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How Would You Set the Value of a Marilyn Monroe Dress?

Happy Birthday, Mr. President!

On May 19, 1962, a televised birthday celebration was held for President John F. Kennedy at a Democratic fundraiser at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That event became particularly memorable when Marilyn Monroe took the stage and sang “Happy Birthday Mister President” wearing a stunning, skin-tight, full- length gold gown.

The dress was custom-made by Jean Louis, and was apparently so tight it had to be sewn onto Marilyn for the performance. On November 16, 2011, that gown was sold for a world-record price of $4.8 Million. But what would such an iconic dress be worth today? There is an established system that all qualified, professional appraisers must use for setting the value of any item.

Uniform Standards for Appraisals

The Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (“USPAP”) was created in the 1980s to establish common practices for all appraisers to use. These standards are produced by the Appraisal Foundation, and non-profit organization authorized by Congress. All members of the three primary appraisal organizations, such as ISA which I am a member of, must comply with USPAP.

Step-by-Step Process

As part of the USPAP, there are seven basic steps in the appraisal process which all members of the three nationally recognized organizations must use.

Step 1 – Identify the Problem. Identify the client, the item(s )to be appraised, and the level of work requested by the client.

Step 2 – Determine the Scope of Work. What level of research will be needed, and how much detailed written information will be required?

Step 3 – Identify Market and Value Type. There are three main value types used by appraisers: Market Value, Fair Market Value, and Liquidation Value. Analyze the use of the item, and select the market based on value type and definition.

Step 4 – Identify Comparable Items and Values. The item and its comparables may be the same manufactured item, or a version of the same item. Or, comparables may be items of similar type, age, production, etc.

Step 5 – Determine Market Value. If using Market Value (what a willing buyer and seller will agree to under normal conditions), describe the item and review sales data of comparable items.

Step 6 – Reconcile Comparables to Determine Value. Analyze all data available for the item and comparables, and define similarities and differences to determine a final value.

Step 7 – Report Determined Value. Communicate to client the determined value of the item, usually in the form of a written report.

Determining the Value of the Marilyn Monroe Dress

So, how would you determine the value of this dress? It will take some research and, because no two Marilyn dresses are the same, it will take some deduction.

The first step is to gather information about comparable dresses sold around the same time. In 2011, Marilyn’s famous white “subway” dress, worn in the movie “The Seven Year Itch,” sold for $5.6 Million in Beverly Hills. This would be the closest comparable since both dresses are considered “the most famous,” and they both sold in 2011. The “presidential” dress sold for $4.8 Million, so that would seem to be a fair value.

The next step is to look at other famous dresses worn by comparable famous actresses from the same general time frame and era. Audrey Hepburn’s famous “ascot races” dress from the movie “My Fair Lady” sold for $4.4 Million in 2011. Again, this comparable sale would support the “presidential” dress’ sale price of $4.8 Million.

There is no minimum number of comparables an appraiser is required to use to determine value, but the more samples you have, the better. Since there were only two comparables available for the “presidential” dress, how would I settle on a fair value?

Adjusting for Differences in Comparables

I collected and compared data from the two comparable dresses and the “presidential” dress. Here are some factors to consider.

First, the cost of designing and making each dress, and the comparative difficulty and skill needed in making each dress, adjusting for the timeframe they were made in. The “presidential” dress was a full-length gown with 2,500 hand-sewn rhinestones. The Subway dress was a cocktail-length dress made of rayon-acetate crepe. Obviously, the cost of making the Presidential dress was considerably higher than the Subway dress. And, I would also take into account the comparative cost of the materials during the year the dresses were made.

Second, take into account the occasions that made each dress famous, and the history of the dresses. The “subway” dress was worn on a movie set, and was made memorable in part because of the uniqueness of the scene. But it was helped along the way to becoming “iconic” by reproduction of the scene in a variety of mediums, including print reproductions (posters), art (the famous Any Warhol representation), and restaging in other films.

The “presidential” dress was worn at a very distinguished and exclusive event, and has the added appeal of being associated with a well-known political figure. Memorabilia associated with a political figure, and memorabilia associated with a famous actress, each add value to the item. In this case, the “presidential” dress has both going for it.

What's the Bottom Line?

This is just a small sample of the type of data and deduction required to set an accurate value for something as rare and iconic as Marilyn Monroe’s “presidential” dress. Since there aren’t very many comparables available, you might need to do quite a bit more digging to come up with appropriate data to set the value for a similar item.

In this case, the closest comparable is the “subway” dress, since it comes from the same period, sold in the same year, and is associated with the same celebrity. So, in my opinion, a value of $4.6 to $4.8 Million is justified.

Do you have a rare or unique item you need to know the value of? Contact us to set an appointment!

  • Donna