Celebrity chest burster to kill for

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IN THESE times of moral panic and negative equity, I like to roam the streets in search of a grotesque chest burster. At noon on Thursday I tracked one down in Chelsea, at Bonhams the auctioneers. The burster, lot 174, was the thing that sprang from John Hurt's stomach in Alien and went on to wreak madness through two sequels. It was being offered without arms, at an estimate of pounds 150- pounds 250. Naturally, I was interested.

I was also interested in the celebrity axe. This came from The Shining, and was used by Jack Nicholson to smash down a door shielding a defenseless woman. It is made of simulated wood, its head covered in silver paper. 'We've had a lot of interest in the axe,' said Alexander Crum Ewing, the head of the collectors' department. 'No recession in this market.'

Bonhams held its first sale of entertainment memorabilia in 1990, having seen Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips sell storerooms of pop ephemera to drooling obsessives in the Eighties. Bonhams began with up-market theatre stuff and now can't go down-market fast enough: Carry On film posters, evening gowns worn by Fiona Fullerton in The Ghost of Monte Carlo, models of men with nails through their faces.

These sales are among the auction house's most popular events. A drafty gallery with a corrugated iron roof is packed with pallid and earnest people from all layers of the social lasagne: unwashed fans, washed fans, dealers annotating the sale of all 375 lots in smudgy pencil, retired people keen to carry home some autographed tear-sheet of their youth. The people at Bonhams like these sales, too. Mr Crum Ewing says handling spatulas and saucepan lids signed by John and Yoko makes 'a nice change from looking at Georgian furniture all day'.

Much stuff doesn't reach its estimate, not least the film posters and lobby cards (anything Disney or Elvis excluded). The coin-operated games and one-armed bandits do OK, as does the rock stuff (although the bottom seems to have entirely fallen out of the Black Sabbath and Foreigner markets).

'Things have been a bit tough since the Hard Rocks stopped buying,' says Mr Crum Ewing, referring to the burger joints that have now run out of wallspace to cover with rock-related tat. Still, there will always be someone eager to spend pounds 220 for a blazer 'allegedly once belonging to a young Ringo Starr for promotional purposes, and receipt in pocket from Silver Fox Cafe, Newnham-on-Severn, for egg, chips, bread, butter and tea'. Wow, caveat emptor a go-go. How many jackets do you know that are worn to caffs 'for promotional purposes'? The catalogue allays at least some of your fears: 'Has been in the possession of the current vendor for 20 years, when Ringo Starr became too fat to fit into this jacket, and so his mother, Elsie Graves, passed it on to the son of the present owner.'

And on it goes, the occasional gasp from the audience as some piece of schmutter goes for mad money, the occasional plea from the auctioneer as the autograph of a forgotten matinee idol fails to reach its reserve.

Then there's something you never get half-way through the Post-Impressionists sales: 'Ladies and gentlemen, I would just like to say that there is a rather decent snack bar downstairs selling nice tea and rolls. Right. Lot 282. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, signatures in blue ink. Who'll give me pounds 20 for Viv and Larry?'

David has come from Surrey for a Frank Sinatra autograph. Bidding begins slowly at pounds 20. David's looking good, feeling confident. When someone else bids pounds 25, he's right in there, punching the air with his bidding card. pounds 30 . . . pounds 35 . . . pounds 40. David goes to pounds 60, as high as his conscience will allow. Some other bloke gets it for pounds 65. David is extremely upset. So there you go, Frank: another disillusioned punter, and I bet you don't even care.

There is a small chunk in the sale dedicated to stuff from the horror film Hellraiser. A man in a fringed leather jacket leaning against a side wall is very keen on a life-sized bust modelled as the evil character Pinhead. The man is vocal: 'Yes] Let's go]' he says as he ups the bids. He pulls out when it gets to pounds 800. 'Phew]' I say. '800 quid]' Then he says: 'It's OK, it's mine anyway.' He was pulling in another punter to pay more, which is a bit naughty. Then he does the same with the next lot, a model of an evil engineer complete with fangs, but it backfires, and he ends up buying the thing that he already owns for pounds 550. Bit stupid.

The highlight of the sale is a letter from a genius. 'Dear Sir: I am retired as a professor of theoretical physics at the Institute for Advanced Study and I am not teaching at all. I am not working in the field of nuclear physics but in the field of relativity theory, so that I am not able to assist you in your studies and investigations. Sincerely yours, A Einstein.' This went for pounds 750, double the estimate. Just think what it would have been worth if he'd added the PS: 'Now bugger off.'

The grotesque chest burster went for pounds 150. 'There's an awful lot of Alien stuff around,' says Mr Crum Ewing. 'There's some fake stuff around, too. The chest burster we've got is a plaster cast copy, but it's not a fake.'

Jack's axe went through the roof at pounds 460. People couldn't raise their bidding cards fast enough. The victor is not your normal axe-buying type: orange sweater, neat jacket, classy specs, hair ribbon. At the cash desk she says: 'It's not for me. I bought it for a newspaper. Can't say which one. It's for a readers' competition.' Nice prize] The headline on the quiz could say: 'Amaze your friends] Show them the nasty implement Jack used in the famous movie. Then slaughter them]' Moral panic indeed.

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

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