PARIS -- Poor Marilyn Monroe. During her life she was idolized, deified, some might say brutalized as an object of desire. Now, more than 30 years after her death, she is to be commodified. Literally. No less an institution than the Monnaie de Paris, ancient mint to the Emperor Charlemagne, has created a memorial coin honoring the late American actress.
Not your run-of-the-mill 10-franc piece, however. In a move that's sure to liven up collectors' conventions from here to Boise, the venerable mint's creation bears Monroe's face and name on one side, her glorious nude image on the other.
This is not entirely new for the French, for their money has long represented airy concepts such as liberte' and e'galite' in corporeal splendor. But experts believe the Monroe medal marks the first time a French coin has borne a portrait of a celebrity in her birthday suit since Henri II honored his late mistress thus during the French Renaissance.
"The ancient Greeks showed heroes with all their attributes, and in the 19th-century coins represented ideals," said a numismatist with the Paris firm of Claude Burgan. "But this is unusual, for the numismatic art is generally quite prudish."
Not so fast, Gauls. Roger Richman, a California lawyer who represents celebrity estates, has launched legal action against the French treasury to halt sales of the coin. Asked whether sexual morality is at stake, Richman's French representative, Jean-Michel Biard, said, "Absolutely."
"Yes, Marilyn Monroe had some nude photos taken of her -- but it is a question of image," Biard said. "It is not right to use someone who is dead for all these crazy purposes and advertisements."
Well, not exactly. Biard admits the estate might accept a "reasonable" settlement from the French government, for fear "the court would not follow us in our logic" about the danger to Marilyn's image, he said. "We won't overcharge," he added.
The matter dates to 1985, when the Parisian mint offered a limited-edition 12-coin set portraying noted film actors and actresses. Monroe's nude portrait, it was thought, would best capture her cinematic talent. The bronze coins sold for about $50 each. Abraham Lincoln, eat your heart out.
"It was not a very specific nude -- there was nothing pornographic at all," said Patrice Cahart, director of the Monnaie. "It was purely artistic, an honor."
All was well until about a year ago, when a Japanese vendor decided his countrymen might crave that kind of art. He ordered a special edition of the Monroe coin, this time in gold, to sell for several hundred dollars each.
Richman first noticed the gold Marilyn when a few samples appeared in the United States. The lawyer represents Monroe's inheritors -- including her acting teacher and a psychiatric hospital in Great Britain -- under a 1985 California law banning the unlicensed use of celebrity images. Other noted estates represented by Richman include those of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, Biard said.
To the best of his knowledge, he added, nude images of Freud and Groucho have never been requested.
Richman challenged the mint's right to sell the coin, prompting suspension of sales. And the dispute has gotten testy -- Cahart said he cannot remember anyone ever turning down the honor of being minted by the ancient French coinery. But all the parties agree that a huge sum of money is at stake. Marilyn Monroe's image is among the top 10 celebrity images in the world, bringing in millions of dollars for Richman and his clients yearly while gracing eyeglasses, beach blankets, T-shirts, even a Marilyn Merlot wine. In all, some 85 products peddle Monroe's memory worldwide, Biard said. France is close behind the United States and ahead of Japan in cashing in on her legend, with about 25 Marilyn items on sale here.
Marilyn Monroe yogurt and men's underwear are among the new French goods in the worked, Biard said.
"Marilyn is incontestably the celebrity who is most in demand -- she represents one-quarter of Richman's business," Biard said. "She has a sure value, a very good product."
Now, if a deal is worked out and the Monroe coins go back on sale, the late screen star will have been fully commodified. Biard and Cahart said a tidy sum is involved, though they refused to specify the amount.
In the unlikely event the case goes to court, it may also set some precedents for international trademark law, Biard said. Thus, the question of who owns Monroe's nude image could contribute to the settlement of intellectual property questions, now under discussion at General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Geneva.