Auction of Memorabilia at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch Has Art, Clothing, Strangeness

A collection of nearly 2,000 items from the singer's Neverland ranch in California was unveiled to reporters on Monday. The auction at which they were to be sold has been canceled.
By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., April 13 -- If we are what we collect, what can we learn from the yard sale of the century?

Specifically, what do dozens of bronze garden sculptures of children, mannequin butlers and a red velvet throne reveal about their owner, Michael Jackson? An unprecedented glimpse of the King of Pop's stuff -- unveiled to reporters Monday in advance of an auction -- seems to speak of loneliness. And a man who really liked to shop.

"What he loved, he collected in mass quantity," says Kathleen Guzman, the auctioneer. "What is unusual, more so than any other celebrity memorabilia sale, is what a pack rat he was."

The nearly 2,000 items are from Neverland, the Los Olivos, Calif., wine country property that Jackson left in 2005 after being acquitted of child molestation charges. Until April 21, the stuff is on exhibit to the public, followed by a four-day live auction to bidders from all over the world. (Jackson is scheduled to start a London concert tour in July.) The sale is the latest in a series of maneuvers Jackson has made while mired in a web of financial troubles -- troubles he amassed in recent decades through multimillion-dollar shopping sprees, hefty legal bills, court settlements, tax liabilities and the steep upkeep of his backyard amusement park. Last year, Neverland faced foreclosure (until a private equity group bought the loan to the property). A financial reorganization later required Jackson to move out his personal items.

Hence, the sale. Jackson hired Julien's Auctions -- a Los Angeles-based firm that caters to celebrities -- to haul out and sell most of Neverland's contents. (Since then, Jackson's MJJ Productions has unsuccessfully sued Julien's, claiming their agreement was fraudulent; Julien's attorney denies it, saying Jackson wants the items back to seal a deal on Neverland to an interested buyer.)

The items are being exhibited in an abandoned mall, where the front of a makeshift auction house, adorned by the open gates of Neverland, evokes an award show. Red carpet spills out from black double doors, settling between two black pillars. Security guards touch their earpieces and mumble into ChapStick-size walkie-talkies. A limo sits between two winged angel statues.

"It's an auction, but it's also an event, a monumental, historical event," says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien's Auctions.

Inside, the carpet leads to a 12-foot-high fabric painting of Jackson in Elizabethan attire. In the picture, he holds out a crown on a gold-tasseled pillow, as if to say, "This, too, is for sale." The former child star's artistic achievements sprawl across the room: his MTV Moon Man and AMA awards, his platinum albums. The reclusive eccentric, famed in recent decades for his plastic surgery, his appearance at the molestation trial wearing pajamas, his close friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and a chimp, is everywhere -- in paintings, in statues, in bitty figurines, in sad-looking wax figures. One stands outside his open Rolls-Royce limo, hand clenched. Two flank his empty red velvet throne. One has light hair on its lip. Another offers a melancholy wave from inside a large plexiglass box, like a reverse Pinocchio: the man who once was real, but is no longer.

"I try not to look at these," says a security guard. "They give me nightmares."

A familiar suction-and-puff sound beckons from across the room. Glide past the glittering jackets and body suits, a jewel encrusted crown, the white glove. ("I really want to try that on," a British reporter whispers.) Suddenly, here is a seven-foot-high Darth Vader, in Lego form. "The force is with you, young Skywalker," it bellows between suction-puff sounds, its large, red light saber aglow. Here are life-size statues of Superman, Spider-Man and Marilyn Monroe. Here are rows of pinball machines.

The sound of tinkling bells wafts from shelf after shelf of dainty music boxes, spinning with dancing Mickeys and Minnies. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, the Aristocats -- all stare from movie posters plastered against the wall. Why, ladies and gentleman, we have entered Disneyana, Jackson's impressive obsession with all things Disney. There's something wistful, something happy about being surrounded by the familiar images. Or . . . is there?

Here's a painting on the hood of a golf cart, portraying Jackson as Peter Pan. Here's a vibrant, colorful painting depicting Jackson leading an endless parade of children down a daisy-dotted hillside, with a girl hugging his right arm and a boy hanging adoringly on his left. And, eek, here's a large, plastic motorized infant moving its limbs up and down in a cradle, its wooden fingers missing.

"That is just creepy," says an onlooker.

And here is Jackson's grandmotherly side -- the happy porcelain figurines in pastels, wooden bird cages and wingback chairs in neutrals. There are stacks of ornate dishes, gold-trimmed teacups and gleaming, delicate silverware, most of which appears pristine, untouched. Lonely? Yes, lonely. That loneliness seems reflected in the eyes of the many mannequins -- the lace-headed maidens, the red-eyed, tired and purposeless butlers with empty trays and hair in their ears. Were they, and this friendly, curly-haired grandmother mannequin sitting at the antiqued piano, meant to keep the homeowner company? Did he appreciate their silent service?

Yes, perhaps their silence. For here it is again in these dozens of bronze garden statues of joyous children and cherubs on yellowed grass in the mall's courtyard. They are frozen in action -- going down a slide, playing ring around the rosy, doing headstands -- all around a giant, four-sided clock that has stopped just after 11. Are these the boys and girls of his lost childhood? What does this wood-carved poem among them tell us? "Civilizations crumble, ages pass," it reads. " . . . But dew drops sparkle when children play. . . . Those are the moments when babies smile."

Now it's time for the buyers to smile, it seems. "It's sort of like going to Disneyland," Guzman says. "I think that will translate to a happy feeling in the salesroom."

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