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If travellers know the Polish city of Wroclaw at all, it is likely for its picturesque old town, its riverside location or lovely squares. But starting in September, a new attraction – one with a bombshell figure, blonde hair and a signature red-lipped smile – promises to give the capital of Lower Silesia a little more international star power.

On 25 June 2014, more than 3,000 celebrity photographs – many of Marilyn Monroe and some of them never before seen – were auctioned off at the Warsaw auction house DESA Unicum. A selection of the collection will be put on display as early as September in Wroclaw’s Unesco-inscribed Centennial Hall. Selections from the full collection will be the centrepiece of Poland’s first photography museum, set to open in Wroclaw in 2016, the same year that Wroclaw will be one of three European Capitals of Culture.

“Wroclaw is getting much more international attention; we have many attractions in the city, but at the moment, they are connected to Polish culture and to the previous, German culture,” said Rafal Dutkiewicz, Wroclaw mayor since 2002. “But in the case of Marilyn Monroe, she’s one of the most recognised and well-known brands worldwide. And this is something that every city needs to get tourists and visitors.”

How these photographs came to wind up in Poland’s hands, never mind Wroclaw’s, is a story with as many twists and turns as Monroe’s life itself.

Selections from the 2012 Milton H Greene auction, Marilyn Monroe
Selections from the 2012 Milton H Greene auction. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty)

The images were taken by Milton H Greene, a famed American fashion photographer who captured the likenesses of celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn. (Photographs of some of these celebrities are also included in the Wroclaw collection). But his most iconic images were the ones of Monroe, including the famous shot of her in a white, ballet-inspired tulle dress, seemingly ready to blow a kiss to the camera.

Monroe and Greene met in 1953 and quickly became friends and business partners, forming Marilyn Monroe Productions in New York. Greene helped Monroe produce the 1956 film Bus Stop, and she often stayed with him and his family. They later had a falling out, but not before Greene had taken thousands of photographs of the star.

Actor Marilyn Monroe and photographer Milton H Greene
Actor Marilyn Monroe and photographer Milton H Greene chat after a long flight. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

When he passed away in 1985, Greene left behind hundreds of prints and negatives. His estate – including both the images and their copyrights – was purchased by a real estate investor based in Chicago for $350,000. The Polish government later accused the businessman of cheating Poland’s Foreign Debt Service in a complicated embezzlement scandal. To help pay back some of the debt that he owed, he offered up the collection.

In 2012, the government sold the first lot of photographs at public auction. All but one of the 238 photos, including an image of Monroe in black stockings that went for 50,000 zlotys, sold for a total of 2.4 million zlotys – more than 10 times the value of the starting price. It was the largest photo auction Poland had ever seen.

But the bulk of the collection had yet to be sold. Julius Windorbski, chairman of DESA Unicum, said that if this final batch of photographs had been sold at public auction, they could have been sold for 18 million zlotys or more. All parties had agreed with the culture minister of Poland, however, that any buyer had to keep the collection in Poland – and put it on public display.

At the end, just three bidders were on the short list – all of them all cities: Gdansk, Krakow and Wroclaw. Wroclaw, the fourth-largest city in Poland, won the photographs for 6.4 million zlotys, a record bid for any individual lot sold at a Polish auction, Windorbski said.

While the Monroe-Poland connection might seem specious to outsiders, Dutkiewicz noted that the star visited Wroclaw “many times”. “In addition, film production was pretty big here,” he said. “The most important Polish films used to be produced in Wroclaw.”

The hope, of course, is that the Greene photographs draw more attention – and tourists – to Wroclaw.

“Marilyn Monroe is so international, so recognisable. [The collection] could be a tourist attraction for people from all over the world,” Windorbski said. “We’re so, so excited that something like this could happen in Poland.”

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