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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”