James Brown’s Auction Attracts The Curious, The Hairstyling Historians

Jul 21st, 2008 // 4 Comments

d5099301l.jpgLast week’s auction of James Brown’s belongings at the auction house Christie’s sounds like it was a pretty depressing affair, with a few C-list sightings (Paul Shaffer, Nicky Hilton, DJ Shadow) and a lot of malaise. The sale had been projected to bring in some $2 million, but all the items wound up fetching half that–$857,688, according to The New York Times. Brown’s children Yamma and Larry told the Times‘ Guy Trebay that the auction marked a “sad day” for the family, thanks to every item on the bill being forcibly sold no matter what price was offered and the likelihood of one collector buying up all the items and making them the cornerstone for a James Brown Memorial Museum being slim to none. There were, however, a few items that brought in surprisingly high dollar amounts.

Among relic collectors, objects with established physical connections to celebrities are particularly prized. So it was not entirely surprising that one of the day’s highest bids was the $32,500 paid for a medical bracelet (estimated at $200 to $300) inscribed with Brown’s name and the notation that he was diabetic and allergic to penicillin. For a James Brown devotee, a bracelet like that is equivalent to a splinter from the true cross.

The most curious lot of the day was not the bracelet, however, or the singer’s platform shoe collection ($15,000) or the paranoid note he once scrawled on loose leaf paper alleging that his record label was out to kill him ($7,000.) It was not the suite of red leather furniture that conjured up images of the recreation room on a mother ship ($40,000.)

It was the single-lot offering of 80 hair rollers, accompanied by spray styling products like Smooth Sheen, Finisheen and Volumax, a Polaroid of Brown with his hair up in curlers, and a variety of picks and combs.

“James Brown was a reflector of black attitudes toward hair and you can go through the whole history of black hair in his lifetime,” by tracking his evolution from a chemical “conk” to an Afro and Jheri curls and on to other processed hairstyles, said Nelson George, an editor of “The James Brown Reader.”

“The one thing people always talk about when they talk about meeting James Brown is him getting his hair done,” Mr. George said. “No matter who you were, you came backstage to see him and he was sitting in a chair with his hair in curlers and wearing a hairnet.”

After spirited bidding, Lot 242, simply labeled “Hair Supplies,” was hammered down to a private collector for $4,800, plus the auction house’s 25 percent buyer’s premium.

Other items of note: the Undercover Brother script went for $563; an inventory of items that he had with him before his 1989 incarceration in South Carolina fetched $4,375, perhaps because he was wearing a “Godfather” t-shirt and a “GFOS” belt.

More Tag Sale Than Tribute [NYT]


  1. Chris Molanphy

    The hair-products anecdote is great, but: really? James as a bellwether of black hair? Best I can tell, he had some version of the same pompadour for the last 35 years of his life, roughly. After the late ’60s “Black and I’m Proud” Bobby Seale-style ‘fro, it was pretty much a black version of the Donald Trump ‘do for the rest of his life.

    Also, confession: I loved Undercover Brother. I saw it in the theater–in the theater!–twice.

  2. Anonymous

    @Chris Molanphy: Oh yeah, sweetheart. It might seem all the same to you, but I assure you, the versions were subtly different and required different chemicals. And yes, there were folks paying attention.

  3. Chris Molanphy

    @slowburn: Okay, fair enough, but: Jheri curl?! Can you point me to an ’80s photo where he’s rocking that look? I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have no memory of Jheri-curl on Soul Brother No. 1. School me.

  4. Anonymous

    @Chris Molanphy: To be honest, I don’t remember the Jheri curl phase myself, but I’ll tell you what. Today I don’t have time to troll through Google Images, but when I find a shot I promise to send it to you.

Leave A Comment