This June, on the mezzanine of the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Julien’s Auctions presented their 2010 Summer Sale, merging the belongings of various deceased celebrities into a public exhibition.
Almost all objects for sale were linked by the perceived value of their relationships with Hollywood icons. The most bizarre collection within this ostentatious pop culture Wunderkammer was the set of furniture Michael Jackson purchased for the home in Kent, England he would never live to occupy. While the musician commissioned the twenty-two lots slated for auction, it is unlikely he ever physically encountered any of them. The value of the cultural icon’s estranged domestic objects was not, like the other handled and worn celebrity objects in the exhibition, the result of their use by the icon.
The auction exhibition was housed within a labyrinth of black curtains, each gallery secluded from the next, creating a dark path of interlocking showrooms. Jackson’s colossal red velvet and 24-karat gold couch was given center stage in the first gallery. Handmade in Italy by Colombostile, the sofa was sixteenfeet in length, upholstered in shimmering red velvet and embellished with gold scrolls. The other pieces in the space were similar in style and excess, many described as “Baroque/eclectic” in the catalog. Three bergere chairs christened by designer Hierro Desvilles formed a group in one section of the display: “Wild Cat” was swathed in faux leopard skin with ostrich feathers protruding from its back; the pastel green “Shells” was encrusted with hundreds of sea shells; and “Swarovski,” said to have been commissioned for Elizabeth Taylor’s use during house calls, was upholstered in metallic silver leather and rhinestones. A set of metallic silk armchairs and matching sofa stood in a corner of the room, accented with golden candelabras.
Anyone who has seen the residences on MTV’s celebrity-home tour show, Cribs, is familiar with the extravagance typical of celebrity furniture preferences. The auction’s press release promised to “execute the recreation of Jackson’s Kent home for public viewing,” but there was little to suggest any sense of personal residence. Most pieces were grouped by designer rather than by taste. The collection’s unused state provided an inherent lifelessness; attempts to picture Michael Jackson reading in the sixteen-foot sofa, or his children watching television from the silk armchairs, felt like exercises in theatrics. Although most of the furniture shown on Cribs easily falls into the “Baroque/eclectic” category and belongs to jet-setting stars who rarely use it, Jackson’s pieces maintained a particularly curious distance from their utilitarian roles.
The royal motifs of crowns and double-headed eagles found throughout the collection reflected Jackson’s constructed identity, the “King of Pop,” while simultaneously questioning the degree to which Jackson separated his personal life from his career. The sixteen-foot sofa was most emblematic of this dichotomy; standing alone under the spotlights, its excess in scale and décor seemed more like an overblown performance of furniture than furniture itself.
Yet, Jackson was often said to be most comfortable while performing. During his public memorial service on July 7, 2009, Magic Johnson, describing a dinner at Neverland Ranch, noted that while the musician’s chef prepared grilled chicken for Johnson, Jackson came to the meal with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This was an at-home lifestyle performance: Jackson staged a meal for his guest while indulging in his own standard fare. Similarly, Elizabeth Taylor would have been offered her rhinestone chair in the Kent home, leaving other guests to lounge in the communal gargantuan sofa or sit among ostrich feathers and seashells. We are then left to wonder where, among this performed opulence, would Michael Jackson have sat?
It is tempting to believe the items in the exhibition would have been used by the superstar, if not for his death. However, the end of Magic Johnson’s story suggests otherwise. He recounted having the greatest time, “sitting on the floor, eating that bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken,” providing an image of Michael truly at ease, away from the furniture and prepared food of his own home. In this regard, the greatest value of Michael Jackson’s unused furniture is its pristine quality. The objects in the 2010 Summer Sale may have ultimately been as much on display in Michael’s home as they were in Planet Hollywood, thus accounting for the rigid formality of their arrangements in the exhibition. For those seeking to own furniture authentic to the existence of Michael Jackson, lack of use is the quality to be desired; the untouched silks and empty sofas are the props through which we can experience aspects of the performer’s life otherwise left unseen.