One of the most talked about auction lots in recent weeks was the set of Marilyn Monroe chest x-rays that sold at the Hollywood Legends auction run by Julien's Auction at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The selling price was $45,000. It seems that even the auctioneers were surprised by the figure as their estimated price was $800-$1000. Also, in Julien's Auction press release about the sale, the x-rays are just briefly mentioned while an entire paragraph is devoted to the therapy couch Monroe used in her doctor's office from 1960 until the time of her death.
When I first read about this auction I wondered about the provenance of the x-rays. With a selling price this strong, I assumed the proof of successive history of ownership was pretty solid but I was eager to find out exactly how the x-rays were obtained. According to news reports, the x-rays were taken in November 1954 at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Florida and prove Monroe was suffering from endometriosis. According to London's telegraph newspaper, a young doctor obtained the x-rays for use in classes he taught at the center. When the doctor died, his daughter inherited the x-rays and put them up for sale. Although Monroe was in the process of divorcing Joe Di Maggio, the name on the x-rays read "Marilyn Di Maggio".
I also wondered how the auction house came to its estimate. Certainly an item like this is a little more unusual but was there anything of "like, quality, and kind" in which to compare? Certainly there have been many artists producing x-rays of flowers, still life, and other objects and turning them into fine quality photographs. A good example of this is the photograph below created by Helmut Newton of a hand wearing a Van Cleef & Arpels Diamond Bracelet. In April of 2010 this silver gelatin print sold at Phillips de Pury & Company for $18,000.
Newton was a famous German-Australian fashion photographer who's work was seen in magazine's like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Despite the artist's fame, it is not a good comparable. Although the image is of an x-ray the actual medium is a silver gelatin print photograph. Next, it is important to point out that there is an arm and a hand in the x-ray but the actual subject is the very expensive bracelet worn by the hand. In the case of the Monroe x-ray, it can be assumed that the primary attraction was not the person taking the x-ray but the actual subject of the x-ray. Therefore, a better and more logical comparable would be a different x-ray of Monroe or another equally famous person which has sold at auction. Believe it or not, such an x-ray exists. On September 4, 2008 the "Fame Bureau" in Dartford England sold the below x-ray of Elvis Presley's arm. Because Elvis lived during the same period as Monroe and is arguably just as famous as Monroe, this x-ray is a good comparable. The selling price on that day was £3,500 (approx. $5,300).
Finally, it is important to note all of the media attention this auction received in advance of the sale. From serious news organizations to comedy parody shows (see the Stephen Colbert coverage here), the attention surrounding these x-rays created a buzz that could not have been achieved otherwise. Although media coverage is not something appraisers usually discuss in relation to valuing objects, the effect of the media coverage and the excitement it creates should not be ignored. It would be impossible to look at an auction result of $45,000 for chest x-rays and not to acknowledge the effect of such publicity. Or, in the words of Stephen Colbert, "Good for you, whoever is making money selling a dead woman's private gynecological X-rays."