Buying Memorabilia: The Price Really Paid for James Cagney's Dirty Socks     by Marjorie Dorfman

Why do items once owned by celebrities cost so much money? Read on and maybe you'll find out.

Surely all of you out there have heard of "guilt by association." Well, taking my reasoning just one step further, please consider "value by association." It has another name in today's market place: memorabilia. Both concepts involve making an assumption, in the first instance a legal one about criminal complicity and in the second about worth, concerning either the company you keep or the company you admire. I love auctions and attend them all the time, but the first celebrity one I went to in which Jimmy Cagney's estate was being sold illustrates my point far better than my words ever could.

I pick Mr. Cagney because he is one of my favorite movie stars and his worldwide fame has made him almost a religious icon in the eyes of his millions of admirers. To this day, he exists as passionately as if he still lived or breathed on the silver screen where dreams never die. I wanted to buy something that the great movie star had touched, something I could remember him by for always. I probably would have settled for a pair of his dirty socks!

The auction was run by a most prestigious company. (To protect the innocent, they shall remain nameless.) Proceedings were held in the auditorium of a gothic Catholic Church on New York's Upper East Side. I was told that Cagney had worshipped there, and everywhere I looked I wondered if this was where he sat and walked and talked and walked and sat and talked. I had it bad and like that old song says, "that ain't good." It was a whole day affair, starting at 10am and running far into the evening with a break between morning, afternoon and evening sales.

The catalogue cost twenty dollars. This was a transparent attempt to eliminate the less serious buyers and the riff-raff. I'm not sure if I was considered riff or raff, but I bought one anyway. There were several viewings over a period of two or three days of all the memorabilia which included Cagney's torn and worn Hollywood address book, the tap shoes he wore in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as well as the vest and the checkered cap. Other items included books, a childhood baseball uniform, many photos and some oil paintings painted by the star at his farm in Connecticut in the latter years of his life.

I fell in love with a photograph of him tying up the rigging on his boat when he was about forty years old. The frame was a plain wood stand with a flexible centerpiece and the catalogue estimated it would cost $150-200 dollars. I set my sights on this, but decided I would settle for a loose set of taps that were worn on another pair of shoes in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" if I couldn't get the photo. I was prepared to go up to $300. According to the catalogue, the photo was destined for the morning and the taps for the afternoon sale. And so I sat and watched, watched and sat. I could not believe how much money was being spent and how far over the estimates the items were going for. For example, the dilapidated address book I mentioned whose broken spine and faded torn pages revealed the long ago phone numbers of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart went for 800 bucks. I don't remember the exact amounts, but the vest and the checkered cap from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" went for more than one thousand dollars each.

Needless to say, I was getting very discouraged with each passing tap of the gavel. What was a girl to do? I waited and then my golden opportunity came. The auctioneer held up the object of my desire. The bidding started, my heart was pounding and my hand was up there with all the rest. I had said $300 would be my maximum, but some dark force made me raise my hand until the bidding reached $450.00! That same little voice that won't let me drive after one drink or talk to that strange man in the dark raincoat spoke to me again, at first in a whisper and then in a scream through a loudspeaker that rang through my ears: "WHAT THE HELL IS THE MATTER WITH YOU? ARE YOU CRAZY, MARJORIE?"

I was offended by the tone of voice, but I listened anyway. I listened and watched helplessly as my hand went down and the bidding went up and up and up, climaxing at $900 for the photograph of a boat and a cute little man tying the rigging! Surely I could have bought most of a boat of my own for that money. (And maybe some cute little man to boot!) But what a cute and famous little man! And that is the point. But wait. I am not finished with my story. There were still those lonesome taps to consider. Even if I couldn't look at Mr. Cagney himself, maybe this way I could watch him dance. (Even if it was only in my mind's eye!)

I grabbed a bite to eat after the morning sale and returned to the church, determined to own a piece, however small, of Mr. James Cagney. And then it happened again. Those lonesome taps in search of shoes came up for sale. The catalogue estimated $75-$100. Guess what they went for? 350 smackeroos! And guess who didn't buy them?

As sad a tale as this is, I did learn my lesson. When the estate of Jackie Onassis went on sale I stayed away, not even barely tempted to view the extravagant pickings. And from what I understand everything was quite inflated and a lot of people were unhappy with the prices that many of her personal items garnered. I wonder if she had any dirty socks. Did a lady like her ever even wear socks? If so, were they ever dirty? I don't know. I won't say I don't care. I'll just say that I admit that I can't afford her socks or anyone else's, except maybe Kay-Mart's!

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Copyright 2002