Inside an unremarkable warehouse in an industrial Los Angeles neighborhood sits a throne fit for a king.
The massive red velvet chair is adorned with gilded cupids, birds and other decorative flourishes.
But that's not all.
Steps away, a dozen statues of laughing, frolicking children linger. And against one wall lean the iron gates to Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson's famed 2,700-acre amusement park of a home.
This warehouse in a location kept secret to avoid prying eyes and paparazzi's flash bulbs houses a curious mix of artifacts from the life of Jackson, the international megacelebrity whose peculiarities and personal problems have in recent years overshadowed his musical talent.
Now, L.A. auction house Julien's Auctions is preparing to sell off the throne, statues and some 2,000 of Jackson's other personal effects to the highest bidders April 22-25 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
"He's a very eccentric and eclectic collector," said auction house owner Darren Julien, who gave the Business Journal one of the first looks at the items. "His tastes are really diverse."
Julien has made a name for himself as one of the top entertainment memorabilia auctioneers in the business. The 40-year-old entrepreneur has arranged sales for Barbara Streisand, Cher, Jerry Seinfeld and a host of other celebrities.
His six-year-old outfit raised about $12 million last year at its auctions. The auction house is already booked solid through 2010 with 10 auctions in the works. And at a time when the economy is forcing even the wealthiest to cut back, Julien projects sales to top $20 million in the coming years.
Now, with the Jackson auction projected to raise $1.5 million to $3 million alone, the company finds itself with a much higher profile than it has ever experienced.
"To work with somebody as iconic as Michael Jackson, that is absolutely massive for a firm like us," said Martin Nolan, 46, executive director of the company and Julien's right-hand man.
Rise and fall
The auction, featuring items all taken from Jackson's Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos near Santa Barbara, will not be lacking for spectacle. The eccentric pop star's eclectic taste will be on full display in items ranging from the mundane to the ornate to the simply bizarre.
There are dozens of arcade games, flight simulators, pinball machines and nickelodeons; the 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine used in the film "Driving Miss Daisy"; multiple suits of armor; ornate, 10-foot-tall candelabras; go-karts, bumper cars, buggies and all-terrain vehicles; and a selection of British military uniforms. A variety of antiques, paintings and statues are also going on the block.
Most of the items are priced conservatively. A Roland KR-1070 digital piano, for example, is estimated to sell for between $1,000 and $2,000. But the appraisals generally did not factor in the singer's celebrity, which could drive up the prices, particularly for the elaborate stage-worn costumes, jewel-encrusted gloves and other Jackson-specific paraphernalia.
The performer achieved staggering success in the 1980s and his landmark 1982 album, "Thriller," is considered far and away the best selling album of all time worldwide, with estimated sales in excess of 100 million. But in the 1990s, he became the target of child molestation accusations that damaged both his popularity and creative output; he has been acquitted of all charges.
"I think the best that can be said about Michael Jackson at this point is that he's famous," said J. Randy Taraborrelli, a journalist and biographer who has known Jackson since childhood. "His fame has a foundation, of course; that foundation is 'Thriller' and his amazing showmanship. But in more recent times, his fame has been the result of the controversy."
Indeed, in recent years, Jackson has had well-publicized money troubles. After reportedly falling behind on a $270 million loan, he closed the main house at Neverland Ranch in 2006. In November, he transferred the title of the ranch to an investment firm, though the singer is believed to have retained an interest in the property.
Jackson's representatives were not made available for comment for this article, but Taraborrelli said he does not believe the auction is a result of the singer's financial problems. It's been reported the entertainer is in talks to launch a comeback this summer.
Taraborrelli believes the 50-year-old Jackson may simply want to close a turbulent and often painful chapter of his life.
The auction got its start when Julien received a phone call in the middle of last year from Jackson's manager, who said the singer wanted to conduct his own sale.
"Michael Jackson had known who we were. We had done some work for his family members in the past," said Julien, who had met the performer through other auctions.
Julien and Nolan toured Neverland Ranch and began painstakingly cataloging the items. They have had several telephone conversations with the singer who is believed to live in Las Vegas after recently buying a home there on what he wanted to retain. On a day-to-day basis, Julien said the company has been working with Jackson's manager.
Julien and Nolan typically meet with the celebrities at length to discuss the stories behind their possessions in order to provide context and details in the catalogs. Some celebrities are more hands-on than others.
"Cher helped us with the catalog layout and how we styled the mannequins, etc. She was fully involved in the project," Nolan said.
In 2006, the company partnered with auction giant Sotheby's to sell a wide variety of the singer's clothes, art, jewelry and other possessions. Cher worked closely with Julien and Nolan to develop a catalog which in the introduction she refers to as "my labor of love" that she felt was representative of her.
"For days we sat on the floor and she talked about the items from New York or from Aspen or from her home here in Malibu. She reminisced back to the days with Sonny," Nolan said. "We saw the outfit she wore in 1965 at the Hilton in London when she and Sonny were thrown out of the Hilton for (violating the) dress code. As she told that story we laughed and she cried, and it was a fun experience."
Julien and Nolan like to think of themselves as some of the least likely people to be laughing, crying and sharing stories with the world's most famous celebrities. Julien grew up on a farm in Indiana, while Nolan had a similar childhood a half-world away in the Irish countryside.
A graduate of the Reppert School of Auctioneering in Indiana, Julien was introduced to the world of classic car auctions by family friend and Reppert instructor Mitchell Kruse. Julien spent several years at Kruse's auction company, Kruse International, during which time he "learned the whole process of auctions" and built a Rolodex of contacts including Jay Leno, Johnny Cash and a handful of auto-enthusiast celebrities.
In 1999, the company was sold to eBay Inc., at which point Julien went to work as an independent contractor for Sotheby's, running its entertainment auctions.
Shortly thereafter, Sotheby's and rival Christie's got caught in a high-profile price-fixing scandal that led the companies to pull back in various departments, including entertainment memorabilia. In 2003, Julien founded his company.
"He's really come along at the right time because other auction houses have stopped," said Laura Woolley, who worked for Sotheby's from 1997 until 2001. "There's been a little bit of breathing room in the market and a good space for someone to come in."
In 2005, Julien brought in Nolan, then a Merrill Lynch stockbroker, to run the finances. The company, which has 10 employees, makes its money through a 20 percent all-inclusive fee off the so-called hammer price, the final price paid by the winning bidder.
The pair said they love what they do, but they are rarely star struck. In fact, Nolan said, he often calls his mother just to find out more about the celebrities with whom he will be working.
"We're very respectful; we do go in with a business hat on our heads. We're not there to be fans and ooh and ahh," Nolan said.
Despite the indifference to celebrity culture, the company is adept at using star power to promote auctions. Julien said he has done more than 150 interviews with newspaper, Internet, television and radio reporters to discuss the Jackson auction. He has an upcoming profile in Conde Nast Portfolio Magazine and is set to appear on NBC's "Today."
During a recent meeting with the Business Journal, Julien received no fewer than six calls, mostly from the press.
The company also plans to take some of the items on a tour to places such as London and Dublin, Ireland, to generate international interest in the sale, which will be broadcast on the Auction Network, a Web site allowing people across the globe to participate in auctions.
The auction house has to walk a fine line, though, between promoting the auctions and exploiting the celebrities. To do that, the company takes pains to keep its office and warehouses secret. Its Web site simply lists a post office box number. While celebrities rarely visit its decidedly unglamorous headquarters near the Loyola Marymount University campus, aggressive tabloid reporters and paparazzi have been known to show up unannounced.
The company's promotional efforts have become perhaps more important as the eroding economy has chipped away at the pocket books of even the wealthiest collectors.
Al Hernandez, owner of Old Pro Gallery, a memorabilia shop at the Glendale Galleria, said business has taken a noticeable dip as the economic recession has set in. What's more, Jackson memorabilia such as unsigned personal photos taken at concerts has not sold well since his legal troubles.
"We haven't sold anything of Michael Jackson's in over a year," Hernandez said.
But even with the economic distress, there is a market for notable merchandise. An auction of late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's art collection held in Paris last week, featuring works from renowned artists such as Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, brought in a record $261 million.
Jackson's auction doesn't feature artwork of that caliber, but Taraborrelli, the biographer, said the pop singer's name still has a recognition factor that few celebrities enjoy and the stuff at auction will be unique to him.
"Michael is still thought of in many countries as the King of Pop because of his influence," Taraborrelli said. "Fame is fame, and people are interested in famous people."
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