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'Empress of the night' puts cabaret costumes on sale

PARIS -- From French can-can dresses to fox capes, plumed headdresses to feather boas, the long-time owner of the Folies Bergere cabaret put a treasure trove of extravagant costumes under the hammer on Saturday.

Nicknamed the “empress of the night,” Helene Martini ran the Folies Bergere — Paris's biggest music hall, founded in 1869 — from 1974 until last year when it was acquired by the Lagardere group.

Over three decades the showgirl-turned-cabaret manager salvaged some 6,000 stage costumes in an outbuilding of her 19th-century chateau southeast of Paris, and in a storeroom in the Pigalle red-light district, where she still lives most of the time.

“It's time for me to let it all go. I've worked enough! I am nearly 90 after all,” she told AFP in an interview ahead of the sale, saying she was keeping just two embroidered Hungarian dresses to wear for fun around the house.

The Polish-born Martini landed in Paris aged 20 after the end of World War II, having lost much of her family, and narrowly escaped death herself. Starting out as a showgirl at the Folies Bergere, she went on to run half a dozen Paris nightclubs, first with her Syrian husband then alone after he died.

The Folies Bergere is perhaps best known for having launched the career of the African-American Josephine Baker, who became an overnight sensation when she performed in 1926 wearing a skirt of artificial bananas and little else.

Most of Martini's glittery collection, in European sizes 36 to 38, British sizes eight to 10, was designed and sewn in the music hall's own workshops from 1970 to 2000.

A first batch of 600 lots, including dresses and accessories, went on sale to the general public at an auction held over two days Saturday and Sunday by Bailly-Pommery & Voutier in the former stock exchange building in central Paris.

“The idea is to be able to take home a souvenir of the Folies Bergere, which are part of the history of Paris,” auctioneer Florent Magnin told AFP.

Built in 1869 and renamed Folies Bergere in 1872, the music hall offered a mix of fare ranging from operettas to scantily clad showgirl revues, but also performances by top artists such as Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald.

Each headline revue ran for five years, requiring hefty investments in costumes and stage sets, Magnin said.

For the public auction, he said reserve prices were set deliberately low “even though we expect some items to go for a lot more.”

Accessories start at just 20 euros (US$25), little dresses at 100 euros, rising to 800 euros for huge-skirted crinoline dresses, the most expensive items in the sale — but still far short of the 5,000 euros each one cost to make.

A second, larger sale will take place on Wednesday in the east of Paris, this time aimed at theatre companies and trade buyers.

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Costumes from the Folies Bergere are displayed at the Palais de la Bourse as part of the “Ventes de folie” auction in Paris, Friday, June 8. The auction of the Helene Martini collection, former owner of the Folies Bergere, features more than 6,000 costumes from the cabaret and runs from June 8 to 10.

(AFP)

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