As Sotheby's sells the piano from Casablanca, I wondered why we're so keen now on Hollywood memorabilia
You must remember this… A kiss is just a kiss… But a piano is a million dollars, especially if it's the one Sam (Dooley Wilson) played in Casablanca (pictured below), encapsulating Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman's romantic past. Sotheby's has slapped an estimate of $800,000-1.2 million on said piano for its sale on 14 December.
Movie memorabilia has never been more in demand than now. Debbie Reynolds (she of Singin' in the Rain) sold her collection of costumes from Hollywood's golden era in 2011 and Marilyn Monroe's ivory pleated dress from The Seven Year Itch (pictured bottom), the one which blew up around her face above a subway vent, fetched $5.7 million, the current record.
She also sold Julie Andrews' jumper and guitar from The Sound of Music ($172,000), Charlie Chaplin's Tramp bowler hat ($135,000), Judy Garland's gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz ($1.1m) (pictured below), Charlton Heston's tunic from Ben-Hur ($400,000) and Audrey Hepburn's Cecil Beaton Ascot dress from My Fair Lady ($4.5m). The entire sale fetched $23 million.
Meanwhile, the Victoria & Albert Museum's Hollywood Costume exhibition is a sell-out, with no weekend tickets until 2013. Judy Garland's gingham dress reappears here, alongside Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones get-up, Johnny Depp's piratical outfit and Barbra Streisand's shimmering gold dress from Hello, Dolly!.
So why are we seeing an overwhelming interest in Hollywood memorabilia?
I think part of the explanation is history repeating itself if not as farce then as gloss. The last time the world was in such an economic state was in the 1930s, which produced exactly the films we're now looking to for comfort: don't forget that 1939 alone saw The Wizard of Oz (the ultimate escapist fantasy), Gone with the Wind (sumptuous if replete with conflict) and The Women (an all-female extravaganza with a Technicolor fashion show). In the Great Depression, we looked to the movies for brightness, glamour and the promise of a better place.
Today, that type of film doesn't get made any more: half are boneheaded stoner comedies, half are boneheaded action films, all are aimed at 14-25 year olds, with a smattering of French art-house pics and Meryl Streep starrers. We like to think we're too sophisticated for such glossy treats, and those glamazons don't exist any longer – we like our stars to be 'real', or at least cracked.
But we can gorge our eyes on the artefacts of that era, enjoying the residual glamour even as real glamour is absent from our lives. The aesthetic equivalent of comfort food, we're enjoying the relics which brought light to a dark time, hoping they will once again glow for us.
Watch: Dooley Wilson plays As Time Goes By for Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca