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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky