May 22, 2009

Marcel Marceau: Going, Going, Gone...

When Marcel Marceau died in 2007 at the age of 84, the world mourned the loss of its most famous mime. He left his fans with wonderful memories of his performance genius, but he also left a company in huge debt. Next week in Paris the public will have the opportunity to acquire a personal souvenir of this legend as his heirs hold a court ordered auction of 700 lots in an effort to settle the claims against the Estate.

On May 27th & 28th, the auction house of Neret-Tessier will hold this special event at the ubiquitous Hotel Drouot, the site of many famous sales including the 2 week long André Breton extravaganza of 2003. In contrast to the recent auction of Yves Saint Laurent at Christie's (see my blogs of February 20th & 27th), this will be a far more intimate selection of pieces - things he lived with and some very personal mementos of a unique and stellar career.

Let's take a look back at this remarkable man and his métier. Marcel Marceau was actually born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France in 1923. With the outbreak of World War II, Marcel and his brother Alain adopted the last name "Marceau" to hide their origins, and worked with the French Resistance to save Jewish children from the camps - acts of bravery that would later earn Marceau an award from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. After the war, Marcel studied dance and drama and in 1947 created his signature character of "Bip" the clown (see photo right).

Strongly influenced by the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Marcel Marceau as his alter ego Bip performed pantomime routines that spoke to his audiences profoundly and soon earned world wide recognition. His first stage appearances in the United States were a huge success and he expanded into television and motion pictures with equal flourish. He wrote children's books, poetry and illustrated art books and he opened his own schools for the art of mime. He also married and divorced 3 women and had 2 sons and 2 daughters. At his death, Marcel Marceau was a commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an Officer of the Légion d'honneur, a member of various European fine art academies, and had honorary doctorates from several prestigious American universities.

Next week's auction will give Marceau's many admirers the opportunity to own something more tangible than just memories. The 2 day event will offer a wide variety of items including volumes from his substantial book collection, furniture, paintings and drawings (many by Marceau himself), silver and Judaica, letters and manuscripts, a selection of antique Japanese theater dolls and No masks and a very rare Turkish musical automaton from 1898. Of particular interest will be a large group of photographs that show him performing some of his most famous sketches and meeting heads of State and other celebrities. Estimated at just €200-300 per lot, these photos include shots with Cary Grant, Rudolf Nureyev, Maurice Chevalier and Nehru, to name just a few. Finally, poignant treasures in the form of actual costumes and props, including the striped pullover and battered silk hat worn by Bip, will also be up for sale.

It is a little sad to think of this beloved artist's life being dispersed in public auction, but we can also try to look at it as an homage to his universal appeal. Marcel Marceau is credited with single handedly reviving the "Art of Silence" in the 20th Century and his success brought joy to millions of people. It will be interesting to see how his followers respond to the plethora of trophies soon to be available. You can view the catalogue online at the website of Neret Tessier in Paris.

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