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Marilyn Monroe's $5 Million Subway Dress and Debbie Reynolds' Ginormous Hollywood Auction: An Official Bidder's Insider Account

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Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM

click to enlarge marilyn550.jpg

Debbie Reynolds held Hollywood's largest garage sale at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills on Saturday. In case you missed it on Oprah, Ms. Reynolds had one of the largest private collections of classic Hollywood memorabilia and most of it was up for grabs this weekend in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

The collection, the bulk of which she snatched-up from MGM dumpsters and a massive auction in 1970, was meant for several planned museums that never really came to fruition. Following the recent collapse of one of these museum ventures, Ms. Reynolds has had to part ways with most it at auction.

Even describing these items as iconic has itself become iconic at this point, and we thought we would go in and see if we could nab a piece of Tinseltown history for ourselves -- maybe half a sequin from one of those Ruby Slippers? So we registered as official bidders to see what we could get our hands on.

click to enlarge The deepest pockets in Hollywood nerdery bid on a test dress from the Wizard of Oz. - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • The deepest pockets in Hollywood nerdery bid on a test dress from the Wizard of Oz.

Given the hype over the auction's purported gem, Marilyn Monroe's, um, iconic, Subway Dress from The Seven Year Itch (but apparently no buzz whatsoever for George Cukor's slippers and robe) we knew we would be in for some fierce competition from any number of better-funded Hollywood otaku.

The auction itself moved at a glacial pace but was kept lively by Reynolds and her family's presence. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, kept the quips rolling in some duller moments. As E. G. Robinson's pipes and slippers went up, she belted out, "Come on! Robinson's pipes for Father's Day? The slippers still stink!"

We had little interest in some of the lesser-known pieces during the early rounds -- pantaloons from Mutiny on the Bounty, a lock of Mary Pickford's hair. Maybe we'd bid on W.C. Fields' joke box and one liners? Bummer, we were priced out well before the final bid of $35,000.

click to enlarge W.C. Fields' joke box -- headed straight to the mind of Mencia - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • W.C. Fields' joke box -- headed straight to the mind of Mencia

While it wasn't nearly the most expensive item, the unexpected highlight of the day was surely the bidding war that erupted over Judy Garland's Dorothy Dress from the first two weeks of filming The Wizard of Oz (Ruby Slippers not included). The dress was slated to go for about $60,000 to $80,000 but drew a fierce battle between two collectors in the crowd.

Merely a blue cotton test dress with polka dot trim and an ivory sheer puff-sleeved blouse -- worn for less than two weeks -- it worked its way up through six-figures between two quiet gentlemen. When the gavel fell at $910,000 cheers erupted from the gallery. Ms. Reynolds, who had missed the hubbub, returned to congratulate the winning bidder. "I just had the best pee!" she joked.

Hugging the dress's new owner, she exclaimed, "Well, there's the only man who ever bought me anything and didn't steal it all away!" Clearly, parting ways with her prized artifacts didn't totally dampen her trademark wit.

For the record, the Ruby Slippers (one of several pairs that still exist) went for about half of what the dress did.

click to enlarge Overflow Gallery with a dress but not "The Dress" - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • Overflow Gallery with a dress but not "The Dress"

While Marilyn's dress finally sold that night for about $5 million with tax, commission, and fees (only twice what it was expected to) and the auction went better than estimates, there were still bargains to be had. Vincent Price's robe landed a mere $6,000 and George Cukor's aforementioned slippers and robe only went for about $1,000. If they'd only stood over a subway grate or two. Even Mr. Robinson's pipes and slippers sold for less than $5,000.

Either way, we went home mostly empty handed -- the catalogs sold out, an internet bidder dashed our hopes of owning a poster from Gaslight, and Charlie Chaplin's bowler went while we slipped out for coffee. In the end, Debbie Reynolds cleaned out her attic, and all we got was this crappy t-shirt.

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