We Went There: On the Ground at the Big, Sad, Strange Burt Reynolds Memorabilia Auction in Las Vegas

Eric Ducker

“This is history,” said auctioneer Daniel Kruse in a deep and calming voice. “The thing about life is that we pass through history, but today you have the chance to be part of history.”

History, on this cloudy Friday morning in December, tucked away in a private dining room in the Palms casino in Las Vegas, was the second day of the matter-of-factly named “Property From the Life and Career of Burt Reynolds,” the great sell-off of the legendary actor’s treasure trove of memories.

History at this moment was Lot 241, which contained two of Reynolds’s honorary law enforcement badges, one from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and one from Palm Beach County, Florida. They sold for $2,5001 to an online bidder. History on the sleepier Day 1 had been a stroll through sports memorabilia, Everglades paintings, and a powerful belt buckle collection, with no one physically present winning anything until Lot 28, when the youngest buyer in the room — a gum-snapping, open-collared fellow who could have passed for the Reynolds impersonator my cabbie told me hangs out on Fremont Street downtown, taking pictures with tourists — ended up with Dick Howser’s baseball glove.

Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills ran the whole affair, turning the room — think the dark wood and plush cushions of a Houston’s steak house, but with higher ceilings — into an outpost for the week, showcasing many of the 600-plus items that were for sale. At the entrance, there was a giant bronze statue of a dog that had previously watched the driveway of Reynolds’s home in Jupiter, Florida. In the display cases, there was detritus from a life of nearly six decades in show business. There was Reynolds’s old Rolodex open to the Elizabeth Taylor entry and the clapper board used in Sharky’s Machine, the 1981 film Reynolds starred in and directed. There were two hilarious, smack-talking letters from Jack Lemmon and a signed photo from the cast of Friends, a show Reynolds never appeared on. There were 10 different pairs of cowboy boots, including the pair Reynolds wore in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the pairs given to him by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and a pair made from pink ostrich leather. Upstairs, there were painted portraits of John Wayne in Hondo and Reynolds in 100 Rifles. There was Reynolds’s Wurlitzer jukebox. There were many bronze sculptures of horses. Up on the auction block, sharing the space with Kruse and the podium, was a Bobby Goldsboro guitar with a Tree of Life inlay on the fingerboard that had been gifted to Reynolds, the black Western shirt with embroidered red roses that Reynolds wore in Smokey and the Bandit II, and a go-kart replica of the Pontiac Trans Am that Reynolds drove in the Bandit movies. The original Trans Am from the first Smokey and the Bandit was in the Palms’s lobby, right when you entered through the front doors. At the end of the auction, a buyer in Texas won it with a phone bid of more than $400,000.

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These days, people might not remember — or weren’t alive to witness — Burt Reynolds in his prime. After his major breakthrough in Deliverance, he became one of the top-drawing actors in the 1970s, and he had the facsimile People’s Choice Awards and United States Film Distributors Top Box Office Star Awards to prove it. They were up for auction. Over the years, he’s enjoyed other career resurgences, including the TV show Evening Shade — he won an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Comedic Series in 1991 after its first season; it was up for auction — and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Boogie Nights, which got him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in 1998. That was also up for auction.

Reynolds has become a symbol of the kind of rascally machismo that you don’t get much of anymore. During a 2004 episode of Dinner for Five, he spun stories as Jon Favreau, Kevin James, Tony Shalhoub, and Richard Lewis listened adoringly. Norm Macdonald played him as a total prick who tells Alex Trebek that his name is Turd Ferguson on an all-timer Saturday Night Live “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch. He’s the hero of the titular character/asshole in the animated show Archer and made a guest appearance in a 2012 episode. In 2005, Reynolds was interviewed for Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” column, in which he dispensed lines like, “I could have won millions of dollars in lawsuits about the AIDS rumors back in 1984. I survived it by my father’s philosophy: ‘I’ll piss on your grave.’” In the photo accompanying the story, he’s sitting below a giant, heroic painting of his younger self in The Longest Yard. It was the fifth item up at the auction, and it sold for $3,250.

They also sold his helmet.

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Julien’s works exclusively with celebrities, handling property auctions for clients like Cher, the Osbournes, and Bette Midler. The company also did Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch auction two months before the singer’s death. Executive director Martin J. Nolan said that Julien’s first met with Reynolds back in January of 2013. Nolan spent much of 2014’s summer down in Jupiter, working with Reynolds on what to include.

In the lead-up to the auction, most of the press coverage nakedly boiled down the situation as either embarrassing or depressing; Nolan instead spun the auction as a practical matter, the natural outcome of getting older. “With somebody like Burt, where he’s 78 years of age, he decides to simplify and downsize and do it while he’s still in control,” he said. But Reynolds’s well-documented financial troubles are the reason the auction has been portrayed in less flattering terms. In 1996, he declared bankruptcy, and in 2011, his bank sought foreclosure on his Florida home, which he continues to fight. This past July, actress Loni Anderson, his second ex-wife, took him to court to settle the $154,520.98 debt she says he still owes her from their divorce settlement in the early 1990s. Still, days before the auction, Reynolds told Entertainment Tonight, “I am not broke.” Then he continued, “Quite frankly, I am sick of so many pictures of myself in my own home.”

A week before the event, Anderson herself took part in an auction in Los Angeles through Julien’s, mainly selling gifts that Reynolds had given her when they were together, as well as items like a nearly nude portrait of her, which he commissioned, that once hung in their living room, and her wedding ensemble from when they tied the knot in 1988. Anderson was also there in Las Vegas for the auction, arriving in the room on Thursday afternoon with her current husband, Bob Flick. She, too, explained the Reynolds auction in terms of aging, saying that the idea came about a year ago, when she and Burt had dinner with their son and Anderson’s daughter from her first marriage. Their children told them they were overwhelmed by the thought of dealing with Reynolds’s and Anderson’s stuff once they’d passed on. “The kids want to collect their own stuff; they’re not interested necessarily in redoing your life,” Anderson said. Back when Reynolds and Anderson shared a house in Los Angeles, they had so much art that they built a gallery onto the house. “We used to say we needed a house with more walls,” said Anderson. “There was not a bare space on a wall. There was not a surface that wasn’t filled.”

When I asked her why she had decided to personally attend the auction, she replied, “Because I want to support him.” She explained that she knew the stories behind many of the items, and that if the people interested in buying those pieces heard those stories directly from her, they might be more likely to spend the money. She was also dutifully marking down how much each lot sold for.

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The auction itself was a grind. The second day went on for more than eight hours, with no breaks. The vast majority of the sales went to online buyers who could enter their bids in real time, and the rest were split between buyers on the phone or the people actually sitting in the gallery. At the event’s busiest, the latter amounted to only a few dozen people. Most didn’t bid on anything, except for maybe one of Reynolds’s many firearms or a simple painting of a Western scene. They usually looked to be in their sixties, sporting either cowboy hats — the National Finals Rodeo was also in town — beards, or both. There wasn’t the manic rush of a livestock auction — or even Storage Wars — in which the auctioneer’s words become gibberish to the unseasoned ear. And unlike on eBay, there was no time limit, so it was up to the discretion of the auctioneer to declare a winning bidder.

Kruse, the auctioneer, would gauge the level of interest on each individual lot. If it were clear that there was no action, he’d sell it to whoever had put in the highest bid online in the days leading up to the auction and move on. If there were a couple of interested parties for one of Reynolds’s humidors or an armchair made from antlers, Kruse had techniques to keep things going. If bids were rapidly ping-ponging back and forth, he ratcheted up the pace, building anxiety over the potential of a lost opportunity. When the price of a colossal chair that once belonged to John Ford rocketed past $10,000 from a starting bid of $3,000, Loni Anderson let out a “Woo-hoo!” It eventually sold for $11,000. When a maritime scene painted by John Stobart attracted the interest of two phone bidders, Kruse slow-played it: He gave each potential buyer at least a minute to simmer in their self-doubt between bids. The price rose from $11,000 to $35,000.

But most often, it was a hard sell. Kruse repeatedly remarked on what a deal bidders would be getting for lots like the most boring Nudie suit I’d ever seen or a painting of an Apache by Joe Beeler, whom he called “one the greatest American artists of all time.” He talked about the great investment people would be making. On rare occasions, Kruse didn’t grasp the significance of what was in front of him. When sluggish bidding on an inscribed crayon-and-marker sketch from “an Italian artist” was about to come to an end, Anderson called out, “It’s Fellini!” The sketch sold for only $7,500.

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Around the fourth hour of the second day, the hopelessness that only Las Vegas can induce began to set in for me. I decided that this auction wasn’t about being part of history, or the desperation of a man no longer as successful as he once was, or even preparing oneself for one’s own inevitable death. It was just about the pointless churn of stuff we fill our lives with, just to mark the passing of time. It made me want to slash and burn my way through every closet and drawer as soon as I got home to Los Angeles. Then I left to eat a Chinese chicken salad and chill myself out.

In the afternoon, I spoke with Scott Bullock, who a few years earlier had come to own the Trans Am that Reynolds drove in Smokey in the Bandit II. Bullock had Hal Needham, the film’s director, sign the dashboard before Needham died. Here at the auction that day, Bullock had already bought Reynolds’s personalized “BANDIT” Florida license plate and parking sign, the Bandit II black shirt with red roses, and the Trans Am go-kart. Bullock’s family had opened the first car dealership to sell Chevys and Oldsmobiles in Grant, Nebraska, back in the 1930s, and a few decades later they started selling Pontiacs. “I drove a Bandit car in high school,” he said. “I did all the turns. And we did them a lot faster than they do in the movie; you can do that.” In the ’40s, the family built an Art Deco building for the business that he hopes to eventually turn into a museum, and Bullock wants his Reynolds memorabilia displayed there.

He came to Las Vegas with a budget of $50,000. A few hours earlier, he had been caught up in the heated bidding for the red jacket that Reynolds wore in the first Smokey and the Bandit. Though Bullock ended up conceding, it wasn’t clear it would go that way: When an online bidder brought the price up to $27,500, Kruse pushed Bullock hard for nearly two minutes: “$30,000, you know you gotta have it. $30,000, you can’t come back, today’s the day. $30,000, I’ve got $27,500, the real thing. $30,000, any other bids? $30,000. $30,000. $30,000. I want you to have it. $30,000, what do you think? It’s up to you. $30,000. $30,000. Do it once, try it, c’mon, you’ll like it. What do you think? C’mon. Do it. Do it. How many of you want him to bid? $30,000. What do you think? $30,000. Anybody else? $30,000, going once. This is it, you’re getting your notification, don’t say you didn’t get your fair chance. $30,000, going twice. $30,000, fair warning. Are you putting the paddle up? $30,000.

“Do you want to do it?”

Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

Filed Under: We Went there, Burt Reynolds, Burt Reynolds Auction