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Garbo, Crawford, Gable and Other Iconic Images Hit the Auction Block

Photos by George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are among the highlights of a 48-lot online sale ending Monday at Julien’s Auctions.

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell in a 1939 image from the set of “The Women,” photographed by László Willinger.

The latest sale at Julien’s Auctions wasn’t originally part of this year’s calendar, but executive director Martin Nolan says the subject matter made it a perfect fit for this stay-at-home moment. “This is an auction we curated especially for this time,” explains Nolan, who is based in Los Angeles. “People are home, and they don’t want to be listening to the news all day. In the auction world, we know we’re also in the entertainment business, so we decided to put together a collection at glamorous photos, something affordable for the masses.”

A 1940 image of Vivien Leigh by László Willinger.

“Golden Era Glamour Photography” is an online auction of just 48 lots that concludes on Monday, May 11, at 2 pm ET. The sale features the work of five celebrated Hollywood photographers – George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, László Willinger, Ted Allan and Edwin Bower Hesser – who captured iconic images of stars ranging from Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford to Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Lucille Ball. “We put this together thinking about the icons who might make you smile,” Nolan says. “That meant stars like Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman or Marlene Dietrich. It’s a great way to think about your favorites – the beautiful images of Vivien Leigh might inspire you to watch Gone With the Wind later that night, for example. It’s a bit of escape and distraction.”

Varying in size from 8 x 10 inches to 24 x 28.5 inches, the 48 black-and-white images carry auction estimates in a range that spans from $25 to $600, depending on print. A few images are signed and numbered, while most are printed from the original negative, typically decades after their original photo sessions, a key factor that accounts for their pricing. “A suite of six original vintage Hurrell images could go for $30,000 to $40,000, so this is definitely a more affordable way to get into collecting these golden-era prints,” Nolan says. “You never know how something might appreciate in value, but ultimately we view these as buying something you love and a terrific conversation piece. Someday down the road when we can have dinner parties again, it will make a great story: ‘Look at this beautiful print I won in an auction.’”

A numbered and signed print of Joan Crawford from a 1930 portrait session by George Hurrell.

Original prints by Hurrell and other photographers of Hollywood’s golden age are indeed highly collectible, with both film and photography fans drawn to the inherent drama found in the play of light and shadow manipulated to create portraits of legendary stars. In the 1930s and ‘40s Hurrell captured Gable, Crawford, Jean Harlow and others at MGM, and then photographed Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and others when he moved to Warner Bros. “Hurrell is certainly well known and popular, though Clarence Sinclair Bull also sells very, very well,” Nolan says. “You take these incredibly talented photographers and then combine them with their subjects, and it’s like a double-whammy of collectability coming together.”

Hungarian-born Willinger, meanwhile, worked in Paris and Berlin before arriving in Los Angeles in 1937 and opening a Hollywood studio, where he took memorable portraits of Leigh, Gable and Crawford (all subjects included in this sale, as well as a publicity still from 1939’s The Women). And Clarence Sinclair Bull was hired by Samuel Goldwyn in 1920 to take publicity photos at MGM; between 1926 and 1941 he was best known for capturing images of Garbo, 15 of which are included in this sale. Nolan believes a 1931 image, reportedly taken during the filming of Mata Hari, will be among the auction’s highlights.

A trio of lots featuring images of Greta Garbo by Clarence Sinclair Bull; Julien’s Auctions executive director Martin Nolan believes the center image, taken in 1931, will be among the sale’s highlights.

“When I think of Greta Garbo, that’s the image that comes to mind; her hair is sleek and perfect, and the attention to detail is incredible,” he says. “She must have been an amazing subject for Clarence Sinclair Bull to work with, and because she was so private, there aren’t a massive amount of photographs of her out there. Her last film was in 1941, so the period when she was available for these portraits was more limited than many other stars.”

“You take these incredibly talented photographers and then combine them with their subjects – Garbo, Crawford, Jean Harlow, Gable – and it’s like a double-whammy of collectability coming together.”

A numbered and signed print of Clark Gable by László Willinger, from a 1938 portrait shoot.

Ultimately there are also lessons to be learned in the escapism connected to these images, Nolan says. “It’s easy to look at a glamorous image of Marlene Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman and just see something beautiful – but remember, they also lived through stressful periods of war and other hardships, and they came through it,” he says. “These photos represent the glamour of days gone by, but they also represent people who had to endure incredible things. And if looking at one of these images gives you a bit of distraction and makes you smile, then all the better.”

Bidding on lots in “Golden Era Glamour Photography” closes at 2 p.m. ET on Monday, May 11. Visit to view the lots and register to bid.

All images courtesy of Julien’s Auctions.

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