King of Pop's Lots
Friday, April 6, 2007
NEW YORK, April 5 -- To claim its place in the pantheon, every great story about the Jackson showbiz family needs the following elements: tragedy, litigation and rhinoplasty.
Check, check and check.
A Manhattan auction house called Guernsey's announced Thursday that more than 1,000 lots of Jackson costumes, correspondence and gold records will be auctioned off at the Las Vegas Hard Rock hotel resort on May 30 and 31. Highlights of this gaudy bounty include the original test pressing of "I Want You Back," Janet Jackson's Mae West-style costume from 1974, and the contract for Jermaine Jackson's nose job.
This might sound like the world's tackiest yard sale, but it's more complicated than that. Proceeds will go not to the Jackson clan but to a Boca Raton, Fla., company called Universal Express, which acquired the collection from a New Jersey businessman who fought the Jacksons in an epic legal battle of more than 10 years. Michael Jackson is apparently furious about the sale, and his spokeswoman said the former King of Pop was considering legal action.
"We are going to use all means legally available to us to keep his memorabilia from being auctioned off," said Raymone K. Bain of the D.C. public relations firm Davis, Bain and Associates.
Barring a court order, it's game on, so Guernsey's offered the media a sneak peek of the merchandise. Michael's black fedora hat was on view, as were Randy's space-age stage boots circa 1984 and the handwritten lyrics of the 1970 Jackson 5 hit "ABC," apparently in Tito's hand. There's also a 1984 telegram from Marlon Brando offering Michael a little pre-show pep talk: "Please try not to make an ass of yourself and for God's sakes don't fall in the orchestra pit."
Those who can't travel to Sin City can bid through eBay, in real time. Guernsey's isn't estimating how much the sale will bring in because -- well, the invoice for a celebrity nose job isn't a Picasso, is it? You can't exactly check prior sales history and make an educated guess.
"What is Michael Jackson's hat worth?" asked Guernsey's President Arlan Ettinger, as he offered a mini-tour. "Five hundred dollars? Five thousand? Fifty thousand? Who knows?"
TV reporters and cameras streamed into Guernsey's tiny showroom-office on the bottom floor of a townhouse on the Upper East Side. Christie's it is not: At 1 p.m., the place was filled with the smell of two pizzas, delivered for the company's employees. Ettinger, a bald and tweedy man with a dry sense of humor, said that nobody from the Jackson family had contacted him to object to the sale. He added that a portion of the proceeds would go to charity, though he could name neither the portion nor the charity.
A call to Universal Express yesterday was not returned. The company is "revolutionizing the way luggage is transported in the U.S. and around the world," according to a news release handed out by Guernsey's. How this mission led to the celebrity tchotchke business is anyone's guess.
The origin of this sale is the sort of story Dickens might have told if he'd ever seen "Access Hollywood." It starts with Henry Vaccaro, a contractor who works in Asbury Park, N.J., and who was once owner of a company called Kramer Guitars. On the phone yesterday he explained that in 1993, he sued the Jackson family for reneging on a deal to rescue Kramer from bankruptcy (they would have received, in exchange, a share of the business). A year later, he won a $1.4 million judgment against eight of the 11 members of the Jackson family. But he had a hard time collecting the money.
"In a deposition, the mother, Katherine, lied and said she was broke," said Vaccaro, who is 67. "She said her furs were fake, had no cars, no bank accounts, nothing."
Vaccaro hired a private detective to get a more accurate inventory and discovered that Mr. and Mrs. Jackson owned nine cars, three of them Rolls-Royces, he says. He came tantalizingly close to restitution a few times, most notably in 1999, when federal marshals seized a California warehouse filled with Jackson stuff. But he had to give that back -- along with two of the Rollses he'd managed to nab with the aid of a court order -- when Jackson family members declared bankruptcy. (The court-appointed bankruptcy trustees demanded it.)
In 2002 Vaccaro won a court-mandated auction for the family memorabilia. It turned out that his representative in court was the only guy in the room that day to bring a certified check. For $65,000 he owned the whole lot.
"I would have taken $100,000 to settle this whole thing back when we were taking depositions," Vaccaro says, "but the lawyers for the Jacksons said, 'We're not giving you anything.' That spurred me on."
So how much did he net in the sale to Universal Express? He isn't saying.
"But I'll tell you this, I can afford the meatballs with my spaghetti. And I don't have to order the house wine."