MIKE PESCA, host:
Robert De Niro's first role was playing the cowardly lion in his elementary school, PS-41's, production of "The Wizard of Oz." The pop culture world comes full circle today, as you can buy both gloves worn by Burt Lorne as the cowardly lion and also by a report on Richmond Town in Staten Island, written by an 11-year-old, Robert De Niro, while he was at PS-41. Tony Soprano's shirts, Marilyn Monroe's checks, Eddie Munster's velvet jacket, in short, our national soul, on sale, in an auction sponsored by Christie's. Simeon Lipman, head of pop culture at Christie's, is with us today. Thanks for coming in, Simeon.
Mr. SIMEON LIPMAN (Department Head, Popular Culture, Christie's): Pleasure.
PESCA: So until you see them all laid out in the catalogue, you'd never realize that Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano, Bobby Bacala, all seemed to have worn a lot of jogging suits, but not done that much jogging. It's kind of striking. Does the lack of sweat stains affect value is my question?
Mr. LIPMAN: Well, yeah, we do have some stains on some of the clothing, but mostly it's blood. Certainly, stains do make a difference when it comes to this type of material. We have one of Tony's outfits when he was shot by Uncle Junior and it's full of blood, or fake blood, and certainly that's drawn a lot of attention from bidders and collectors.
PESCA: There's a lot of stuff here, you know, checks and Disney cell animation and sheet music, but there's James Gandolfini on the cover of the catalogue. Is this the most instantly collectible media property that you're aware of because "The Sopranos" ended, you know, two years ago, and here it is? It's highlighting the pop culture catalogue. Is that a really quick turnaround in your world?
Mr. LIPMAN: Yeah. It's actually a very, very quick turnaround, and it just shows the power of the media today and pop culture and how quickly something can become iconic, where as it took a Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, you know, 50 years of this kind of iconic worship. Here we have something that's, you know, only a few years old and is already, you know, worthy of the cover of our catalogue.
PESCA: If I had a display case and I had Superman's cape in there, everyone who came over would kind of look at Superman's cape and just marvel at it and say wow, that's Superman's cape. But if I had Robert De Niro's report card, everyone would say that's weird, and then I think there'd be a second - and I don't know - people wouldn't think that we victimize De Niro, but there's a little bit of a violation there. He was a sixth grader or 11 years old. Where do you get these pieces?
Mr. LIPMAN: Well, you know, these in particular came from a collector who had somehow acquired them many, many years ago, and, you know, with pieces like this, you know, it depends. Like let's say you're a collector who has a Robert De Niro signed photo already and has a costume from a Robert De Niro movie, then something like this is totally unique and you can add it to the collection and it makes the collection that much more special, so it might not be instantly recognizable or instantly understandable, but it can still mean an enormous amount to the collector.
PESCA: That makes a lot of sense. It seems to me that the prices of things that are easily mounted and hung on the wall, like all the animation cells, those are pretty high, and they're great. I mean, who wouldn't want a Disney animation cell? But then, when you compare it to Duke Ellington's bathrobe, not as easy to display, and Duke Ellington was known as a musician, not as a bathrobe wearer, but still that's really cool, I think.
Mr. LIPMAN: It is really cool, and we've had a lot of interest in that bathrobe. You know, people love things like that. And, you know, speaking of bathrobes, I mean, in this sale, we have Tony Soprano's bathrobe, and I can't tell you how many people have asked me what size is the bathrobe. I want to wear the bathrobe if I buy it. So I mean, you never know why people want this stuff. They just do.
PESCA: Now here we have - let's contrast a couple of things. Jack Kerouac, what a great writer, as important a 20th century novelist and fiction writer as there is, but the stuff you're selling of his - you have an AM/FM portable radio, that's really cool. But you also have a stapler. That's just like to me a thing that Jack Kerouac owned. That's not necessarily associated necessarily with Jack Kerouac himself, but you think that it'll get a good price?
Mr. LIPMAN: Well, I mean, that's exactly what it is. It's a thing that Jack Kerouac owned. Whether or not Jack Kerouac stapled one of his great works, you know, with this stapler doesn't make a difference. It's because it actually was in his possession, and a lot of these things, while they don't have a lot of intrinsic value, its nostalgic value is so high we're able to market it as such.
PESCA: One of the, I thought, coolest things in this whole collection, and a thing that compared to some of the prices of the other things, maybe the best value, in my opinion, is Lead Belly. You know, the legendary blues man Lead Belly, the guy who kind of invented rock 'n' roll and wrote "Good Night Irene" and so many other songs. A pretty long letter to his cousin in his own handwriting on Lead Belly stationary - to me, that's an amazing piece. The guy who wrote "Good Night Irene," the guy who wrote a lot of songs that we just think of as classics with his own hand, wrote a lengthy letter to his cousin, at only 3,500 dollars, that might be a bargain.
Mr. LIPMAN: I think that's a phenomenal piece, and again, to the right collector who could appreciate the history of who, you know, Lead Belly was and his enormous influence on music, that's an affordable estimate for somebody who's looking to add a truly unique piece to their collection.
PESCA: And that to me contrasts a little bit with all the "Empire Strikes Back" "Star Wars" figurines in their original setting. Now, we know figurines are so many generations removed from the actual movie, whereas Lead Belly wrote that with his actual hand. Why do these "Star Wars" figurines - why are they priced so high?
Mr. LIPMAN: Well, you know, it's really not really priced that high in comparison when you think about it. Basically this whole market is driven by nostalgia, right? So if you - if you love Lead Belly then that's the thing for you, but there's a vast majority of people in their 30s and early 40s who grew up with "Star Wars". That was it. That's their childhood. That's what they remember.
Now, I played with all these action figures, but of course I tore them out of their packages and destroyed them in the process and played with them until they, you know, were nothing. Now, here we have a collection of every single one of these figures in their original packages which is, you know, quite rare, you know, to find anywhere, but this is the whole run of them, and plus, they're cool. You know, these things have become kind of cool. They've kind of transcended that like nerdy type of obsession thing to kind of cool, you know, because it's a whole generational shift and that's what people are into right now.
PESCA: If I'm a 15-year-old kid and I listen to this interview and I say, not only do I want all those things, I want your job, Simeon Lipman. How do you become the pop culture guy at Christie's?
Mr. LIPMAN: Well, I was very fortunate in that my parents were collectors of all sorts of stuff, so I would go with them to flea markets growing up. And while they were interested in, you know, antique jewelry or whatever, I was always interested in, you know, baseball cards and comic books and things like that, and this was kind of a natural progression. It's tough. You can't really go to school for anything like this. You've just got to...
PESCA: Right. Well, what did you go to school for, art?
Mr. LIPMAN: Art history.
PESCA: OK. That's smart.
Mr. LIPMAN: And you know, which I also am very interested in, and to be honest with you, I think a lot of this material in this day and age, and in the future as well, is going to end up in museums and things like that because I feel this is what matters to people.
PESCA: Simeon Lipman, head of pop culture at Christie's, where an auction of pop culture memorabilia kicks off at 10 a.m. You can see the stuff that's up for sale on our website, npr.org/bryantpark. Thanks a lot, Simeon.
Mr. LIPMAN: My pleasure. Thanks.
PESCA: OK. I also asked Simeon that interview, what's the inverted Jenny - you know, that postage stamp upside down airplane that's worth millions.
MARTIN: Oh, yes.
PESCA: What's the inverted Jenny of "Star Wars" figurines? It turns out there's this Boba Fett that had missiles that fired that they pulled off the market because you could swallow the missiles and someone actually has a Boba Fett in the original packaging, could go for many, many thousand dollars.
PESCA: They're also selling Marilyn Monroe's checks.
MARTIN: Personal checks?
PESCA: Yeah, a check she wrote. And the most expensive one was a check for three dollars that she wrote for a mineral bath that has her signature and...
MARTIN: Back then, three bucks was kind of a lot.
PESCA: Yeah, it's really fascinating to try this.
MARTIN: Coming up, Dan Pashman, raw. To put it another way, our producer, Dan Pashman, will tell us all about raw milk. It's going to be dairy interesting. That's right. I said it. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.