Through the keyhole in Hollywood
Martin Nolan used to be a civil servant. So how has he found himself in Beverly Hills, where he has many of the biggest stars in the world on speed-dial
I am in the lobby of a fancy London hotel so discreet I had never heard of it until Martin Nolan suggested we meet there. Outside, I spot a shell-shocked looking David Cameron shambling up the street, his bodyguard a few paces behind.
Inside, Nolan is waiting. At first hello you would take him for a Yank - just another tall, expensively-dressed American passing through town on business.
But then, there is something about his soft-spoken manner that suggests otherwise. And as he starts to talk, the mid-Atlantic twang gives way to something closer to the accent he grew up with as a self-confessed "culchie" from a tiny town near Athlone.
That, however, was a lifetime ago. Nolan moves in decidedly different circles now. He lives in LA, where his reputation puts him on first-name terms with the kind of stars who are not simply A-listers but icons. But he is not a Hollywood producer, nor a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. He is an auctioneer.
John Lennon's lost guitar. Michael Jackson's crystal studded glove. Judy Garland's gingham Dorothy costume from The Wizard Of Oz. These are the sorts of pieces which go under the hammer at Julien's, the company which Nolan runs with his business partner Darren Julien. Officially "entertainment memorabilia", the name rather understates not just the value of the items but their significance. They are museum pieces, traded for eye-watering sums.
Nolan's story is a classic Irish-emigrant-made-good narrative. He was one of seven children from a solid, close middle-class family in the Midlands.
The middle child, he seemed fated to follow his siblings on to a conventional, reliable career path. "My sister was a nurse, my brother was a guard," he says.
Nolan himself duly went into the civil service. With his nice, secure job under his belt however, he cast around for other challenges. He went to Australia for a year and worked there. And then, on a whim, he entered the Green Card lottery. "I think they had 19 million applications from 36 countries for 10,000 places," he remembers. "And I was one of them. So I decided I'd come to America."
Arriving in New York during the late 1980s, he wasn't exactly an overnight success - his first job was working as a bell boy in the Hilton Hotel. But he was young and resourceful and had a background in finance. Wall Street seemed like the obvious place for a hungry young buck, so he trained as a stockbroker.
He demurs when I try to press him about the scale of debauchery and moral bankruptcy around Manhattan's financial district in the 90s, saying simply, "there was quite a roller-coaster. Record highs, the tech bubble, 120 testosterone-fuelled guys calling and buying and selling stocks. Markets went up, markets went down. It was lavish dinners and expensive bottles of wine. . ."
The high-rolling financial sector may have been fun for a while. But before long, Nolan was questioning his choices. A growing feeling of dissatisfaction he had been nurturing, crystallised when 9/11 happened. "I hate to harp on about 9/11," he says, "but it did have an impact on New York at the time. And working in finance and on Wall Street, I thought, 'Gosh if I was one of the unlucky ones to expire, where was my mark? What had I done?'"
So when, in 2004 he met Daniel Julien "who was doing the auction for Johnny Cash at Sothebys," at the time, it seemed serendipitous. Julien was preparing to launch his own auction house. "I was trying to bring him on as one of my clients. We became friends, and he was a marketing guy who needed a finance guy."
It was Barbra Streisand who put the fledgeling auction house on the map, when in 2004 she chose them to take in hand the sale of a collection of her clothes and belongings to benefit the Barbra Streisand Foundation. Since then, the company have built a long-standing relationship with her.
Daniel Julien had met Streisand through a mutual friend, Andre Agassi. Before he was in auctions "he ran a tennis ball machine company. He was friends with Andre Agassi. Barbra used to date Andre Agassi. And that's how he had met her," Martin says.
For Nolan it was initially "the philanthropic element" of the business that appealed. (A proportion of the proceeds from almost all auctions goes to charity.) "That was really where I thought I could make a difference. I had no idea that our company would become the global leader."
He was completely naive to the ways of high-society when he started out. "I really didn't know who was who in Hollywood. It wasn't my thing. Which totally was an advantage. When I go to meet a client, if it's Bette Midler or Barbra or U2 or whoever, I sit down and I'm not oooh-ing or aaah-ing or fawning. It's just, 'how can we make this the best auction?' I think they found that refreshing."
Nolan is happily single, devoted to his career. "That's why I can give 100pc to my job. . . I couldn't do that and have family." Was it a conscious choice to put work first? "No," he admits, before adding that he has a close, sprawling family. "I've 13 nieces and nephews", he says. "Whom I love dearly."
Charged with sorting, organising and cataloguing the personal items of Hollywood's biggest stars has afforded Nolan an incredibly intimate through-the-keyhole view of the lives. "I could definitely write a book," he says, while adding carefully that he "wouldn't breach the trust that I'm given, by having very intimate access. I can be sitting in Cher's bedroom while she's having her manicure. And I would be very protective of that."
Still, he sees a side of stars that few others do. "Barbra is a perfectionist. She's very loyal as well, if you do right by her she'll do right by you. . . . She is tough . . . that's why she's so brilliant," he says.
Cher "is great and one of my favourites to work with." He remembers going through boxes with her and opening up stuff, "and she was crying, and there was stuff that would remind her of Sonny. And there was a book signed "Love Tommy." And I said, 'who was Tommy?' And she said, 'Oh, Tom Cruise. You know, I dated him for an hour."
When Cher hired the team from Julien's, she was involved in everything, artistic directing the catalogue "almost to the death of us." Going through a person's personal items is always a revealing and emotional experience. "Barbra will remember where she got stuff or what she paid for it," he says. "Cher will remember a whole back-story to it. And there's tears. They have what I call a separation anxiety. Letting go."
None had greater difficulty letting go however than "troubled genius" Michael Jackson who hired Julien's to dismantle and sell-off Neverland.
"Michael Jackson took us to the next level because he hired us in 2008," Nolan says. Martin was there personally at the property every day for nine months. "I wore out a pair of shoes walking 30 acres, working seven days a week. I know every nook and cranny of the place."
It was one of the most fascinating jobs he's undertaken. Michael's lavish, made-to-measure pleasure park included, "two fully-serviced train stations, with trains, platforms, candy floss and ice cream. All the bins had Neverland logos. His games room had 130 pinball machines."
Julien's often create and tour exhibitions of select collections preceding a sale, bringing them to a wider audience. And so it was that in 2009, they were in Newbridge, at the Museum of Style Icons starting a world tour of a Jackson exhibition. "He was very happy that we were starting off the exhibition in Ireland," Nolan remembers. "He loved Ireland. . . Co-incidentally Michael was in London on the same day announcing his comeback with the This Is It, tour." One can imagine Martin's shock then, when "on TMC that day we read that Michael had sued us - had gone into court and said that we had stolen everything."
There followed a big legal row, in which Julien's were swiftly vindicated, having demonstrated that they were simply doing the job they had been charged with.
"We speculated that Michael got the offer to come back to the 02, and didn't need to have the auction. . . so we had to hire attorneys in the middle of the night in Ireland to go into court in LA and say, 'look we have a contract.'"
As the exhibition in Newbridge opened, their war with the star was all over the world press. "Oh my God, it was such an upheaval. We were devastated. It was the biggest thing we had ever done in our lives. Nine months and five catalogues of stuff." There was, however, a silver-lining. "It was the biggest exhibition they've ever had at Newbridge. People flew in from all over Europe."
Eventually, after facing Joe Jackson in court. "With Michael on the phone roaring and shouting," Nolan says, they settled the case and Michael wrote a cheque. Eight weeks later, he died. "All his stuff is now in storage. . . We're ready to go! We've got the catalogues printed."
For now though, he's got other things on his plate. He's procured his ultimate bucket list catalogue item, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. The dress last sold in the 1990s for $1.25 million dollars and Nolan has been chasing it for years. But before it goes under the hammer, the dress will travel, by private jet, to The Museum of Style Icons in Newbridge, where ordinary mortals can catch a glimpse of it before it sells.
For Nolan, who will marshal the item personally across the Atlantic, it must feel like travelling with the spirit of Monroe herself. Certainly, he's got to know her pretty well. "When you are cataloguing, you get an intimate, inside view of the person. Which you do with great respect. And I keep thinking about her at 36 - her mother in a psychiatric institution. She never knew her father. Her grandfather died in a psychiatric institution. She had two failed marriages. She'd started the Marilyn Monroe production company. She built an amazing empire. She created the brand of Marilyn, all on her own. And she was dead at 36. It's pretty incredible what she achieved."
The Marilyn Monroe dress will be at Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons from October 29 for one week only. More details available from newbridgesilverware.com/mosi
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