Hundreds of fake Marilyn Monroe memorabilia are doing the rounds.
Tujunga resident Jill Adams, who runs a Marilyn Monroe fan website called www.forevermarilyn.com, groaned as she recalled the time her mother surprised her with a pair of the late actress' shoes, size 9.
"Clearly, they weren't her shoes," Adams said. "Marilyn wore size 7. The person who sold it to her admitted it wasn't Marilyn's size but said her feet sometimes swelled. My mother got taken for over $700."
If the collectibles market is to be believed, Marilyn Monroe either signed, wore, owned or saved thousands of items - clothing, lingerie, jewellery, shoes, hats - that continue to fetch a pretty penny.
But there are only so many items Monroe could have possibly amassed before dying from an overdose at age 36 on August 4, 1962. What's more, Monroe wasn't a clotheshorse, says Ernest W. Cunningham, author of the book The Ultimate Marilyn.
Despite her glamorous image, Monroe "was known to wear blue jeans and sweatshirts most of the time. When she went to premieres or parties, she would go to the (20th Century) Fox wardrobe department and pick something out," he said. "If you look at many photos of her at parties, you can recognise the same dresses over and over".
Allegations of fraud, such as those lodged against a Long Beach exhibit of Monroe memorabilia, continuing at the Queen Mary through April 15, rarely get the attention of law enforcement. More often than not, it's buyer beware with Marilyn memorabilia.
The allure of Monroe, more than four decades after her death from an overdose of sleeping pills, is still powerful.
Forbes.com recently published a survey titled Highest-Earning Dead Celebrities, which compared the money their estates earn each year from sales of licensed books, recordings, coffee cups, posters and advertisements, among other things. Monroe ranked seventh - the only woman in the top 13 - with earnings of more than $8 million a year. Elvis Presley, the King of rock ?n' roll, ranks No. 1 on the list with $45 million a year.
The official Monroe web site, www.marilynmonroe.com, has received more than 2 billion hits since its inception about seven years ago, according to those who run the site on behalf of her estate.
A signed 9-by-14-inch photo of the actress can command as much as $30,000 to $40,000. And in the last three months of 2005 alone, eBay auctioneers sold more than 35,000 items identified as authentic Monroe memorabilia.
The value of her collectibles skyrocketed in October 1999, sparked by the headline-grabbing sale of the sequined, flesh- coloured dress she wore to serenade late US president John F. Kennedy on his birthday in May 1962, just three months before her death.
The dress came from a treasure trove of authenticated items, such as clothing and jewellery , that had been stored in a Manhattan warehouse - for years. They belonged to her estate, which was inherited by Anna Strasberg from her husband, the late Lee Strasberg, who was Monroe's acting coach and confidant. Christie's auction house had placed an estimated value on the items at $2.5 million to $3 million. Instead, the cache brought in $13 million.
The internet has been flooded with items that Monroe purportedly left behind while visiting her friends and co-workers, including studio hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff; Monroe's personal makeup man, Allan "Whitey" Snyder; her personal secretary, May Reis; and Elaine Barrymore, the widow of actor John Barrymore. All are dead, making it nearly impossible to verify the "certificates of authenticity" that accompany items sold outside her estate.
"About seven or eight years ago, items suddenly started appearing from ?Elaine Barrymore'," recalled Greg Schreiner, an avid collector and a long-time member of the Los Angeles-based Marilyn Remembered fan club. "All items that she said Marilyn accidentally left at her home when she was visiting. At first you think, ?OK, maybe'. But when it started getting into the 200 and 300 items, you have to go, ?Wait a minute ...' "
There are also questions about the authenticity of "hundreds of items" that are said to come from the actress' foster sister, Eleanor " Bebe" Goddard. Schreiner, who was a close friend of Goddard, said he was going through her papers after her death in February 2000 when he said he discovered letters suggesting that Goddard and a New York collectible dealer were scheming to sell fake Monroe memorabilia.
Controversy also surrounds a birthday card that Monroe is said to have made for Kennedy. The card, which sold at auction recently for $78,000, includes a 9-inch-by-12-inch watercolour of a long-stemmed red rose. "Happy Birthday President Kennedy from Marilyn Monroe" is scrawled at the bottom of the card in blue ink.
But sceptics ask: Why does the card carry two more puzzling inscriptions?
In black ink are the words: "Happy Birthday, Marilyn," followed by "June 1, 1962" - the actress' own birth date - and "My best wishes, Marilyn". Could it be that the card was given to Monroe, and then the Kennedy inscription added later, to boost its value?
Darren Julien, whose Hollywood auction house sold the card, harbours "no doubts whatsoever" about the card's authenticity.
There are few iron-clad ways to prove that an item belonged to Monroe.
Dealers often rely on photos of Monroe wearing a particular piece of clothing or jewellery. After all, she was one of the world's most photographed women.
A lack of such photographic "evidence" became an issue last spring when the Hollywood Entertainment Museum was preparing to showcase an exhibit of Monroe memorabilia owned by Chicago collector Robert W. Otto.
After unpacking the crates, museum president and founder Donelle Dadigan became concerned that the collection did not come with photos. "I couldn't put any of the pieces together - how she would have worn it, where she would have worn it," Dadigan recalled. The museum also was baffled to find that Monroe's shoes came in varying sizes, from size 5 1/2 to 8 1/2. "That really got us jumping up and down, feeling someone was trying to pull a fast one on us," said museum attorney George G. Braunstein.
The museum cancelled its exhibition, but Otto's collection moved on to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where tickets to the Marilyn exhibit go for $22.95 each. Otto told The Los Angeles Times in November that he doesn't have many photos to go along with the clothing, jewellery and other accessories that make up the displayed collection because these were not the kinds of items that the actress wore to photo shoots, premieres and parties. Otto's attorney, Richard Harris of Chicago, insisted the collection is authentic and added that he has the documentation to prove it.
Not so, says Mark Bellinghaus, a Los Angeles-based collector with his own Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. He and Cunningham, the author, are equally convinced that some items in the collection are fraudulent. The bulk of it is said to have come from a relative of Monroe's one-time husband, baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. But DiMaggio's long-time attorney, citing the baseball player's penchant for privacy, said he would have never given away Monroe's belongings.
What is real?
There are plenty of theories about how to spot an authentic Marilyn Monroe signature - and each new one has the potential to spur fraud.
Jill Adams, of www.forevermarilyn.com, said she was watching the PBS-TV show Antiques Roadshow awhile back when an expert appraiser on the show insisted the actress almost always signed her name in red ink.
"That is absolute rubbish," Adams said. "The next day on eBay, there were over 50 autographs in red ink of Marilyn Monroe. They cited the Antiques Roadshow. It drove us mad."
Clark Kidder, author of the book Marilyn Monroe: Cover to Cover, whose expertise on Monroe's handwriting is often sought by collectors, said the actress almost always signed her name in black ink.
"Occasionally one can be found in red or green or pencil," he said.
Her signature "evolved as she aged", Kidder added. "When she was younger, it was real legible and should always have a distinct right slant to it and loopy M's. The ?l-y' in Marilyn almost appears as a figure 8. As she aged, she signed her name in a flurry and a rush."
Marilyn's birthday gift to Kennedy
One of the more unusual items to come on the auction block is a gold Rolex that Marilyn Monroe purportedly presented to late US President John F. Kennedy at the 1962 Madison Square Garden gala at which the actress famously sang Happy Birthday, Mr President.
Stamped in gilt letters on a burgundy red leather cushion at the bottom of the watch case are the words "Happy Birthday Mr President".
At the bottom of the case was a paper disk with a red hand- coloured border and the following verse:
"A HEARTFELT PLEA ON YOUR BIRTHDAY
Let lovers breathe their sighs
And roses bloom and music sound
Let passion burn on lips and eyes
And pleasures merry work go round
Let golden sunshine flood the sky
AND LET ME LOVE OR LET ME DIE!"
Before the watch was auctioned for $120,000, Bill Panagopulos, founder of Alexander Autographs in Cos Cob, Connecticut, wrote a detailed account for would-be bidders about the watch's origin. The watch apparently ended up with Kennedy's White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell, who is now dead, and later found its way to an English pawnbroker who caters to the rich, according to Panagopulos. The auctioneer disclosed that he had hired a private investigator to determine if it was a forgery.
"Everything about the watch was right - the serial number, the engraving, the $5,000 antique gold box it came in," Panagopulos recalled.
"Had the watch had rock-solid provenance, it could easily have sold in excess of $1 million. But with the provenance that was available at the time the watch sold, it still fetched a final price of $120,000 plus premium."
Panagopulos noted that "nobody has come forward since then to say anything negative about it".