The role of celebrity provenance in the luxury goods market

Andy Warhol portrait

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

When buying a luxury item, the first thing a potential buyer should concern themselves with is provenance. For the uninitiated, provenance is proof of an item’s legitimacy; it could be a receipt, proof of display in a museum, proof of sale at auction, proof of ownership, or any other document that points towards the item’s validity. A good provenance can increase an item’s value, while weak provenance can leave a seller struggling to shift their item. One kind of provenance can have an especially positive impact on an item’s sale price; celebrity provenance.

In Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of items with strong celebrity provenance; recently, Julien’s Auctions sold luxury items from the estates and collections of celebrities Patrick Swayze, Doris Roberts, and Shirley Jones.

Items of clothing, furniture, jewelry and art were among the items sold for a premium. A notable lot was the leather jacket that the late Patrick Swayze wore in Dirty Dancing. It fetched $62,500.

How can celebrity provenance increase an item’s value?

Put simply; having the name of a celebrity attached to an item increases that item’s value. The primary thing to consider is the the ‘status’ of the celebrity whose property is up for auction.
In other words, the amount that luxury items fetch at auction is often based on how the celebrity is currently viewed by the buying public and individual collectors. Property that belonged to the most famous, or even the most notorious celebrities will always generate highest interest.
This means to that the timing of auctions can be important. Selling celebrity property when they are currently in the news or enjoying a revival can increase interest and therefore drive up the sale price at auction.
However, nostalgia also plays a large role in the influence of celebrity provenance on a sale. For some collectors, the opportunity to purchase luxury items that once belonged to people they respect and admire can drive up the price.
Age is also a key factor in celebrity provenance; generally speaking the older the item the more it will sell for. Additionally, if the celebrity who owned it is deceased, the item will likely fetch more at auction.

Another, less obvious, trend is the increase in price of an item if it’s similar to an item owned by a celebrity. For example, units of the 1956 Porsche Spyder that James Dean was driving when he tragically died are likely to fetch more at auction, even though they’re not the exact version that James Dean owned.

The importance of evidence

The more evidence there is to show that the celebrity owned or used the item – such as film footage and photographs as well as documentation – the more convinced and reassured buyers are.
Visual proof of this kind increases willingness to meet high sales prices. It also creates the emotional response that can underpin sale prices.

Celebrity items as investments

Celebrity is a driving force in economics as much as it is in media and popular culture. Restaurant and museum patrons will come to see items of historic significance that have belonged to icons, and owning one of these items privately is incredibly prestigious.

The power of ‘star status’ is shown every day, as celebrity endorsements increase the sale of thousands of products each year, by millions of dollars.

This reflects how much the public want to possess or be around something that was endorsed or owned by notable people.  It is also an investment. Time will only increase the value of luxury items previously owned by Hollywood’s elite.

From guitars and dresses to red shoes

So what are some examples of item sales whose price was influenced by celebrity provenance?

Musical instruments can often far exceed their worth at auction merely by their association with celebrities, or their use in famous films. The piano that featured in the film Casablanca was sold for $3.4million, while Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Woodstock’ guitar fetched $2m.

Clothing belonging to the iconic Marilyn Monroe always fetches considerable amounts at auction. Museum chain Ripley’s Believe It or Not recently paid a world-record $4.8m for the dress she wore when singing “Happy birthday Mr President” to then-President John F. Kennedy. In 2011, her white costume from the film The Seven Year Itch fetched $4.6m at auction, which was the world record at the time.
When referring to the life of actor Steve McQueen, the media often uses photographs of him in a motor racing suit, which sold for $984,000. Outside of racing cars themselves, this is believed to be among the most expensive pieces of racing memorabilia so far.

Bruce Lee was admired for his incredible fight scenes in films, and remains an icon many years after his death. A blue coat he wore in his film Game of Death was sold for $77,000 in a Hong Kong auction.

A further example of how celebrity items can tell a story is Judy Garland’s iconic red glittery shoes, memorably worn during The Wizard of OZ. They sold for $666,000 at auction.

A collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings such as film props, jewelry and clothing also raised over £100.3 million for the Hollywood icon’s Aids trust. Shortly after her death, her La Peregrina pearl necklace alone was sold for around $11.8 million.

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