Auctioning Elvis P
How Graceland is turning the rock god's goods into gold.
By Mary Cashiola
AUGUST 16, 1999: It's all very top-secret. Hidden locations, confidentiality agreements, rumors of switched identities. The windows of the office space are completely blocked out; from the outside, it looks deserted. The average passerby would hardly give it a glance. Inside, a handful of people are quietly cataloging, photographing, and duplicating documents, as if making intricate forgeries for an upscale scam.
Instead they are preparing for "Elvis Presley: The Official Auction featuring items from the archives of Graceland," preserving and cataloging Elvis-related items for sale to the highest bidder. Many of the items for the October 8th auction in Las Vegas are documents: Elvis' first RCA contract, his address book from 1956, a packet of celebrity Christmas cards. There are also what the archivists call the sexier items: Elvis' black satin-like pajamas, his 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, his Army fatigues. And then there's the just plain weird: Elvis' circa-1974 VCR with his copies of Monty Python & the Holy Grail and The Godfather, a screen door off Graceland that was removed after Lisa Marie was born, and Elvis' racquet and a racquetball.
Inside the storefront, green linoleum covers the first few feet of the mostly unfinished concrete floor, but the rest of the two rooms looks distinctively warehouse-like. A row of shelving lines one of the walls of the front room, stacked to the ceiling with boxes in different shades of gray and large manila envelopes. Each box has a square white label that gives the lot number and what's inside -- "SHOES" or "ALOHA CAPE."
Except for an oasis where a computer and digital camera are set up, the rest of the room, like a garage the night before a garage sale, overflows with old furniture and odd items: Elvis' Palm Springs desk; two high-backed, green suede chairs; a globe with a heavy wooden base; one basketball, deflated; two larger-than-life black statues; and a chair from Graceland's fabled Jungle Room. Not to mention Elvis' blue plastic personal sauna or the rhinoceros-sized fur bean-bag chair with three matching pillows.
Easy Come, Easy GoThe archive staff started pulling items for auction at the beginning of May. "At first, we were a little nervous because our goal is to catalog it, keep it, and preserve it," says Greg Howell, manager of exhibitions and collections for Graceland. Selling it seemed to go against that concept. To begin the gargantuan task of going through Graceland's four Memphis warehouses, "We said, let's go through the documents first; that will give us an idea of what physical items can go," says Howell.
Maybe because of this methodology, most of the items up for auction are paper-based. In order to keep records for the archives, an exact replica of each document is first made with a color copier. Then, because all the paper items are highly acidic, the documents are taken to the back room and sprayed with a de-acidifying solution, which will lengthen the document's life to hundreds of years. Without the solution, the paper would only last 25 to 30 years. "This puts the brakes on it," says Carol Drake, collections care specialist for Graceland.
"We choose documents that would be okay to duplicate," says Howell. But they also choose items that they consider expendable, things that aren't necessary for telling the Elvis Presley story. The Aloha Cape being sold was never actually used. It was originally supposed to be worn in Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii in 1973, but the full-length cape was too heavy. Elvis ended up wearing an identical cape, except shorter, for the broadcast.
"Many of the things we're auctioning," says Drake, "we have others. Those two green suede chairs -- we have 10 others; there's no way we could ever display 12 chairs." And because Graceland acquired Colonel Tom Parker's estate after his death, there are already replicas of some of the more official items. "This one belonged to Colonel Parker," says Howell as he lifts up an encased gold record. "Otherwise, it's just like Elvis'."
Even though Graceland has a collection of Elvis' police badges on display, one item that narrowly escaped the auction block was a Denver Police Department badge with a large diamond in the center. "The more I looked at it," says Howell, "I said, oh, we can't get rid of it." An appraisal sealed the decision. "It was a very high-quality diamond."
Howell opens up a leather briefcase embossed with EAP on the left, and TCB (Taking Care of Business in a Flash -- Elvis' motto) and PVT on the right. Inside the archivists have included Elvis' stationery, his motorcycle gloves, a Cross pen set, a pipe and a monogrammed lighter, a karate book, a copy of The Commercial Appeal from the day Elvis was born, and a letter opener. "We should put some fan mail in," Howell jokes.
Most of the lots are arranged like museum displays instead of being a single item, like Elvis' saddle. "To make this auction different, we're adding an element no one else can really touch," says Howell. "Each lot is based on an event, but it doesn't take away from our telling the story." Elvis' movie reels of 1966's Frankie & Johnny are being auctioned off with a letter to United Pictures, signed by Elvis, saying that the copy was only for his private use. Additionally, all the checks that Elvis ever wrote, from 1954 to his death in 1977, have been pulled from storage and are sitting in small boxes in the secret cataloging location. If the archivists come across an auction item with a receipt, they'll pull the check Elvis wrote for it and include it as part of the lot. Not only does it make the lot more interesting, but it adds authenticity, too.
Then there's the other added bonus. "Every person who buys a lot is getting a pair of white gloves and a document on how to care for it," says Howell, as he carefully takes a green synthetic shirt with peasant sleeves from its box.
"We're still attached to these things," says Drake. "We feel responsible for them."
Follow That DreamAt the heart of the auction is the creation of Presley Place, a transitional housing development that will be located in downtown Memphis. An estimated $1.3 to 1.7 million from the proceeds of the auction will be earmarked and used by the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation to start a building fund for the 10- to 12-unit residential facility. Homeless families at Presley Place will receive one year of rent-free housing, day care, job training, and counseling, as well as financial guidance.
Presley Place was what started Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (EPE) seriously thinking about an auction. "We're a very famous collection," says Jack Soden, president and CEO of EPE. "We have been approached on and off by all the auction houses over the years and have always declined."
But EPE saw two choices for Presley Place; they could either fund it internally or quickly accumulate the capital by having the auction. "The auction was pretty easy to focus on as a completely separate issue. We had things in storage that would very likely be in storage forever," says Soden. "We were really saying, we should make more of these things available for collections. Otherwise, they would spend another 50 to 100 years in a dark, cold place."
But fast cash and collection pruning were only half the reason items such as Elvis' humidor are up for grabs. What really sealed their fate was the visibility the auction would bring to Presley Place and the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), which will run the project.
"We had been searching for just the right thing to put our arms around," says Soden. "We found the right combination of things."
Any funds generated by the auction above the amount needed for building and running the housing units will go toward the continued care and expansion of Graceland's archives. Preservation is expensive. De-acidifying solution costs $275 a gallon; the special acid-free, tight-fitting boxes that house the Elvis relics cost $15 to $25 each.
"Any additional money," says Howell, "will go to buy pieces missing from our collection." The archivists would particularly like to see more movie costumes. Because Elvis rarely toured in the '60s, most fans saw Elvis in the more than 25 movies he made during the decade or on television. "We have a limited amount of movie costumes because the studios tended to keep those," says Howell. "We're interested in finding those things for our collection.
Viva Las VegasIn 1969, Elvis performed for four weeks at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, earning over $1 million. On September 28th, Elvis' belongings will begin their own show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, culminating in the October 8-10 auction.
According to Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house, the reason for holding the auction now is threefold. First and foremost, there's Presley Place. And the economy is strong. Plus, it's the end of the century and Elvis was recently declared "artist of the century" by RCA. The timing couldn't be any better.
Both Ettinger and Soden think the auction will draw a combination of Elvis fans and serious collectors. "I think there will be a lot of excitement; it will honestly represent a unique opportunity to take a peek into these archives," says Soden. "This is stuff that we would not have ever been able to put on display. There would be no practical way to do it."
But hopefully, it won't be just a museum trip for Elvis fans. "This is an auction for all people. It's not an elitist sale," says Ettinger. Because most of the lots are being sold without pre-set minimums, it's possible that Elvis fans, not collectors, could end up going home with some of them. "I would be shocked if everything went for a lot of money; many items will probably go for what's considered bargain prices," says Ettinger. "No one should be afraid to join in."
Interested buyers don't even have to go to Las Vegas to bid. The auction is being presented on Interactive Collector (www.icollector.com), and EarthCam.com will be Webcasting the activities leading up to the event. Bids will be taken via telephone, fax, letter, and the Internet.
Because of the nature of an auction, it's difficult to guess what each item will go for, but, according to archivists, some of the acetates and letters of correspondence (those about Elvis and not from Elvis) might sell for $500 to $750. On the other hand, one lot of Elvis casual wear -- a brown velvet jacket with matching bell-bottoms and cape -- is estimated to be worth $15,000 to $20,000. And anyone interested in buying Elvis' 1970 metallic-blue Mercedes limo should know that the car's estimated value is $300,000 to $400,000.
Spinout"If you think the average Elvis fan is going to fly to Las Vegas for a pair of Elvis' stage underwear, forget it," says Thorn Peters, the president of the Elvis and Yours Fan Club. "The people who buy this stuff are merely collectors. They'll put it in their trophy cases, never to be seen again."
Elvis fans are known for their utter devotion, from the candlelight vigil during August's International Tribute Week to the January birthday celebrations, and everything in between. It's no wonder that some of them are upset by the auction. If Elvis is King and Graceland the Holy Land, his possessions are Holy Grails. And Graceland is selling them.
Bud Stonebreaker, an Elvis fan who left San Antonio, Texas, to move into a house near Graceland, says, "I would love to own something that belonged to Elvis, every Elvis fan would, but if I can't, I would like to be able to go see it." This is the fans' main problem with the auction: They're worried about losing the chance to see something of Elvis'.
One day Stonebreaker was watching a television segment about the items for sale. "One of them was a jumpsuit, black with a green front. I've never seen it before in my life," he says. "I would like the option to see everything, maybe not just one time."
"Once they're auctioned off, they're lost to the fans," says Mary Stonebreaker, Bud's wife and the president of the Elvis Hometown Fans' Fan Club.
While this is true, it would be hard to display all the items from the four Memphis warehouses and the one in California that houses original tape and film masters. "They don't understand the size of our collection," says Howell of the fans. "Plus, they're documents, so no one ever sees them.
If only every item being sold were a document.
"We were told it would only be paper goods," says Mary Stonebreaker. Then she found out that Graceland was auctioning off the King's Burning Love cape and some furniture. "The fans were promised a museum where they were going to put all that stuff," she says, "which seems to us the most sensible thing."
As for funding Presley Place, the fans also have their own solution.
"Graceland owns Meadow Oaks," says Bud Stonebreaker of the apartment complex off Elvis Presley Boulevard, just blocks from Graceland. "They could take a unit from there and turn it into Presley Place and not sell off stuff that belongs to Elvis." And according to Peters, to raise the money needed for the project, EPE should open a new Elvis museum as promised and use the proceeds from that. "They should realize two things," says Peters. "One, that there is never enough Elvis records and two, you can never have enough Elvis museums."
But although a museum is in EPE's future plans, using Meadow Oaks to house Presley Place isn't. "We're building Presley Place where it needs to be," says Soden. Because Presley Place will share programs with other MIFA projects, it needs to be in close proximity to them.
"Some of the feelings that we shouldn't be selling these items are just emotional, and it's understandable," says Soden. "But in this case, we're doing something that we can't imagine Elvis Presley wouldn't be leading the pack with."
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