The Dracula cape worn by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal classic film failed to sell in the first session of the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011. The starting price of $1,200,000 may have been overly optimistic, but the cape wasn’t the only iconic Hollywood artifact that priced itself out of a sale. A pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz scared off potential buyers with its starting price of $2,000,000.
The surprise announcement that Bela Lugosi Jr. was auctioning his father’s cape caused consternation amongst fans. Not only were they mystified by his decision to sell such an important heirloom, which was left him by his mother, Lillian, upon her death in 1981, they also feared that the cape would disappear into the vault of an investor or be buried away in a private collection.
The cape (Lot 589) wasn’t the only item to be put up for auction by Lugosi Jr. Among various photographs, posters and lobby cards, two were of such a personal nature that his desire to sell them seems even more surprising than his wish to sell the cape. Inscribed, “To the Sweetest Good Mother of Mine,” a 1905 Hungarian portrait of Bela failed to reach its starting price of $1,000, while a 1940s portrait inscribed by Bela to his wife Lillian sold for $2,250. The highest selling lot was Bela’s own jumbo lobby card from Dracula, which sold for $22,500.
In addition to the lots from Bela’s estate and family, five other items, including photographs from Bela’s own collection, were offered for sale. The most interesting lot, however, was a pair of Bela’s 1930s wingtip shoes, which fetched $1,600.
In remarkable condition, Bela’s wingtip shoes
Bela wearing the shoes at the Hollywood Athletic Club sometime during the 1930s
Below is a full list of the lots from Bela’s family and estate, with catalogue descriptions and starting and selling prices. (Andi Brooks)
Starting price $1,000 – unsold
Hungarian cabinet portrait ca. 1905. Silver-bromide matte print 4 ¼ “ x 7 ½”on photographer’s imprinted card-mount. A very early original-period reprint, as it bears Lugosi’s inscription in the print itself in Hungarian, “To the Sweetest Good Mother of Mine.”
Starting price $800 – unsold
Two vintage ca. 1920 Hungarian 3¼”x 5¼” photo-portrait postcards of Bela Lugosi in striking poses with his facsimile signature, by “Angelo” of Budapest. From the estate of Lugosi himself, and passed down to his heir. Cards of this type were marketed to the public as promotions for Lugosi’s early film and stage work in Europe, where he had already made a significant mark in the public esteem. Tiny spot of age browning at one corner, else both Very Fine.
Starting price $1,000 – sold for $1,000
Vintage oversize portrait of Bela Lugosi in his Hollywood study, ca. 1930 – Silver-bromide 11”x 14” double-weight custom matte print, being a contemplative portrait of Bela Lugosi contemporaneous with his role in Dracula, in the study of his Hollywood home, replete with the infamous nude painting of Clara Bow which Lugosi kept close at hand until his dying day. This photograph is from Lugosi’s estate, and passed down to his heir. Excellent condition with virtually no trace of handling or age.
Starting price $600 – unsold
Vintage profile portrait of Bela Lugosi, ca. 1930 – Silver-bromide 8”x 10” double-weight custom matte print, being a stern profile portrait of Bela Lugosi ca. 1930. Print is of an exceptional photographic quality for its lighting and sharpness of grain. Excellent original condition; from Lugosi’s estate, and passed down to his heir.
Starting price $20,000 – sold for $22,500
Dracula near-mint unrestored original Jumbo lobby-card from Bela Lugosi’s own collection – (Universal, 1931) 14” x 17”original release Jumbo lobby-card depicting Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, surrounding Helen Chandler with his signature cape, about to anoint her with his very special “kiss”. This is not only one of the most vital and essential images to perfectly distill the true nature of the film, in virtually mint, totally unrestored condition, it was also for decades, possibly even from the beginning, the property of Bela Lugosi and passed down to his heir where it has resided to this day. Remnant trace of scrapbook adhesive on verso margins, and very faint and insignificant handling lines and background crease are the only signs this extraordinary artifact was ever touched. Colors are rich and totally unfaded (the jumbo set was printed with softer colors intentionally than the 11 x 14 set). We are not aware of another example of this remarkable scene coming to auction previously, let alone an original poster item of this caliber from Lugosi’s own collection. Authenticity is beyond question on this exceptional piece. Very Fine to Near Mint.
Starting price $1,000 – unsold
Vintage oversize portrait of Bela Lugosi full figure in white linen suit, ca. 1930 – Silver-bromide 11”x 14” double-weight custom matte print, being a standing portrait of Bela Lugosi in white linen suit with hat and cigar, and a mischievous “Mona Lisa”smile. From Lugosi’s estate, and passed down to his heir. Excellent condition with virtually no trace of handling or age.
Collection of (16) Bela Lugosi portrait stills from his estate and family’s collection – Mix of original and reprint portrait stills, primarily head-shots in 8” x 10” size, all from either the estate or family of Bela Lugosi. Majority are from the 1940’s-1950’s with the William Morris Agency credit slug in lower margin. All in Very Fine condition.
Starting price $2,000 – sold for $2,250
Vintage portrait of Bela Lugosi ca. 1940 inscribed by him to his wife Lillian – Silver-bromide 8”x 10” double-weight custom matte print being a very personal, smiling portrait from the 1940’s which Bela Lugosi inscribed in green fountain pen, “To Lillian- Bela”. In 1933 Bela married 22-year-old Lillian Arch, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. They had a son, Bela G. Lugosi, in 1938. From Lillian’s estate, and passed down to Bela Jr. Very Fine condition.
Starting price $300 – sold for $325
Bowery at Midnight original folded U.S. one-sheet poster from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Monogram, 1942) 27 x 41 in. U.S. one-sheet poster folded, for one of Lugosi’s better low-budget “programmers”. He is ably supported here by a sexy Wanda McKay and a tough, juvenile pre-Detour Tom Neal. Condition is Good only overall, though it benefits greatly from its provenance of the Bela Lugosi family collection.
Starting price $600 – sold for $950
The Return of the Vampire original U.S. Title-card from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Columbia, 1943) Original unrestored U.S. 11 x 14 in. Title lobby-card for one of Bela Lugosi’s last roles worthy of his talent and dignity. Good only condition, though colors are rich, with light soiling and tape around rear margins; its strength is the provenance of Lugosi’s estate.
Starting price $500 – sold for $550
The Return of the Vampire original U.S. portrait lobby-card from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Columbia, 1943) 11 x 14 in. U.S. lobby-card, best portrait in the set with Bela Lugosi in his signature cape, about to bite the neck of a lovely young woman. Very decent unrestored condition (handling, and tape on rear); its great strength is the provenance of Lugosi’s estate.
Starting price $600 – sold for $850
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein original U.S. Title-card from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Universal, 1948) Original unrestored U.S. 11 x 14 in. Title lobby-card for Lugosi’s finest late-career appearance. Very light soiling from handling, one pinhole; VG to Fine. From the estate of Bela Lugosi.
Starting price $300 – sold for $400
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla original U.S. half-sheet poster from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Jack Broder Productions, 1952) 22 x 28 in. U.S. half-sheet poster, one fold. Film is remembered only for the presence of Bela Lugosi. Poster is unrestored, in Good to VG condition, and is from the Bela Lugosi family collection.
Starting price $300 – sold for $550
Son of Frankenstein 1953 reissue portrait lobby-card from the Bela Lugosi family collection – (Universal, 1938/ R’53) Near-mint unrestored 11” x 14” portrait lobby card of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff from the 1953 Realart reissue. From the estate of Bela Lugosi.
In an article in the online edition of The Hollywood Reporter by Gregg Kilday “Why Bela Lugosi’s Family Donated Iconic Dracula Cape to Academy Museum” (posted online 7:00 AM PST 2/15/2020), Bela Lugosi’s granddaughter, Lynne Lugosi Sparks, said that the family “was actually thankful” that the cape failed to sell when pu
t up for auction at the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011. With hindsight, she feels that the decision to place a high starting price of $1.2 million was subconsciously made to ensure that it didn’t leave the family for “some collector’s closet for the world never to see.” She added that the family “took a sigh of relief” when they learned that it was returning home from the auction.
The heavy, floor-length black fulled wool opera cape is currently being restored by Beth Szuhay of Chrysalis Art Conservation to prepare it for the museum’s December 4th, 2020 opening. Although the overall condition of the cape is reported to be good for its age, the taupe-colored silk crepe lining requires attention for some tears due to humidity causing the wool of the cape and the silk lining to expand and shrink at different rates over its life. The restoration process will include “attaching a new backing to the silk layer and re-patching any missing bits of lining with silk dyed to match the original.”
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