The window outside Christie’s
James Brown? James Brown!
Even in death, James Brown has remained the hardest working man in show business, leaving a trail of legal wreckage in his wake. There have been paternity suits, changed locks, and Brown’s body literally chillin’ in a temperature-controlled room in his own house until lawyers could sort it all out. The 329 lots of the James Brown Collection for sale at Christie’s last Thursday, after having been cleared the previous Monday by a South Carolina judge, represented not so much debris as biography transformed into an artifactual diaspora.
And so before 10am, at the front of the air-conditioned room, a battalion of panther-black mannequin torsos stood guard, each in a jumpsuit with “SEX” rhinestoned across the stomachs, sculpted chests exposed above, the letter “J” enclosing the necks. Some 75 blocks south of where it was recorded in 1962, organist/MC Lucas “Fats” Gonder’s voice sounded once more. “So now ladies and gentleman, it is star time, are you ready for STAR TIME?,” the voice announced to a slowly filling room. “Million-dollar seller!” Gonder reminded. And, after Live at the Apollo played as unobtrusively as possible for an album by a man nicknamed Mr. Dynamite, the Amazing Mr. Please Please himself (the star of the show), the Auctioneer John Hays got down to the business of selling off the personal belongings of James Brown, deceased.
Auctioneer Hays’ rap came in a snarky mechanical sing-song, the type Brown’s nonsense-flecked exhortations was designed to combat, the rising bids displayed in USD, EUR, GBP, CHF, JPY, and HKD on a flatscreen over Hays’ right shoulder as he sent the objects into the world. The bidders—including a smiling Paul Shaffer—bid casually as Hays identified them. A mellow, gray-haired black gentleman—the Man in Stripes, per the parallel red, tan, and blue lines of his turned-collar Polo shirt—glanced at a newspaper while flicking his paddle, picking up several of the first sales, including a childhood photograph ($5,000) and a miniature keyboard ($750).
Though it only drew around $800,000 of the projected $2 million, allegedly being used to pay off Brown’s tax debts, the Collection did not disappoint. There were, of course, the usual results of a life in music: gold records, signed guitars, awards (Shaffer bought a Rhythm and Blues plaque for $1,000) and vintage instruments. But there was also plenty that was uniquely Brown’s, from a seemingly endless stream of white suits ($750, $875, $1,000, $500, etc.), a Sex Machine belt ($4,750), a Republican Presidential Task Force card (1989 Life Member, $500), a poem written by Muhammad Ali (“The World’s Greatest Poet, King of All Poets,” $25,000), 83 pairs of sunglasses ($8,750), ten pairs of seriously platformed shoes ($15,000), hair supplies (sold with an apparently self-taken Craigslist-style Polaroid of Brown with his hair in some of the 80 rollers, $6,000), a dome hair dryer ($10,625), and a red leather living room set (Shaffer dropped out just short of the $40,000 needed). “It’d look great home… or on the set,” Hays dripped.
Given the rapid pace, roughly 60 lots an hour, many of the more emotionally weighted objects often flitted by with nary a second glance. Most intriguing were a series of handwritten notes spread throughout, perhaps unsent (all viewable online). These ranged from urgently freaked (“Polydor is trying kill me off…” $8,750) to outright romantic (“To Miss Viagra, from Mr. Viagra, JB GFOS”—that’s Godfather of Soul, lest you forget—on the back of a greeting card titled “Looks Like I Have a Busy Day Tomorrow,” $625). Break-up letters are included, too. “I hope our short Relation—got you on the Goodfoot,” he tells one paramour. “Im, going to give you another six thousand so you won,t have to go to work to quick but you,ll be Fine. I,ll always be your Friend [sic]” ($2,375).
As the bids came in, financial ping-pong continued with little drama save the occasional snide aside tucked into Hays’ rhythm (“That’s a Sotheby’s bid,” he drawled at one point), Shaffer reaching for his paddle once in a while (as for a Hammond, $10,000, which he didn’t raise for, though he did grab JB’s medical bracelet for $32,500), and an occasional award shaped like broccoli (The America’s Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, $400). One might’ve groaned when realizing that the proceedings were going to continue for another four or five hours. “FREE JAMES BROWN!” he might want to shout for old time’s sake. But that was covered too, by Lot 221, titled “Inmate Inventory,” from the South Carolina Department of Corrections, July 1989, $4,375.