Collecting: Marilyn and Jean like you've never seen: Bonhams' first auction of Hollywood glamour photographs, some previously unpublished, will sell well, says John Windsor

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The Independent Online
MARILYN MONROE clicked with her photographers. 'She had an affair with all of them,' according to Cyril Frankel of Bonhams, the auctioneers. Mr Frankel, best known for his pioneering contemporary ceramics sales, is holding the first auction dedicated to Hollywood glamour photographs - mostly of Marilyn - on 10 October (2pm).

Frequent reproduction has cheapened many a Hollywood image and auctioneers have hitherto been unsure what to do with the genuinely valuable prints taken from original negatives. Sotheby's and Christie's sell them not only in their low-brow rock and pop memorabilia sales but also in their high-brow photography sales.

Now, work by Andre de Dienes, George Barris, Bill Burnside, Milton Greene, and other humble but talented commercial photographers who made it with Marilyn, is being given its first chance to stand up on its own.

There were gasps of disgust from dealers in fine-art photography at Sotheby's in 1986 when an American fan of Marilyn stumped up a record pounds 17,600 for a unique and previously unpublished late Forties glamour print by Burnside. It was inscribed to him by Marilyn and showed her with her head thrown back in abandon. She had written across the front: 'To Bill. Anything worth having is worth waiting for] Love, Marilyn'.

Previously, such sky-high prices had been reserved for early 20th-century art photographers such as Man Ray, Ed Steicken or Alfred Stieglitz. Historically, says Philippe Garner of Sotheby's photography department, the collecting and curatorial world has marginalised commercial photography. 'But it's undeniable,' he says, 'that the allure of some material is so potent that it has the potential to buck the trend.'

Mr Frankel is banking on the potency of the photographers as well as the stars they photographed. He quotes Douglas Fairbanks Jnr on the photographer George Hurrell: 'Hurrell co-stars with his subjects. It is, and always was, his own particular magic.'

Once you know how Marilyn and her photographers got their results - 'She felt it was totally natural to experience sex with somebody: there were no taboos,' Mr Frankel says - you begin to see photographs of her as neither glamour pics nor fine art but as, well, something else.

Mr Frankel, himself a film director (Man of Africa, It's Great to be Young, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger), has a connoisseur's eye for the qualities which Marilyn's photographers managed to capture: 'She was always searching towards that inner light. When Laurence Olivier directed and played opposite her in The Prince and the Showgirl, she sometimes needed 36 takes or so until she connected with that light bulb. She'd hold out until she knew 'this is it]' But by that time Olivier had had it.'

Others have offered greater eulogy. Lee Strasberg, the larger-than-life 'method' acting pioneer, said: 'She was engulfed in a mystic-like flame, like when you see Jesus at the Last Supper and there's a halo around him. There was this great white light surrounding Marilyn.'

Now that Elvis has been deified and Marilyn beatified, what price Hollywood glamour photographs? It is the 30th anniversary of Marilyn's death and most of her photographer-lovers are dead, too. So there is a premium on prints that are in the most desirable 'state' - the 'lifetime print', hand-printed, signed (or, less desirably, stamped or embossed) by the photographer. There is added value if the print or portfolio comes with the photographer's romantic account of his relationship with the star during shooting.

Clarence Sinclair Bull's Garbo Portfolio One (singles est pounds 280-pounds 350 and pounds 450-pounds 600 according to size) has this: 'I never said 'hold it' or 'still, please'. All I did was light that face and wait and watch and when I saw the reflected mood I clicked the shutter. The face was the most inspirational I have ever photographed.'

Collectors will tell you with a wink that, before the war, Hollywood producers used to allow photographers two whole days with a star to film her publicity shots. For Bull and Garbo and other couples who clicked, soft music and a full drinks cabinet helped to induce the required exposure.

The most hated deadweight on the collectors' market are 'duprints' - worthless, mechanically produced reproductions. Recognise them by their size (the 10in by 8in of press handouts), their flimsiness, scratched glossy surface and lack of authenticating signature, hand-stamp or embossing. Genuine lifetime prints tend to be 11in by 14in or 16in by 20in, matt on double-weight paper. Buffs can tell what chemicals were used.

Technical connoisseurship in photographs is similar to that in old prints. Reproductions - pictures of pictures - are scorned. And prints taken from plates, or negatives, after the artist's lifetime are much less valuable. Whether prints or photographs, they are known as 're-strikes'.

Apart from some choice signed lifetime prints, Bonhams' 227-lot sale includes four unpublished 1949 prints of Marilyn by Burnside, the transparencies having recently been discovered by the barrister and author Fenton Bresler (est. pounds 150-pounds 200 each, copyright negotiable), proof copies of Jean Harlow's hushed-up nude studies of 1929 (pounds 180-pounds 250 to pounds 600-pounds 900 according to size) and a host of Marilyns. These are part of limited editions launched by the flamboyant Los Angeles art publisher Edward Weston, ranging from pounds 120-pounds 130 to pounds 150-pounds 250 each for black and whites and pounds 250-pounds 350 for colour.

Mr Weston, who suggested the sale to Bonhams, is an entrepreneur to the core and an assiduous promoter of his 'estate editions', each of 99 prints, as the next affordable collectable. Estate editions, approved by the dead photographer's estate or widow, are a second-best to lifetime editions.

Mr Weston told me: 'Everything is timing and the time is now. I've been testing the market for 12 years. Now that nouveau riche collectors have pushed contemporary art prices out of reach, I intend to show my colours.'

He has befriended photographers, their widows and executors, buying up rights. 'I have a contract with Andre de Dienes's widow, Shirley,' he said. 'Andre loved and photographed Marilyn, both as Norma Jean and as Marilyn Monroe, but never merchandised his photographs of her.

'Dealing with an estate is worse. You get involved with executors and trustees. You have to be sweet and charming and keep your integrity and then perhaps they'll come round and honour you with the rights.'

He bought some early Jean Harlow negatives from the late John Kobal, founder of the Kobal Collection, the London commercial picture library from which the nudes in Bonhams' sale were printed. These are proofs, the forerunner of editions that he intends to limit, not by number but by a 60-day printing time.

'Say we sell 3,000 by 31 December, for example. Then I go on television and burn the negative in front of the whole world,' he said.

Mr Kobal was the single-handed pioneer of Hollywood glamour photography. He befriended and championed commercial Hollywood photographers, held a ground-breaking exhibition of their work at the V & A in 1974 and wrote the sought-after book, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers (Knopf, 1980). The Kobal Collection still exhibits worldwide.

Simon Crocker, Kobal's chairman, more used to hiring images then selling them, might let you carry off a signed George Hurrell for pounds 750-pounds 1,000, perhaps a Laszlo Willinger for pounds 500-pounds 600 or a Bull for pounds 500-pounds 600.

'We're not a garage sale,' he said cheerily when I asked about cheaper limited editions.

Bonhams' catalogue (pounds 6), crammed with a lifetime of Marilyn photographs, is likely to become a collectable itself. The edition numbers 2,000 - but Mr Frankel has no plans to limit it.

Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7 (071-584 9161).

The Kobal Collection, 184 Drummond Street, London NW1 (071-383 0011).

International Collectors Film Convention: today (10am-5pm) at Congress Centre, 23 Great Russell Street, London WC1, entry pounds 2.

(Photograph omitted)

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