MECCA OF MEMORABILIA
In these times of bankruptcy as social sports and as real estate prices tumble on a daily basis, one should consider a more solid investment with one’s hard-earned dollars. Of course, for most of Darren Julien’s customers, it’s not about gold and diamonds but about the extravagance of possessing an emotional item linked to an adored celebrity or a musician whether living or dead. Darren Julien has auctioneered items and belongings from the estate of Marilyn Monroe, the entire estate of Michael Jackson, curiosities such as William Shatner’s kidney stones, Alfred Hitchcock’s drivers license and Madonna’s contract with the american Vogue. In this feature, Darren Julien takes us on a journey through his “Mecca of memorabilia” and teaches us the finesse of auctioneering and collecting the proper way.
Darren Julien in a conversation with Editor in chief of Qompendium, Kimberly Lloyd. This interview was conducted prior to the death of Michael Joseph Jackson, June 25, 2009.
Kimberly Lloyd: Darren, please elaborate a little about your line of work and your company.
Daren Julien: Over the past ten years, we have become known here in the States as “Auctioneers to the Stars”. It first started for us when we conducted the estate auction for Johnny Cash with Sotheby’s. I had a relationship with Barbra Streisand and we carried out our first live auction as “Julien’s Auctions” with property from her life and career. As a result, we then started to get many calls from celebrities requesting that we value and / or sell their items at auction. We now work with the biggest celebrities in the world to conduct world-class exhibitions and auctions.
So you slipped into this, teaching yourself the business and its secrets?
I did sort of fall into this business. I am a true entrepreneur. I like to see opportunities in business that no one else would and turn them into a successful venture. I was told by many people when I started Julien’s that it would never be successful because it is so specialized. But I saw that no one else was doing it and it was a way for celebrities and / or their estates to have a boutique auction and event that was completely tailored around them. I never look at how much money I am going to make – I look at it more as being artistic and creating an event that everyone will remember, and hope that it will become part of that celebrity’s history.
What memorabilia have you collected for yourself?
I like simple items that are more personal than “valuable”. For example, in 2004 Barbra Streisand sent me a silver clock engraved “Dear Darren, For all time, many thanks – Love, Barbra”. I really like it when someone who I have worked with sends something small as a token of their appreciation, as it is more sentimental. We are surrounded every day in our warehouse with some of the most iconic items in pop culture history, so I don’t feel the need to collect memorabilia.
So the warehouse is actually your “Mecca of memorabilia” and as safe as Alcatraz from burglars, the Mafia, natural catastrophes and all the fans?
Our warehouse is safe and very few people know where it is located. Even if you found it, it would be difficult to get inside without being escorted by one of our employees. I view it more as a vault or fortress that cannot be penetrated. It has to be, as we have to protect the privacy of our clients. We often get fans that show up at our offices not only wanting to see the celebrities but wanting a private tour of the property, which we do not accommodate. When they see that the items are not there, they are disappointed.
As a professional auctioneer, you have seen the most precious memorabilia being transferred from one owner to another. Do these items mean anything to you or are they merely objects of desire and a part of your daily business routine?
These items do mean a lot to me as I realize their significance in history. We take great care and pride in everything that comes through our offices as we view it as a privilege to be able to preserve the history of these items, as well as find them a new home where they will be cherished and valued for many years to come. We especially like it when we see a piece go to a major museum where it will be on display for the public to view.
Absolutely, it would be such a spectacle to have a museum with all these things. Have you ever thought of opening one of your own?
Museums are a tricky business. Very few of them actually make money and most go out of business unless they are financed by a wealthy individual who takes it on as a pet project or a tax write-off. When museums first open, they receive a lot of attention and for the first few months they receive a lot of visitors, but it soon slows down. We capture the excitement of the museum opening with our touring exhibitions prior to the celebrity’s auction. We have found this to be very effective as it generates a lot of excitement in the various cities.
Can you relate to people who pay exorbitant sums of money for a rather ordinary object just for its aura?
I can identify with them because I find that it is like buying a memory. We all have a favorite film or song that has really moved us or helped us get through a particularly difficult point in our lives, and items from those films or songs become the ultimate way to preserve that memory. I am still amazed when I find a piece that I remember seeing on TV when I was a kid and it causes me to relive those feelings that I had when I was growing up. I also think that many investors buy items like these as they make a great conversation piece in their office and can appreciate in value if they hold onto them for a long enough period of time, making them a solid investment.
Do you believe in glamour, sex appeal and the cult of celebrity in a spiritual way? Is the adoration of a star maybe a substitute for religion?
That is a very good point. I often find that some people who are true “fans”, which comes from the word “fanatic”, tend to look at a celebrity as a god. This becomes somewhat concerning for me as I see how people get caught up idolizing a celebrity and then become disappointed if their “idol” makes a mistake. Celebrities are humans just like you and me. When we announce sales like the Michael Jackson auction, we often have fans or the media staking out our premises thinking that the celebrity is going to come into our offices. I think that it is great when someone appreciates the career of a celebrity and becomes excited about meeting them in person, but they need to realize that they are not always going to be perfect like God is.
Why do you think somebody has the desire to possess Michael Jackson’s worn-out socks?
It is about the personal item. I find that items that are more of a personal nature, like the socks, sometimes make the fan or collector feel more connected to the celebrity.
Since you are a close friend of Barbra Streisand, you might know something everyone wonders about. How do stars who sell their personal items feel about the fact that somebody wants to own their used toothbrush or a gown or a moment of their lives?
Well, the majority of them, including Barbra Streisand, feel it is very strange that people want their everyday items, especially their clothes. You might say that everything they touch turns to gold. If we can prove that an item was touched or used by the celebrity, it then becomes part of their “history”. Some celebrities refuse to sell personal items as they view it as an invasion of privacy.
Is there anything you have sold that you would rather have kept for yourself?
Yes, I sold the guitar that George Harrison used as a Beatle for $ 560,000 and it was such an amazing piece of history. I couldn’t have afforded it at the time but I always look back and wish that I still had it in our offices.
The entertainment memorabilia auction market has gradually emerged to become an important collecting category over the past 35 years. Why do you think that is?
It has become a major part of collecting and investing because it is now viewed as art. I have been in many mansions where the owners prominently display their memorabilia as some collectors would a Monet. I also think that this is due to the fact that many high-net-worth collectors in Asia and Russia love to collect Western culture. These are two markets where the memorabilia business has really increased due to the demand. It is becoming more difficult to obtain iconic items to sell, as people now realize that they can have tremendous value.
Buy, buy, buy – and then buy even more. You know your clients very well – you might know more about their motivations then they do themselves. Are they predictable or is the outcome of an auction unpredictable?
They are always unpredictable. If a client is emotional about an item that they want to bid on, they will spend ten times more just to have the piece. They don’t look at it as a logical purchase but more as an impulse or a “must-have”.
So collecting could be an addiction of some kind, like the thrill people get when gambling?
Yes, it is an addiction, and some people really need help like an alcoholic. I have been in many collectors’ homes that are wall-to-wall with knick knacks, fine art, furniture and everything you can imagine, with only a path from each room to the next. Some people get an emotional high from being surrounded by so much stuff. I much prefer the collectors who actually take care of the items or have them on display where they can be enjoyed and protected.
Which object that you never expected to score a high price exceeded all your expectations?
My favorite was with William Shatner. We sold his kidney stone (yes, that’s right) for his charity. We told him that we thought it was a very strange idea but he said that he wanted to do anything to raise money for those in need. I thought it would have brought maybe $ 10, but it sold for $ 75,000. We have sold less strange items for huge amounts of money – another one of my most memorable is a belt that Elvis Presley wore on stage. We estimated it would bring $ 4,000 – $ 6,000 and it sold for $ 66,000. I have many similar examples but these are two of my favorites.
Gosh, that must have been a massive Star Trek fan buying the kidney stone. Can anyone bid for and potentially buy the objects, or is the auction restricted to a select circle of invitees?
Anyone can participate in auctions, and with the Internet it is now so much easier for people from around the world to participate. In our auctions, you can actually watch the auction live online in your home or office, and participate against the people live in the room and others bidding from around the world. In the past, people thought that only the wealthy could participate in a high-profile auction, but it is actually very easy for anyone to register and bid in these auctions.
Going to an auction sounds quite elitist to me. It means getting dressed properly, like a millionaire, James Bond, or Joan Collins in a marvelous gown. Isn’t online biding really unsexy and unglamorous?
I find that most people do like to get dressed up for an auction, as it is considered a “sport” for the wealthy. However, the Internet has allowed more people to participate without going to the expense or time to travel to the event. It might be less sexy and not as glamorous, but it does help the success and excitement of the auction. Bidders in the room like the feeling of bidding against people from all over the world and with the live broadcasts of our auctions, people at home or in their offices are now able to join in the excitement. They might be in their underwear rather than a gown or suit, but at least they are able to “attend” online.
After all these years of studing the act of an auction what basic rules of bidding should be followed?
There are many dos and don’ts in this business, and the two biggest ones are the following:
# 1 Do – Do your research in advance of bidding on an item. If you buy an item without knowing its history or if something is misrepresented, it can sometimes be difficult to get your money back – especially if the auction house isn’t reputable. Auction houses are usually also protected by their terms and conditions. Researching something prior to an auction is vital in making sure you have made a good purchase for many years to come.
# 1 Don’t – If you are bidding, don’t just hold your bidder paddle in the air to let everyone know that you want to win the item. I see this done so often, and it actually encourages other bidders to participate because they know that they can drive the price up and won’t get stuck with the piece. Some bidders think that they can intimidate other bidders but it actually works the other way.
Darren, you’ve come to symbolize the company. Do you still conduct the auctions yourself?
I no longer conduct the auctions myself because I get too tense. When I am on the podium, I can see what is going on in the room and if there is a problem, I want to fix it – but I have to remain at the podium to bid call. I have found that I am much more effective if I am not the auctioneer but am instead working with bidders and buyers in the room and on the phone. They like to feel like I am giving them special attention. It is less stress for me and we have two amazing world-class auctioneers that work with us who are really far better than I am at bid calling.
What else is crucial for a profitable auction?
You must have a combination of professional presentation through good images, a great catalogue and a thorough marketing plan. The more people in the world hear about the auction, the greater the participation and the more successful the sales. During the auction, the atmosphere must seem fun and at ease so that people feel comfortable bidding. The auctioneer plays a key role in this because they can feel the excitement in the room, and need to maintain it as long as possible. This is especially important for the key pieces that are of high value. The more excitement there is for the major pieces in the auction, the better they will do. You also need to make sure that the bidders feel that the auction is ethically run and that there are no games or dishonest practices on the side of the auctioneer or auction house. If the auction house is honest and operates in the best interest of their clients, it will be in business for many years to come because it has the trust of the collectors, which is vital.
After all these years of stargazing and experience in the realm of “star worshipping”, which moments were most precious and most memorable to you?
I have many great memories but one of my favorites is when I was at Cher’s house and I received a call from Barbra Streisand on my phone. It was kind of surreal for me, as here I had two of the biggest stars in the world and they both wanted my attention. My ego quickly burst, as they were both rather unimpressed that I wasn’t giving them my full concentration. The most recent amazing experience for me was coordinating a staff of 30 employees to shut down Neverland for Michael Jackson. It was incredible to have unlimited access. I am excited that Julien’s Auctions will always be known for preserving the history of Neverland and that we were the last ones to see it as it was in its entirety. I grew up in a small town in Indiana so all this celebrity stuff is foreign to me. With all the stress, I sometimes have to remind myself that I am in a very unique profession. It is easy to forget how fortunate I am because the stress can be so intense at times.
I personally believe that the selection of the curator, is crucial for the success of an auction.
You are completely right; the selection of items is extremely crucial for the success of the auction. If a celebrity gives you mostly second-rate property, the auction will not be as exciting or successful. It must have a good mix of key or iconic items. When we were at Neverland, we just took everything. Michael Jackson gave me a list of items that he wanted to keep and we honored that. I think that he was overwhelmed by the question of what to do with the massive number of items that he had collected over a period of more than 30 years if he did not have an auction.
Can you give us an estimate of how much the items of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, will raise?
We have a conservative auction estimate for the sale of $ 1.5 – 3 million.This estimate is based upon non-celebrity prices, as if you or I owned the collection. We then allow for the “celebrity” factor, which increases what the public and fans are willing to pay for the items – this is their “true” value.
Which star’s belongings have sold best so far?
I cannot say that there is one celebrity over all the others but there are two people who are at the top of the collectibility scale – Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. They are world-class celebrities who died young and people only remember them at the height of their careers. I am not sure that they would be this collectible if they had lived to grow old. As it is, we cannot get enough of their items to sell, as they are in big demand.
Quite a lot of classical artists, e.g. Van Gogh, achieved popularity after their death. Do Marilyn Monroe and Diana, Princess of Wales, sell better then Madonna or Debbie Harry?
That is often the case but it really depends on the celebrity. I did once have a celebrity ask me what would make their items more valuable and I said “die”. Some celebrities have the privilege of seeing their items at the height of collectibility while they are alive but this really depends on how massive and global their fan base is. If a celebrity dies at the greatest point of their career, then their collectibility is bound to be higher because they become more of an icon due to their unfortunate death at the height of their popularity. It is a strange way to look at it but it does make a difference.
What makes the wooden spoon signed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono so valuable?
It really depends on the items and what part they play in the celebrity’s life or career. The wooden spoon that you mention, signed by John and Yoko, was used at their famous “bed-in”, which makes it more valuable. If an item was a key piece (clothing, prop, instrument, etc.) of the celebrity’s history, it will become more sought after by collectors. For example, a guitar played by Paul McCartney as a Beatle is far more collectible than a guitar played by him as a solo artist after his career as a Beatle.
Whose estate would you like to take care of next?
There are several estates that we are interested in. But unfortunately for you I cannot give you all the information at this moment – if anyone from Christie’s or Sotheby’s read this article, I would suddenly have competition. Too risky.
And finally one last question: for our readers and the record, what is the company’s yearly revenue?
We have a modest business and are not in the Forbes top 100, or even 1,000 for that matter. We are a boutique auction house that conducts auctions for the super famous to preserve their history so that the items will live forever. Our gross sales each year range between $ 10,000,000 and $ 25,000,000, depending on the celebrity estates that we take on that year.