History for Sale

Heritage Auction Galleries made a fortune selling rare coins. Now itís making a mint offering gems from Americaís rich past.

But just when the early going's going rough, the action picks up. There's an opening bid of $240 for some 6-foot-tall, gold-painted prop fans from the movie Cleopatra. Then it's $260 to the phones, $280 to the Web, $300 to the phones, $320 to someone in the room...and on and on and on, till a measly $240 blossoms into a startling $3,000 for junk some prop company in Los Angeles had no use for.

"That was excellent," Norwine says of what's referred to as "breakaway bidding," when the dollar amounts float around the room like soap bubbles. "Somebody really wanted those. But see, that's what happens when you try to estimate the price of something realistically, not optimistically. And when that happens, and people know they're getting a good value for something like that, they get excited."

Watching what people will pay for the detritus of Hollywood proves an amazing spectator sport. It's easy to play too; just hold up a card, and next thing you know you're the proud owner of the leftovers that production companies and prop houses and studios no longer need or have space for. Like that Dances With Wolves prop rifle--opening bid at $160, sold to the highest bidder for $2,800. Or that cap John Wayne wore in the 1949 movie Sands of Iwo Jima--started at $3,250 but went for $12,500 after a knockout round of bidding.

The Holly Grail: Buddy Holly's belongings, including his 
passport and watch, brought hundreds of thousands at 
auction this month.
Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
The Holly Grail: Buddy Holly's belongings, including his passport and watch, brought hundreds of thousands at auction this month.
The sale of the Buddy Holly memorbilia made Doug 
Norwine and Maria Elena Holly very happy.
The sale of the Buddy Holly memorbilia made Doug Norwine and Maria Elena Holly very happy.

"It's like Jackie Kennedy's soap dish," Norwine says, trying to explain why a cap that bears only the words "John Wayne" written by a Warner Bros. costumer sold for so much. He refers to an item sold by Sotheby's in 1996, a porcelain tchotchke lifted from a dead first lady's bathroom. "The thing's worth about $50, and it sold for more than $6,000, just because it was Jackie Kennedy's."

Only a few years ago, Heritage Auction Galleries was just a multimillion-dollar business that sold rare coins and antique currency--money worth a fortune, but nothing as interesting as George Harrison's Let It Be guitar, Bernie Taupin and Elton John's songwriting piano, a near-pristine copy of Action Comics No. 1 containing the very first appearance of Superman, a baseball signed by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio or the engagement gift Abraham Lincoln never gave to Mary Todd.

"I just love what we're doing, because I think that people should be able to buy things other than traditional assets," says Jim Halperin, who partnered with longtime coin-dealing rival Steve Ivy in 1983 to turn Heritage from a Highland Park Village-based business into a worldwide behemoth selling museum-quality items to people needing something interesting with which to decorate their game rooms.

"I can't speak for my partners, although I try to drum it into them, but our mission is to bring collecting to the mainstream," Halperin says. "Our mission is to make collecting a field where the majority of people in the U.S. --and, someday, throughout the world--can profit from collecting things, from learning about something they're interested in and collecting within that field. There are a lot of reasons why that's a good thing. It's not just for the money or security. It's also a way to keep your mind active and enjoy life. I read some place people who have hobbies and collect things live longer."

They certainly live better. In 2000, before Heritage began diversifying its assets, the company was making a nice amount of pocket change selling pocket change--some $120 million annually. It had offices all over the world: in Paris, Geneva, Zurich, Düsseldorf, the Netherlands. It was, and remains, "the 50-foot gorilla in the room" when it came to the buying and selling of old coins and currency. But that was before Heritage got into the comic book business, before it started hawking movie-starlet trinkets, before it began pitching balls and bats, before it hung coveted movie posters and masterpiece paintings on its shingle.

Today, Heritage sells more than $500 million worth of all these collectibles and, according to a recent magazine piece on Halperin, pockets some $60 million in commissions. And the company's owners, which include President Greg Rohan, insists it's not even close to its goal of surpassing Sotheby's and Christie's as the world's largest and best-known auction house. According to U.S. News & World Report last week, Christie's posted some $3.2 billion in sales last year; Sotheby's, $2.7 billion. Heritage has a way to go but has every reason to expect it can get there given its recent rapid growth and good reputation.

"The people who invested in this company haven't taken anything out and are here at six in the morning working, working the business," says Ted Pillsbury, who for 18 years was director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Since the beginning of the year, he's worked full time as the director of Heritage's burgeoning fine art business, which means Pillsbury's the very man who will take the company head-to-head with the two auction house titans.

"The owners give a dynamism and energy that is very rare in the business world or any place else," Pillsbury says. "They're willing to do anything or try anything, and it's a very stimulating, exciting place. But to build a fine art business we have to be patient. Rome wasn't created overnight."

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