How did you begin collecting?
David Gainsborough Roberts: ‘My gran gave me a piece of wood – I must have been seven or eight — which she said came from Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory. I looked at this and said “My god, perhaps the great man trod on this!” I’d no idea, of course, about the size of the boat — when you’re a kid you don’t, I just thought it was something wonderful and that’s what transformed me.’
How did you go from Nelson and his ship to Marilyn Monroe?
‘It was 1991; I’d bought several things at Christie’s, and this Marilyn dress came up. The model was a good friend of mine, Pauline Bailey. I bid £16,000, something like that, and the press went bananas. She jumped up and down — I must have looked terrified! It took off from there, the next day I arrived back here in Jersey and my mother said to me, “What have you been doing? The phone hasn’t stopped.” And I said “Believe me, seven days from now, Marilyn Monroe, Pauline Bailey and me — nobody will give a damn,” and the phone hasn’t stopped since 1991.’
Which piece tells the best story?
‘There are so many great stories but it might be the wooden gun belonging to John Dillinger — the most notorious man in America. Dillinger broke out of Crown Point jail with a wooden gun; I’ve got it here. I also have his death mask. When he was killed by the FBI they claimed only one death mask was done but there was a second one and I’ve got that too. I also have a card case given to Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the principle figures in his trial. It’s a very personal, private piece, there’s nothing on the front, no initials, just ‘...so mysterious by this love’. It is the most unusual Oscar Wilde piece, it came up in auction years ago; the under-bidder was Stephen Fry.’
‘There is nobody today that will ever take over from the era of Marilyn, Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly’
What’s the holy grail for you?
‘Yesterday, I bid for a letter by the Duke of Windsor. It went for £2,100 and I bid £2,000, so there we are; that’s the story of my life. It was written to his lady friend [Wallis Simpson], “My darling I hope that we can live and die together”, incredible things that, of course, should never ever have been allowed out. I wish I’d got it but you can’t go on everyday saying I wish I’d got that.’
What’s your favourite piece in the collection?
‘Probably the Marilyn dress [from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes] — it’s so famous. It’s the one she wears in the scene where she sings Two little girls from Little Rock with Jane Russell. I just think that’s one of the best things in my collection.’
Are there any celebrities today that you feel are equal to those of the past?
‘I don’t think there is anybody sensational today that will ever take over from the era of Marilyn, Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly. John Lennon’s image has gone on and on, and of course there’s Elvis, but now I have no idea who the guy selling 16 million records is.’
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party, alive or dead, infamous or famous?
‘Well, I’d have to invite Marilyn — she’d be head of the table — then Oscar Wilde to her left and probably somebody like Rita Hayworth on her right. That’s what I might like...’