Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala dress spotlights a market that’s set to boom

While high borrowing rates and a volatile economy have hurt art sales, the market for keepsakes has surged

Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson attend the 2022 Met Gala

It was just two years ago that Kim Kardashian caused a stir online after walking down the Met Gala’s red carpet with the iconic nude mesh dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy.

That couldn’t have happened without Julien’s Auctions, a boutique house that specialises in trading celebrity memorabilia. It sold the gown to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in 2016 for a record €4.5 million and helped Kardashian negotiate the loan for the 2022 soiree. Soon after, a Monroe fan called Julien’s offering $10 million to buy the outfit, but Ripley’s declined, preferring to keep it as a trophy asset.

The episode shows that keepsakes, like fine art, are now increasingly viewed as an alternative investment that can yield lucrative returns, according to Darren Julien, who founded Julien’s and says hedge funds have become regular clients. The Los Angeles-based auction house is now looking to open its first Asian office in Hong Kong to take advantage of the booming business in the region. In a sign that pop culture is extending beyond the US, a set of ensembles worn by Korean boy-band BTS for the Dynamite music video recently sold for more than quadruple the top estimate.

“People do look at this like at the stock market,” Julien, 55, said in an April interview in Hong Kong, adding that buyers often ask him who’ll be the next “blue-chip” artists they should add to their portfolio. “They’re trying to predict who’s going to have career longevity and who’s going to increase in value over time.”

While high borrowing rates and a volatile economy have hurt art sales, the market for keepsakes has surged and is expected to expand to €702 billion by 2032 from €438 billion last year, according to Econ Market Research. Asia has been the growth driver for luxury collectibles, with Hong Kong sales surging 33 per cent from 2021 to 2022, Deloitte’s Art & Finance Report 2023 showed. Separately, the study highlighted that private banks and family offices on average allocated almost 11 per cent of their assets into art and memorabilia.

The items easily go for millions of dollars: In 2020, Julien’s sold the guitar Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain played at the historic MTV Unplugged concert in 1993 for a record €5.53 million, and in November a client bought another one that belonged to Eric Clapton for €1.19 million. Rival auction house Sotheby’s sold six of Michael Jordan’s championship sneakers for €7.37 million in February, while a rookie card signed by the basketball legend went for more than €.92 million at a Christie’s auction two years ago.

The market has attracted big finance names and corporations. In 2021, hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen and a group spent $787 million to privatise Collectors Universe, the owner of the top grading firm for sports-trading cards, before acquiring sports-collectible shop Goldin Auctions for an undisclosed amount. Last month, eBay Inc. said it would buy Goldin and sell its storage platform for trading cards to the grading firm.

Business has been good for Julien’s. Annual sales have doubled since the beginning of Covid in 2020 to more than €50 million in 2023, with a goal to reach €200 million in the next five years, Julien said. The company, which now counts about 40 employees and received backing from wealth management firm Geller & Co., appointed art and entertainment veteran David Goodman as its chief executive officer last year.

The firm is seeking to boost Asian clientele to 40 per cent of its customer base, up from 20 per cent now and compared with almost 60 per cent from the US. For its first-ever Hong Kong exhibition in January, Julien’s showcased a collection including paintings and furniture from Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner as well as clothes from Marilyn Monroe that netted more than €4 million in a March auction. Last month, the firm hosted an exhibition of dresses worn by Princess Diana that will auction in June.

The Hong Kong expansion comes as the biggest international auction houses are increasing their footprint in the financial hub. Sotheby’s is opening a two-story maison there in July, while Christie’s will launch its new headquarters in one of the city’s newest skyscrapers in September. Last year, Phillips Auctioneers boosted its office space and headcount in Hong Kong.

Growing up watching livestock auctions in rural Indiana, Julien knew he wanted to be an auctioneer from early on. After completing high school, he joined a classic-car auction company and met celebrities including Johnny Cash, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. He moved to California with Sotheby’s in 1999 before founding Julien’s in 2003.

The next year, Julien met Martin Nolan, now the firm’s executive director and co-founder, at a gallery party. At the time, Nolan was a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch and was trying to bring in Julien as a client. Julien told him he had no money and instead convinced Nolan to join his endeavour in 2005 and help him grow the auction house.

“When I told my managers at Merrill Lynch I was leaving to go to Julian’s Auctions, they were aghast — memorabilia was considered junk,” Nolan said. “Now, 20 years later, people are realizing this is not junk. This is part of our history — our political history, our royal history, our pop-culture history. It’s a work of art.”

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