History for Sale
They sit on shelves behind thin layers of glass: showbiz remnants all waiting to be sold for small fortunes. The movie lover comes unspooled! Why, there's the Marx Brothers' signed (in their real names!) contract for their movie Duck Soup, considered the quartet's best work and one of the greatest comedies ever made. The Rat Pack-rat thrills! Man, oh, man, there are the home movies starring members Frank and Sammy and Dino kicked back on the set of Ocean's 11. And the music freak freaks! Hot damn, there's Buddy Holly's passport and bow tie and suits and shirts draped from hangers and mannequins. And yer not gonna believe this, but there's Kurt Cobain's Mosrite Gospel guitar, among the few instruments to escape the Nirvana front man's tendency to destroy everything he loved. This fluorescently lit room glows with the remnants of famous dead people.
Sounds like a museum or hall of fame, a shrine to the late, the great and the faded away. But this is a place of business: the first floor of the Heritage Auction Galleries building on Maple Avenue, across the street from Reverchon Park. It's 6 p.m. on Friday, April 14, and some 20 people have gathered for a light dinner, some bottled beverages and the opportunity to buy all of the items mentioned above and hundreds more that lay out an abbreviated history of the movie and music industries. Twice a year, Heritage auctions off such historical trinkets to the highest bidders, most of whom place their bids over the phone or the Internet. For the right price, you too can own John Wayne's hat. Or Motown bassist James Jamerson's upright bass, the one keeping time on such immortals as "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love" and "Heat Wave." Or James Arness' Gunsmoke badge. Or Marilyn Monroe's purse. Or anything you ever dreamed of owning from your favorite thing ever.
Doug Norwine, the man in charge of assembling and selling off Heritage's entertainment memorabilia, is vibrating. This is only the third auction he's put together, but it's likely to be the biggest. This is the first session of the two-day event, and tomorrow night will further cement Heritage's reputation as a serious player in the burgeoning pop-culture collectibles biz. (Heritage, the world's largest rare-coin company, is relatively new to this industry.) Maria Elena Holly--the widow of Buddy Holly, the Lubbock boy in whose image rock and roll is created--is cleaning her closet and letting go at lowlowlow prices (well, not exactly) her husband's keepsakes. She'll sell off his passport, his clothes, his photos and his watch--the 14-karat white gold Omega watch containing some 45 diamonds set around the bezel, the one Maria Elena gave him two months before his plane crashed in Iowa, the one he was wearing when the plane went down. That watch.
Norwine's dressed like a late-night TV-show bandleader: bright blues, funky specs, jazzbo stubble. Before he came to Heritage in June 2004, he was a studio musician in Los Angeles, using his sax to fill in the blanks on pop albums and TV shows. He's famous, even if you didn't know it: Norwine plays the horn for Lisa Simpson and Bleeding Gums Murphy on The Simpsons; that's him on the opening credits.
"This is a catalog the whole team should be proud of," Norwine says, standing at the podium in a room full of computers, monitors and warmish Italian food that's starting to give the place the slight scent of a cheap wedding reception. He's referring to the weighty, beautifully designed book that features the more than 2,000 items available in this auction. Some people sell their collections through Heritage just to get their names on a catalog--like Nicolas Cage, who sold his million-dollar-plus comic book collection in 2002 and requested his own hardcover catalog detailing his pricey loot.
Norwine takes his seat, and the auction begins. Auctioneer Mike Sadler lays out the ground rules, how bids work over the phone and Internet, how folks in the room need to be clear when bidding because "there are no cool points for a nod or a wink," how the bidding inches up in increments of 10 percent and so forth. He lays out how much Heritage collects as a surcharge on each item (19.5 percent on top of the winning bid). He points to a screen behind him and to the left of the audience that reveals each item, the opening bid, the closing bid and the winning bidder's I.D. number. The process, he says, is built for "transparency," to prove there are no tricks up Heritage's silk sleeves.
Sadler, a dryly funny guy who looks like someone who quit the banking business for something cooler, opens by trying to sell off old props and tricks that belonged to famed magician Harry Blackstone in the 1930s. They're not vanishing as quickly as Norwine would like, nor are most of the early auction items, among them the boom mike used by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show during its mid-'60s New York City run. Norwine figures, with good reason, it'll go for a small fortune. In April 2005, Heritage sold the microphone that once sat on Carson's Tonight Show desk for $58,787.50, and the following October, the company sold the original 1962 Tonight Show desk for more than $38,000. But he's disappointed when the guests' mike sells for only $240. "This is a classic," he murmurs. "Somebody got a steal."
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, soldto 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.
"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."
Heritage celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and it's doubtful many people in Dallas know it exists. It's not that Heritage has tried to remain hidden. It sends out press releases announcing its every auction, even the monthly ones filled with low-dollar items, and receives international press coverage each time it sells something notable; Nic Cage's sale alone in October 2002 garnered some 1,100 mentions in the worldwide media. Ted Pillsbury says he'd never really heard of the company till he was approached by its owners last year, and he lives down the street.
But that's not such a surprise: Its primary business remainsa hobby for very rich people who do not screw around with their investments. A Franz Klein may sell for $6.4 million at a Christie's auction, but at least you can hang a painting on your wall and enjoy its beauty and show your friends how good your life is. But just what are you going to do with a 1796 gold piece that looks like it just rolled off the mint? Put it over the fireplace? Yet in January alone, Rohan sold four coins in private sales for a total of $9.4 million. For four coins.
But Heritage, through auctions like the two-day affair on April 14 and 15 and through its monthly and sometimes weekly sales of comics and movie posters, wants to alter your perception of auctions as something rich people do to kill time or a fancy place to get your pockets picked by people attaching arbitrary value to throwaway things. Wear jeans, spend $100 on some Simpsons production sketches or $75 for a signed 1980 Roky Erickson concert poster, load up on snacks and soda. That's Heritage now, which is nothing at all like it was in 1976.
Few who work at Heritage today were around when a coin collector named Steve Ivy started the business. Ivy and Halperin were competitors back then--archrivals, say many. They were barely into their teens when they got into the rare coin biz, growing their stacks of old pennies into mounds of big bills. In 1976, Ivy had Heritage out of Dallas and Halperin had New England Rare Coin Galleries in his native Boston, which he started in 1971 as a Harvard University freshman. (Halperin dropped out shortly after.) Barely into their 20s, they were already the top two coin dealers in the world. Greg Rohan, who got into coins when a neighbor gave him a jar of old pennies when he was 8 and living in Seattle, idolized them. He was 15 in 1976, when he met Halperin and Ivy for the first time at a rare coin show in San Francisco.
Ivy, whose son Chris now runs the sports memorabilia auctions, and Halperin's bitter rivalry came to an abrupt end in the early 1980s, after oil man H.L. Hunt's boys Nelson and William Herbert sucked up more than 200 million ounces of silver, half of what was available in the entire world. The Federal Reserve put a stop to their hoarding real quick, and by March 1980, the price of silver, which hit more than $50 an ounce during the silver rush, was cut in half, from about $20 an ounce to $10.
During the silver rush, Rohan says, "coin dealers were making vast sums of money, and since they all started as collectors, what they did with those big profits was buy the coins they loved their whole lives. But when gold and silver prices collapsed, so did the lines of people and the income coin dealers got used to, and where did they turn to pay their bills but sell the coins they had bought. So the coins all came back on the market, and the coin market went way down."
Ivy's business was doing only slightly better than Halperin's, which forced the latter to move to Dallas from Boston in 1983. Halperin says it wasn't easy. "Every decision I make is difficult," he says, with a slight laugh. "I have no idea what sealed the deal. It was the sweep of history. I like Steve and trust him and hope the feeling is mutual, but it wasn't an easy decision. I never had to answer to anybody till then." And Halperin was bringing with him a valuable asset: the foreign offices Heritage still operates today.
But Ivy was risking a lot by bringing in Halperin, who would become the more vocal and visible of the two. As recently as December 2004, Forbes ran a profile on Halperin and referred to him as "the leading rare coin dealer in America--and the most controversial guy in the business" because of his "brushes with postal inspectors, the Federal Trade Commission and coin dealers who have sued him for, among other things, sticking them with inflated prices."
Halperin owned up to Forbes' description; he told writer Christopher Helman he was "definitely a scoundrel at 13," when he began a mail-order advertising business out of the family's Boston home. He took out ads in magazines recruiting folks to pay up and join his "nonexistent sales network," Helman wrote. Postal inspectors didn't take kindly to his teenage scam and forced him to pay back an astounding $100,000. In 1997, a New Orleans dealer sued Heritage, claiming the company was forcing him to buy coins at higher prices than others were paying Heritage--for the exact same merchandise. An arbitration panel ordered Heritage to pay $23 million, though according to Forbes theLouisiana dealer took less.
From all accounts, the Forbes piece was widely circulated in the rare coin world. People were amazed that Halperin had owned up to all his misdeeds, which took place back when "the coin industry was more cowboy-ish," as one out-of-town coin dealer puts it. Those who feared him started to respect him, especially as Heritage converted to the religion of "transparency," a word every single person interviewed for this story used. It is, as Rohan says, "our buzzword."
Heritage employees insist that first-time buyers and veteran dealers play by the same rules. They sell the place as the "accessible" auction house that provides every bit of information necessary to make an educated purchase. If there is a reserve--a minimum starting bid--Heritage lists it. If there is an issue with the provenance, Heritage will make that known too. And they will not price you up: If you pre-bid $10,000 on the phone or Web and nobody pushes an item higher than $100, you get it for $110.
"When I was in Boston, my coin company was across from Fidelity Investments," Halperin says. "This was in the late '70s when people didn't have stocks. If they knew a stockbroker they might have a portfolio, but back then it was difficult to trade stocks. You had to know somebody, and Fidelity decided to bring the stock market to the mainstream. That's what we're doing with collecting, the same way Fidelity did by giving people information everyone wanted to keep secret."
In 1996, Halperin published his first of two novelsthrough sci-fi giant Del Rey. It was called The Truth Machine, which referred to the perfect lie detector. Fact is, it just wouldn't look good for the guy to turn out a liar, and to this day, a free copy of The Truth Machine is available on Heritage's Web site.
"I don't know if I wanna say Jim's a reformed guy, but a lot of what he did [in the late 1980s and early '90s] was in a different environment," says Doug Winter, a Tacoma, Washington-based gold-coin dealer who used to work out of Dallas. "People just like to take shots at the guy who's the man and not a nobody, and Jim is the man in this business. Jim will tell you he's not perfect, but there's no denying the guy's really at a different level than everyone else. They're not more transparent than anyone because they're the nicest guys in the world. It was a business decision, but a smart one. They realized by being upfront and giving people all the information available, they would make more money."
So what happened? Why did Heritage decide to go from selling gold coins to Batman comics and Buffy the Vampire Slayer prop stakes? When did the highbrow start aiming low?
Again, blame it on Halperin--and the fact that by 2001, Heritage and the rest of the world figured out how to sell anything over the Internet. He does not collect coins because he doesn't believe in competing with his customers, but he seeded Heritage's first funny book auction in November 2001 with $500,000 worth of material from his own stash of old Mad art and early 1950s chiller comics. His partners made him do it. That was the only way they'd give in to his pleas that Heritage get into the comic book biz. Sell it or shut it.
Despite the fact the auction occurred two months after the September 11 terror attacks and no one showed beside a few locals, the first comic sale brought in just more than a million dollars. The second one did three times that, and by 2002 Heritage had hired a full-time director of its comics division, John Petty. To that point, the entire comics-collecting industry was worth a total of $3.5 million annually.
"I was in the top 10 dealers in the country, and my annual billings were roughly a million," says Ed Jaster, who came to Heritage in 2002 to run the comics department with Petty, who moved into media relations and marketing in 2004. "My first full year here, we did $18 million in comics and comic art." Jaster, like most of the department heads, was a well-known collector and expert when Heritage hired him. Halperin was one of his clients.
But the comics department cemented its rep with two big-name sales almost back to back: Nic Cage decided to sell his collection of important comics (first appearances of Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America and the original Green Lantern--that kinda stuff), and Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee likewise went in for a little spring-cleaning, decades after co-creating the likes of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four.
"So I'm responsible for their enormous growth?" Lee says, laughing. "My attorneys will call them shortly." Halperin and Lee are now such good pals they have lunch together several times a year. Lee got rid of his comics and some original art because he didn't even know he had it. It was up to John Petty to sort through Lee's belongings that had been stuffed into a backyard shed.
"If I ever retire I will get nostalgic about these things," Lee says. "But right now I am thinking of what I am going to do today and tomorrow."
Not only did the comics auctions attract high-profile consignors, coveted collectors also came to Heritage to snatch the titles that had been previously hard to find. Though Heritage keeps confidential its buyers and most of its sellers--save those who want or do not mind the publicity--an unabashed regular buyer at the auctions is actor Thomas Jane, who portrayed Marvel antihero the Punisher in the 2004 film of the same name. Jane specializes in horror titles from the early 1950s and insists it wasn't easy finding the good stuff till Heritage got in the game. He bought art in the Thanksgiving 2001 auction and even now does his own bidding over the phone or Web.
"When Heritage started, people said, 'It'll be good for three, four auctions, but what'll be available after that? The quality will go down,'" Jane says. "I don't think it will, because people know this bidding pool is opening up, they're reaching into the stuff they've had for 20 years and bringing it to Heritage, so it'll never stop. I will feel more comfortable selling something I would have hung on to 15 years, knowing it will come around again or that I can take the money and put it into a more desirable piece."
Alas, Heritage does not make all of its serious money selling funny books. With its Americana department, which includes a few items of note imported from Europe, it has become a sort of clearinghouse for important documents--real founding-fathers-in-the-Smithsonian stuff. A letter written by Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1860. A John Keats love letter to his mistress. Republic of Texas papers, some written by Stephen F. Austin, and all unseen even by scholars.
It was in fact the acquisition of legendary Pennsylvania collector and Lincoln enthusiast Henry Luhrs' collection that convinced Rohan the company was a legit player. Heritage got involved only after Luhrs had contacted six other auction houses; Rohan and Americana acquisitions director Tom Slater heard about it at the last minute, flew to Pennsylvania on their own dime, offered their proposal and ultimately got the consignment. If someone doesn't contact Heritage directly, this is usually how the company gets a collection: luck and legwork.
Doug Norwine recently read on the Internet that the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana, was shutting down because of financial difficulties. He got on the phone, got on a plane and come this fall's signature auction, Heritage will sell everything--from James Dean's elementary-school homework to a piece of the car in which he died. People sell all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but it often boils down to two things: They need the money, or they need the space.
Just two weeks ago, consignment director John Hickey was in John Petty's office showing him a tattered document that, if it can be proven to be authentic, is "one of the most significant documents of the 20th century," as Petty puts it. It was shown to me only with the understanding its contents not be revealed, but Petty and Hickey are right to be giddy. Should it be the real thing--and "there's a lot of research being done right now to prove that out," Petty says--it will cause an enormous stir among historians and garner Heritage the kind of media attention all of its other auctions combined haven't attracted. And make no mistake: If it is indeed the genuine article, it will be auctioned off, perhaps "for millions of dollars," Petty says.
"And that's what's so cool," he says. "That's what keeps us coming back in here day after day. We're just starting the research process now. It's exhaustive. It's amazing. As any kind of collector or just someone who appreciates American history, you've gotta look at that stuff and just be in awe of it."
Only last month, Heritage auctioned off the so-called Papers of the Republic of Texas Legation to Washington, D.C., that date from 1836 to 1839. It was acting as a sort of front for the Texas State Historical Association, which couldn't afford to buy the documents, which include some never-before-seen "250 items of highly important historical material documenting the mission to Washington, D.C., after Texas achieved independence," according to the auction catalog. So someone bought the papers for the TSHA...for $286,000.
In February, a single piece of paper upon which Abe Lincoln wrote a letter sold for $131,450.
Maria Elena Holly, short and sweet and dressed in a white pantsuit with matching cap, stands in the lobby of Heritage's building, watching a man play Buddy Holly songs. The man singing "True Love Ways" looks just like Maria Elena's dead husband, which doesn't seem to bother her at all. To the contrary; Maria Elena's wearing a broad smile on her creaseless face.
Doug Norwine straps on a sax and plays with the band--a Cricket for the night, a cheap thrill but a genuine one nonetheless. When Norwine moved to Dallas two years ago, he considered knocking on Maria Elena's door. Didn't have to. She went to an auction with a friend and returned soon enough with boxes of Buddy's stuff--old demo recordings, ties, wedding photos, his passport and that apparently indestructible watch. Over the din, she's asked whether selling off her husband's things is weird.
"It is, and it isn't," she says. "It's just a way for the fans to have something of his. You never know how long you're going to be here." Just then, the music ends, and she joins Norwine in the auction room, which tonight is hot, humid and jam-packed with fans.
The weekend's first two sessions have gone extraordinarily well--more than $1 million in winning bids already, including $131,450 for Cobain's guitar. Norwine can hardly contain himself during the Holly auction; he bobs like a buoy. Maria Elena's more serene. She grins for the first time when Buddy's bow tie sells for $4,182.50; Norwine gives her a told-ya-so smile. The passport--"a one-of-a-kind item [from the] U.K. tour that made the future founders of such British groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones aware of Holly's genius," pimps the catalog--gets caught up in some breakaway bidding. An opening bid of $7,000 is quickly erased by higher and higher offers till at last it goes for $26,290 to an Internet bidder. Clap, clap, clap; grin, grin, grin. But when the auctioneer announced "lot 107," the throng lets loose with a collective murmur. It is, of course, the watch. But there is no protracted period of bidding: It starts at $85,000 and goes for $130,000, plus an additional $25,000 to Heritage. It's over in five seconds. Norwine and Mrs. Holly look at each other and exchange six-figure smiles.
Two days later, Norwine will explain that the watch was sold to a woman in Northern California. She and her husband had never collected a thing in their lives, but they wanted just the right piece to put in the game room of their new house. She's just "a well-heeled fan," Norwine says--his kind of buyer, a first-timer with deep pockets and a far-out love for a dead pop star. They're going to make Heritage a fortune.
"Imagine having Buddy Holly's watch or having a glass case with Johnny Carson's microphone inside that says, 'Johnny's mike...Not Ed's...not Fred's,'" Norwine says. "The microphone and the watch--that's not a comic book, that's not a stamp. That's one piece that just speaks volumes. And nobody else has anything like it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.