CHICAGO – Struggling to pay back a loan used to buy Abraham Lincoln artifacts, the foundation that supports the 16th president’s library in Springfield is selling a black wool dress once owned and worn by movie star Marilyn Monroe.
The three-quarter-length, long-sleeved dress with a scooped neck (seen at right) is the centerpiece of nine items the Lincoln foundation is putting on the block June 23 in Las Vegas. The auctioneer estimates the dress is worth $40,000 to $60,000, but could sell for much more.
“Getting [Monroe] items is becoming more and more difficult,” said Darren Julien, whose company is handling the bidding. “The supply’s less and less, but demand’s more and more because you have people in Asia and Russia and all over the world that are collecting pop culture – especially Marilyn Monroe.”
Two years ago, Julien’s Auctions fetched $4.8 million for the one-of-a-kind dress Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy – up from $1.2 million when it first sold in 1999, Julien said.
While the Lincoln foundation’s dress isn’t as iconic, the item is authenticated because it originally was sold by Christie’s in a Monroe estate sale nearly 20 years ago. That, Julien said, means it still could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s a windfall the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation could use. The group acquired the Monroe dress as part of a private collection of more than 1,000 items from Louise Taper 11 years ago. The foundation financed the purchase with the help of a $23 million loan, scoring gloves Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated in April 1865. The trove also included a stovepipe hat that library officials are satisfied Lincoln wore but some critics question whether he ever touched.
The foundation raised private money and whittled the debt down to $9.7 million, but officials said they’ve run into trouble on the loan, which comes up for renewal in October 2019. They’re worried about the embarrassing prospect of parting with items directly tied to the Civil War president who lived in Springfield, freed the slaves and led the nation through the Civil War.
Proceeds from the auction of the non-Lincoln items, including the Monroe dress, seven photographs of the 1950s bombshell shot by noted photographer Arnold Newman, and a bust of Chicago poet Carl Sandburg that she owned, could help make the loan payments.
“Our need is great,” said Carla Knorowski, the foundation’s chief executive officer, who indicated the Monroe items were sent to the auction house around November.
Last week, the foundation acknowledged that it made a pitch for more state funds to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s aides – without getting a commitment – and previously had sought help from state lawmakers, to no avail. A Rauner spokeswoman has said the administration is reviewing the foundation’s business plan. It’s unclear whether lawmakers and the governor will find the funding during an election year when money remains tight despite last year’s big income-tax increase.
In addition to the Monroe dress, the estimated value of the Sandburg bust is between $20,000 and $30,000, and the photos are estimated as worth $1,000 to $2,000 each, but Julien called those figures conservative. The auction house’s cut will be 15 percent, he said.
The Monroe dress isn’t even the main event at the Hollywood Legends auction. That honor goes to the blaster used to great effect by Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” a movie prop that could fetch as much as $500,000.
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