9 Macabre Auctions of Celebrity Memorabilia
By Claire Voon
Throughout the year crowds of the faithful flock to holy relics, like the supposed preserved umbilical cord of Jesus in Rome or the blood of St. Januarius in Naples. Such reverence for objects associated with the departed extends beyond the world of religion, though, and into the market for celebrity memorabilia. Like the corporeal remains of saints, even everyday celebrity possessions can become the focus of intense attention long after their owner has died. These items—and in rare occasions, the physical remains of stars themselves—are highly sought-after when they appear at auctions. Below are nine examples of death-related celebrity memorabilia that have emerged in public sales over recent years.
1. THE GUN THAT ENDED VERLAINE AND RIMBAUD’S AFFAIR
It was poetry that brought Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine together, but violence that eventually tore their passionate but turbulent romance apart. The poets’ nearly two-year relationship ended, literally, with a bang: in 1873, a very drunk Verlaine unsuccessfully attempted to kill his 18-year-old lover with a revolver in a Brussels hotel room, tired of Rimbaud’s capriciousness and longing to return to his wife and child. On November 30, 2016, that 7mm gun—pictured above on display in 2015—is being sold at Christie’s. (A serial number on its case ties it to Verlaine, as documented in a gunsmith’s records; it’s previously been in a private collection.) The gun fired two bullets, wounding its victim’s wrist and sending its shooter to jail for two years. Later that year, Rimbaud published Une Saison d’Enfer, a collection of poems partially inspired by his fraught times with Verlaine. For French literary enthusiasts, this may represent more than a weapon, encapsulating the emotions that led to some of the most celebrated works of 19th century French poetry.
2. A SCRAP OF WALLPAPER FROM THE ROOM WHERE LINCOLN DIED
The obsession that Civil War veteran Osborn Oldroyd had with memorabilia tied to America’s 16th president is perhaps unparalleled. A renter of Lincoln’s Springfield home, Oldroyd transformed the space into a museum after the politician’s assassination and was rumored to have cut off bits of curtain, wallpaper, and even flooring to sell as souvenirs. It seems he made similar incisions in the bedroom of the Petersen House, where Lincoln died, preserving a fragment of wallpaper in a book. That scrap sold at auction for $1000 in August 2016, evidently still an object of intrigue 150 years from that tragic day.
A much more grisly auction lot was the rocker in which the president was sitting when John Wilkes Booth shot him. Owned by the theater’s treasurer, it was sold in 1929 by his widow and purchased by Henry Ford for the price of $2400.
3. NAPOLEON’S DEATH SHIRT
When Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he was perspiring profusely from a fever. His sweat-stained nightshirt was saved by his stablemaster Achille Archambault, who had remained by the exiled emperor’s side during his illness. In 2014, the garment was headed to an auction in Fontainebleau, where it was estimated to sell for up €40,000 (about $42,000 USD). But it proved too precious for an auction: Archambault’s descendants obtained an injunction at the last minute to halt the sale of the nightshirt and other possessions of Napoleon’s, worried that the items would go overseas and deprive their country of objects of its heritage. (Other, more private, parts of Napoleon have been repeatedly sold at auction—his penis is currently said to be in storage in New Jersey.)
4. TRUMAN CAPOTE’S ASHES
Portions of Truman Capote’s ashes have long been in demand. In September 2016, some of the famed writer’s remains, kept in a beautifully carved Japanese wooden box, were sold in a Los Angeles auction. They had belonged to Joanne Carson, who apparently said that owning the ashes brought her great comfort. That may now hold true for someone else: whoever it was that bought them for $43,750.
5. A DROP OF RONALD REAGAN’S BLOOD
When a vial purportedly containing a drop of President Reagan’s blood hit the auction block in May 2012, it received bids up to $30,086. But the sale was also heavily condemned, most notably by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, whose executive director threatened a lawsuit, saying that it violated Reagan’s privacy as a patient. The blood had been drawn at George Washington University Hospital after an assassination attempt in 1981, and had been kept by a lab worker. The blood remained in her possession until her son decided to sell it following her death in 2010. The individual who bought it then—for $3550—eventually decided to withdraw it from the May 2012 sale and instead donated it to the Reagan Foundation.
6. BONNIE PARKER’S BLOODSTAINED STOCKING
Among the trove of rifles, pistols, and rounds of ammunition found in the Ford driven by Bonnie and Clyde during their final shootout was a woman’s silk stocking. Stained with blood, it is believed to have belonged to the outlaw herself and was auctioned off in 2012 as the only item worn by Bonnie Parker that had ever been sold. The garment was part of a single lot of macabre Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia to emerge from that “death car”—in total, the lot fetched $10,800.
7. A LOCK OF THOMAS JEFFERSON’S HAIR
Though it seems macabre today, hair collections were a frequent feature of the 19th century. When Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, his doctor, Robley Dunglison, snipped off a lock of hair as a memento. The 14 short, tawny strands were preserved for nearly two centuries in a glassine envelope, and in May 2016, someone placed a winning bid of $6875 for the hairs. They came, as one would expect, with a signed letter of provenance.
8. THE WATCH LIKELY USED TO CALL JFK’S TIME OF DEATH
Many questions still linger around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but we at least know for certain the time of his pronounced death: 1 p.m. That time was called by the neurosurgeon Dr. Kemp Clark, who likely observed it on the wristwatch he was wearing that day—a rare, 18k gold Patek Philippe that was fitted with a pulsometer. Christie’s offered up the gleaming timepiece in 2013, and it sold for $161,000.
9. MARILYN MONROE’S FINAL SIGNED CHECK
Marilyn Monroe’s death also continues to raise speculation and breed conspiracy theories. Was it suicide? A check for $228.80, believed to be the last the star ever signed, may suggest not: dated to the day before her body was found, the document—which emerged at auction in 2012—was made out to a furniture company that delivered Monroe a new chest. As the folks at Heritage Auctions put it, “Would one be concerned with new furniture on the last day of one's life? Probably not!” The slip of paper sold for $15,000—certainly a unique example of one of history’s most desired autographs.