What is the worth of a man? Is he the sum total of his resume? Is he appraised by his income and portfolio? Is he valued by his character and deeds? Is he measured by the number of friends who say he will live on in their hearts?
Or, could the answer actually be much simpler? As we learned last month, the value of a man is about 45 grand.
That was the top bid at Julien’s Auction in Los Angeles for a carved Japanese wooden box containing the ashes of Truman Capote. That’s right — the mortal remains of the man who wrote “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The associate of Harper Lee. The eccentric talk show guest. Born 1924. Died 1984.
The famed author himself was the centerpiece of a sale of his personal effects from the estate of his closest friend and confidante, Joanne Carson. You’ve of course heard of her husband, Johnny. In 2015, the ex-wife of the late talk-show icon passed away, some thirty years after bidding farewell to her friend Capote.
Mrs. Carson had saved many items belonging to the writer, including his ice skates, his shirts and a set of his prescription bottles, which alone brought in a cool $5,000 at the sale. The going rate for child-proof orange plastic containers that did NOT belong to someone famous is, so I hear, rather modest.
Of course, the event drew media attention for its star lot and for the sheer outrageous bad taste of putting a person’s corpus delicti — no matter how celebrated — on the auction block. I read somewhere that this is the first time that human ashes have ever been sold to the public. Even given Truman Capote’s penchant for the morbid and the odd, this seems beyond the pale.
Of course, fans have long collected personal souvenirs of celebrities. Last year, a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair fetched $25,000 at an auction in Dallas. Around the same time, a hair clipping from Napoleon only brought $13,000 at a New Zealand sale. Neither came close to the $115,000 shelled out for a greased strand from Elvis Presley that sold in 2002.
By contrast, locks from Keanu Reeves are selling on eBay for $11.95 each, plus postage.
In the high-stakes world of bidding on famous hair, I would worry about authenticity. Forgery in the collectible autograph business is rampant, so I can only imagine how many unscrupulous people might cut a tuft of their own hair, put it in a box under the bed for 200 years, and then cash it in claiming that it was shaved right off the head of Andrew Jackson.
The audacity connected with famous artifacts is totally unhinged. During the 2008 election, an eBay seller offered what he said were the unfinished remains of a breakfast eaten by then-Sen. Barack Obama while he was on the campaign trail. The seller reassuringly included a certificate of authenticity, which could be framed and matted together with the waffle and sausage link.
I am not suggesting that the person who wrote a five-figure check for Truman Capote was duped, though Wikipedia tells a sordid tale of those ashes being divided among two friends, stolen, returned, stolen again and returned. In 2013, a Broadway producer offered to fly Mrs. Carson to a showing of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” if she brought the box containing its author.
She declined, apparently feeling more squeamish than the anonymous actor who once willed his own skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company, with the request that it be used in a production of “Hamlet.” He had always wanted to play Yorick.
I’m not sure what this world is coming to. Which is worse? The auction house that sold Truman Capote, or the anonymous collector who bought him? Or the hack newspaper columnist who really needs to vet his material better?