world of renaissance masters and Banksy’s that sell for $18 million is the somewhat insane market in celebrity and historical memorabilia. Whether the auctioned items, which range from rock guitars, through movie props and costumes, to personal clothing, are acquired by cashed-up fans or cunning investors is not entirely clear. However, it’s the grossly inflated prices paid for some pieces that suggest it’s only the ultra-wealthy that indulge in what is often viewed as a somewhat absurd scavenger hunt.
Take the recent sale of Kurt Cobain’s rather motley olive green acrylic and mohair cardigan which sold at auction for $500,000. It was the same cardigan he wore on the legendary MTV Unplugged session, way back in 1994 and it would be interesting to sight its provenance over the past 25 years. Given that a sweater owned by the Nirvana frontman also sold for some $75,000, surely the hunt is now on for any item of clothing that once graced his body – socks, underpants and even a pungent pair of old sneakers included.
Fortunately, the current obsession with celebrity memorabilia does not include actual body parts apart from the odd lock hair or a collection of nail clippings. This, of course, was not always the case and perhaps the most celebrated ‘dismemberorabilia’ of the past two centuries is that of Napoleon’s penis. The rather modestly sized appendage was supposedly removed during his autopsy and given to Abbé Anges Paul Vignali, the priest who read the famous leader his last rites.
It was then sold to an American rare books dealer and for a time exhibited at the Museum Of French Art in New York (oh yes, the queues were around the block!). In more recent years it was acquired by the Lattimer Family of New Jersey, after it was bought at auction in Paris for $3000. Now a prized family relic, its somewhat mythical journey is detailed in Tony Perrottet’s book Napoleon’s Privates, in which he notes that at one stage of its travels:
“It was in a little leather presentation box, and it had been fried out in the air. It hadn’t been put in the formaldehyde, so it was rather the worse for wear, a bit like beef jerky.”
Whether it will ever surface on eBay or at a Sotheby’s auction in the future remains to be seen. Whilst such a sale might well be considered morbid or in bad taste let’s not forget there is a still a billion-dollar illegal trade in body parts from kidneys harvested in the Philippines to all manner of organs still traded out of Chinese prisons. Maybe in some future Bladerunner style world, the rich will be able to bid for a new liver or set of lungs at an exclusive London or New York auction.
Meanwhile, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Sydney Morning Herald reported last week that a slab of the infamous barrier had turned up in a warehouse in Blacktown. It’s one of a number of ‘Wall’ souvenirs that have found their way to Australia including a display outside the Harmonie German Club in Canberra. Smaller hand-sized pieces have been floating around the country for years although the provenance is nearly always in question.
For the average person, unable to compete with the high flying bidders at memorabilia auctions, the best you can hope for is that rare occurrence when something of potential value falls randomly into your hands. There’s an extremely rare chance you might spot a freshly stencilled Banksy on a backstreet wall and with the help of friends make off with a whole pile of bricks. Surely Kurt Cobain had more than one cardigan and a trawl through US thrift shops might well uncover another – take a DNA scraping and send it off to Ancestry.com. And finally next time you are in Berlin, grab any old bit of concrete, take a selfie outside what remains of the Wall and you instantly have a saleable souvenir.