When Anne Neucom saw June Carter Cash's tan sheath dress, with its mink-trimmed hem and matching gold velvet car coat, she knew she had to have it. "It was the perfect dress," says Neucom, who traveled from Toronto with boyfriend Steven Joyce to attend the New York auction of June and Johnny Cash's belongings. "It fits like a glove."
And so Lot 102 (eventual selling price $2,750, size 4-6) became the dress that Neucom will wear on her wedding day. It was one of more than 700 items up for bid at Sotheby's, the venerable auction house on New York's Upper East Side. A year and two days after Cash's death at age 71, the house is in the midst of a three-day sell-off of Cash family belongings, concluding this afternoon.
Items up for bid range from the intimate (Johnny's Orvis fisherman's jacket; June's childhood shoes; a tin cup from Folsom prison, which sold for $2,600) to the baroque (a Belgian carved walnut buffet; a 1987 Rolls-Royce) to the comparatively mundane (canceled checks; Johnny's driver's license; a plastic Louis Armstrong electric doll). Some of the last items to be sold will include one of Cash's trademark black dusters and his proposed song list for the upcoming posthumous release "American V."
Initially expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million in total, the auction generated $1.24 million in its first day and more than $1 million on its second. The proceedings, which are open to the public, are a testament to Cash's universal appeal, attracting a mix of hipsters, men in business suits, collectors and, Sotheby's expected, fans from London, Germany and Australia. "It spans generations, and it spans geography," says Lee Dunbar, senior vice president and head of Sotheby's collectibles department.
Sharon Graves, a widow from Grand Island, Neb., bought the biggest-ticket item so far, a 1960s custom acoustic guitar for $110,000, she says, to add to a collection in memory of her husband. Richard Perry, from Columbia, Tenn., was planning to bid on Lot 371, a Country Music Wax Museum bust of Johnny Cash. Marc Royer, a pastor from Goshen, Ind., and lifelong Johnny Cash fan, bid on the platinum sales award for the album "Johnny Cash at San Quentin."
"To me, this is a huge honor, to get some collectibles and memorabilia from a singer-songwriter that just impacted me so much," Royer says. "I've bought every one of his albums, but I wanted something more than just recordings to remember him by."
Many attendees have stories about meeting Cash outside his hotel once, or on a plane. They like to talk about how Johnny signed an autograph for them, how gracious he was. Many have come to New York for the first time. Others are bidding over the Internet (at www.Ebayliveauctions.com). Still others can't afford to bid at all (even the least expensive items usually cost hundreds of dollars, and Sotheby's, for better or worse, doesn't take credit cards). Few seem sure what to make of the union between the famously down-home Cashes and rarefied Sotheby's, surely the last place on Earth anyone expected to find Mother Maybelle Carter's handmade banjo lute (final sale price, $3,250).
But one look at the auction's array of Waterford crystal, Frederic Remington sculptures and Tiffany silver (not to mention June's well-worn Bergdorf Goodman charge card, also for sale) is enough to suggest that the Cashes were country people with city tastes.
"June liked to have a nice house. She liked to set a nice table," says Dunbar. "Johnny liked to say that June had a black belt in shopping. [Daughter] Rosanne liked to say that Johnny would have been happy with a knife and a fork."
Though Johnny Cash always seemed to belong to everyone, even the rich, many auction attendees were suspicious of the venue. "I used to know him back in the '70s," says auction-goer Dewitt Peterkin, of Dover, Del. "I don't think he'd like it at all."
According to Dunbar, June and Johnny contacted Sotheby's themselves in 2000 with the intention of paring down their lives: After 40 years of touring, the Cashes had accumulated enough memorabilia and objets d'art to fill their house in Hendersonville, Tenn., as well as their now-shuttered museum, the House of Cash. June eventually decided there was too much she didn't want to part with and called off the sale. After her death from heart surgery complications in May 2003, Johnny contacted Sotheby's again.
The auction was gathered over the course of a year; Cash died early in the process. "This is something my father would have had us do," says John Carter Cash, the only son of June and Johnny, who came from Tennessee to attend the sale. "It's sad to see so many things go in so many different directions, but my father and mother considered that as entertainers and musicians, they belonged to the fans."
The younger Cash claims that after the death of June, his father didn't want to see things she had once owned. "He stopped going down to the first floor anymore. After my mother died, they became just things to him, that reminded him of her," he says.
John Carter Cash retained items such as his father's desk, his favorite coat and love letters between his parents. "It's things of the heart that matter most," he says.
Fans agree: They were motivated in part by the storied love affair between the Cashes, who were married 35 years and died within months of each other. Neucom and Joyce hadn't even decided to get married until they came into town for the auction. Once they arrived, they quickly obtained a marriage license and planned an impromptu ceremony in Central Park. Neucom will wear June's dress; Joyce will be wearing Johnny's boots, also purchased at the auction.
"We're not the biggest fans ever, but we love the love story behind them, and the music," Neucom says.
Like many bidders at estate auctions, those at the Cash sale seem motivated mostly by sentiment. The closer an object to its user and the more personal, the higher its value. This is why items such as a framed picture of Elvis Presley with the inscription "June I love you . . . Elvis" (selling price $15,000) or Johnny's spoon necklace ($4,000) were going for 10 times their estimated value, while a Belleek porcelain creamer set barely met its lowest estimated price. Any music-associated paraphernalia -- concert posters, Grammy Awards -- inevitably sell well, as likely will anything featured in Cash's video for "Hurt," which was partly filmed at the Hendersonville house. Musical instruments, which include Johnny's grand piano and countless guitars, were expected to fetch well over their asking price, as were the country music Hall of Famer's stage costumes, including several black suits custom-made by legendary Nashville designer Manuel.
Mary Lynn Cabrall, the co-author of a book on famed cowboy tailor Nudie, and an auction patron, figures even the most obscure Cash family keepsake, whether it's a guitar pick or a bread plate, has more resonance than people might think. "His music and his legacy will certainly survive, but when they start digging up stuff [hundreds of years from now], they're digging up plates and spoons. . . . After all, it's only stuff. But it's the stuff that survives."