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How much for Hepburn memorabilia?

James Tarmy
James Tarmy • 5 min read
How much for Hepburn memorabilia?
The movie star’s belongings are up for auction. Now, to figure out what they are worth.
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The movie star’s belongings are up for auction. Now, to figure out what they are worth.

A Burberry trench coat once owned by Audrey Hepburn will go to auction on Sept 27 at Christie’s London with an estimate of £6,000 ($10,590) to £8,000. At the Real Real, an online consignment site, the asking price for a similar used women’s Burberry trench coat is currently US$645 ($894). Christie’s, then, is guessing that its coat’s association with Hepburn gives it a US$7,000 to US$10,000 premium.

Why US$7,000 to US$10,000, though? Why not US$70,000? US$100,000?

“It’s a very difficult question to answer,” says Adrian Hume-Sayer, Christie’s director of private collections. “How do you put a price on provenance?”

It’s one that Hume-Sayer and his team at Christie’s are grappling with as they arrange hundreds of objects consigned by Hepburn’s two sons for a standalone sale, “The Personal Collection of Audrey Hepburn”. “What we’re selling, really,” says Hume-Sayer, “is the connection to the individual.”

The ‘Hepburn’ premium
Whereas a car transports you places and a house gives you shelter, a painting or a piece of movie memorabilia is, for all intents and purposes, worthless. Art and collectibles do not have a use value. Yet, the art market — capricious, opaque and confusing as it might be — has managed to establish a comparatively static series of prices: Anyone with a Picasso can expect to sell it for a minimum (and maximum) dollar amount.

Those expectations are dashed, though, when it comes to objects with celebrity provenance. A ring owned by Nancy Reagan was “worth” about US$8,000, but sold for US$319,500 at Christie’s New York. Across the Atlantic, a grey purse once owned by Margaret Thatcher that looked thrift-store ready (high estimate: US$2,272) sold for an astonishing US$24,635, or about US$10,000 more than a new Birkin bag from Hermès.

Similarly, the sheen of an Audrey Hepburn provenance has already proven wildly lucrative. In 2006, the little black Givenchy dress she wore for the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s sold for £467,200 (its high estimate was £70,000). Five years later, in 2011, the “Ascot” dress Hepburn wore in My Fair Lady, estimated at US$300,000, sold for US$3.7 million.

There is an empirical basis, in other words, for applying what you could call a “Hepburn premium” to her belongings. The question is how much that premium should actually be.

“Almost whatever you decide, people will disagree with you,” Hume-Sayer says. “It’s just so subjective to one’s own instincts and gut feelings and preferences.”

The sale
The auction will take place in two parts: a live sale, comprising no more than 200 lots — any more than that and the sale will not fit into one day — and an online sale, which will run from Sept 19 to Oct 3.

Contents of the auction can be divided into three categories. The first is clothes, couture and costumes, which include luggage and Hepburn’s make-up case and other sundries. The second category is film memorabilia from the making of her movies, correspondence between her and other stars, and souvenirs, such as playbills.

The final category, Hume-Sayer says, is made up of professional portraits from her collection by such artists as Cecil Beaton. “Those are also mainly from films, but not exclusively,” he says. Of the handful of lots the auction house has released to the public, her annotated script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s carries the highest estimate, at £60,000 to £80,000. “Without going into specific comparables, there is a record of important film scripts selling at auction,” says Hume-Sayer. (In 2005, Marlon Brando’s copy of The Godfather script sold for US$312,000 at Christie’s in New York.)

The rest of the available high estimates are monopolised by Hepburn’s apparel: A blue dress by Givenchy carries a high estimate of £15,000, a range of ballet flats starts at £1,500 and a gold cigarette lighter, inscribed “FOR MY FAIR LADY — GENE ALLEN”, is estimated at between £3,000 and £5,000.

The photography in the sale carries what are arguably the most conservative prices. One photograph of Hepburn by Bud Fraker carries a high estimate of £800, while another is priced at £2,000. Those (comparatively) modest prices make intuitive sense, given they are fine art photographs and, therefore, fit within a distinct and identifiable market. “The photography has largely been valued as a work of art,” Hume-Sayer says. “The provenance has been taken into account, but less so than the intensely personal items.”

The more it meant to Hepburn, in other words, the more it is ostensibly worth to collectors. As more lots are announced, that might be the key to understanding valuations that bear little to no connection with the object’s normal value. “It’s that closeness to her person,” Hume-Sayer says, “that really resonates with people.” — Bloomberg LP

This article appeared in Issue 786 (July 3) of The Edge Singapore.

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