The Auction as Wunderkammern: Michael Jackson, Nan Goldin, and Liberace

Michael Jackson’s entire life was published in seven auction catalogs, five of which are available for free public viewing on the internet.  The objects up for bidding are organized into simple disciplines: garden statuary, outdoor furniture, decorative arts, antiques, paintings, amusements, arcade games, “Disneyana”, career memorabilia.  Individual lots offer a surprising range of objects: framed Asian textiles, an Indiana Jones pinball machine,  a “Billie Jean” fedora, an American Music Award for “We Are the World,” patio furniture, “Original artwork by Macaulay Culkin,” a mutoscope from 1910, and life-size wax figures of Jackson himself.


Julien’s Auction catalogue for the Collection of Michael Jackson.  Image: Shaan Kokin/Julien’s Auctions; from The Guardian.

In Paris, Nan Goldin put her own trove of curiosities up for sale (via MAN and Modern Art Obsession).  Her dildo is the most talked-about object of the more modest 25 lots (Jackson’s auction includes over 1,000), but Goldin’s collection also presents a fascinating range of objects; ciabachrome prints by the artist, taxidermy pigeons, nineteenth century European medallions, and  intricate pieces of twentieth century Dutch furniture are among the most noteworthy.

d5190581l“Deux Pigeons Naturalises”, from Nan Goldin auction, image from Christies.

Browsing through the digital pages of the auction catalogs, I was struck immediately by the rawness of these collections.  Although Jackson’s auction is grouped categorically, for the most part the objects are presented in a haphazard way.  A fairly classical piece of American furniture entitled “Victorian Cheval Mirror” is one page away from the very 90s-stylized (and strange) Playmates for a Lonely Child painting by David Nordahl.

Although formal curation plays a role in many personal collections, most still represent the dynamic nature of the human personality; objects likely to be considered a judgment lapse if found in a museum will still be collected by an individual, for reasons such as ample funds to purchase frivolously and the desire to express identity through objects.  Institutional collections, on the other hand, are expected to represent a specific mission and cannot be purchased “on a whim.”

Celebrity collections such as Jackson’s and Goldin’s have an interesting appeal when put up for auction because their display is commodity-driven: we see them as a full collection that has not been edited for a specific audience or integrity (although it seems plausible in Jackson’s case the collection was edited for PR purposes).  In this absence of curation during a time when “curating” is highly valued (I recently saw a box of various eyeshadow colors that attributed the combination to a “curator”), the online auction catalogs of Michael Jackson and Nan Goldin can evoke the classic wunderkammern, or curiosity cabinet, from which museums originated.

Lawrence Weschler reconsiders the concept of wonder in his book on the Museum of Jurassic TechnologyMr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.  When discussing curiosity cabinets with Director Emeritus of the Getty John Walsh, Weschler notes Walsh’s response:

“… in the earlier collections [wunderkammern], you had the wonders of God spread out there cheek-by-jowl with the wonders of man, both presented as aspects of the same thing, which is to say the Wonder of God.'” (61)

Although there is much to be learned through thoughtful juxtapositions and displays of objects, there are also certain truths revealed when seemingly unlike but equally fascinating objects end up together within a single space.  One of the best museums to experience this effect is the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.  Although Liberace famously plotted his museum’s existence for the later portion of his career, going through the organization’s two sites (both within the same strip mall) was similar to perusing the auctions of Jackson and Goldin.  All three collections contain overly elaborate furniture scattered among representations of their respective careers and personally distinct objects.  Seeing Jackson’s extreme use of rhinestones and crystals in his performance clothing beside his candelabras, ornate pianos, self-designed limousines and unusual decorative pieces was particularly reminiscent of walking through Liberace’s belongings.

michael-jacksons-auction-023Jacket from Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour (1984), Image: photograph by Shaan Kokin/Julien’s Auctions; from The Guardian.

Although going through such collections may initially seem more comparable to reading Us Weekly than experiencing a meaningful mediation on wonder, Dave Hickey found substantial insight into American culture and authenticity through Liberace’s objects:

“Everything that Liberace created or caused to be created as a function of his shows or of his showmanship (his costumes, his cars, his jewelery, his candelabra, his pianos) shines with a crisp, pop authority.  Everything created as a consequence of his endeavor (like the mega-rhinestone) exudes a high-dollar egalitarian permission–while everything he purchased out of his rising slum-kid appetite for “Old World” charm and ancien regime legitimacy (everything “real,” in other words) looks unabashedly phoney. (“A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz”, Air Guitar 53)


The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, NV.

Michael Jackson and Liberace are certainly distinct in terms of how they have impacted popular culture and mainstream America.  Furthermore, many consider Jackson to be the last true megastar of popular music before digital formats changed mass music consumption dramatically.  I find myself wondering what would be revealed about Michael Jackson’s America were his collection to remain as it was at Julien’s Auctions when it arrived in the 10 semi trucks: an unlabeled, unsorted feast for the curious.