The Chelsea Hotel doors hanging at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery. Photos by the author

Inside the $400,000 Auction for the Chelsea Hotel's Famous Doors

For $100,000, someone bought the door to the room where Bob Dylan wrote 'Blonde on Blonde.'

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Apr 16 2018, 3:56pm

The Chelsea Hotel doors hanging at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery. Photos by the author

The opening bid for Bob Dylan’s door, Lot 20, was $10,000. Yet, within mere moments, the fast and furious bidding escalated that price to $40,000. Hands feverishly went up, raising bidding cards. You could feel the adrenaline—52 of the original doors of the legendary Chelsea Hotel were on Guernsey’s auction block.

“In the room, it’s $45,000. Is there any advance now beyond $45,000?” rattled off auctioneer Joanne Grant to the packed room at Ricco/Maresca Gallery on 20th Street, mere blocks from the Chelsea.

“Fifty!” screamed a woman dressed in black.

The momentum picked up steam, as people bid on the very door of the room where Dylan penned his Blonde on Blonde in the fall of 1965. He found his muse at the Chelsea, and wailed on a later album, "Staying up for nights in the Chelsea Hotel writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you."

Now the excitement elevated, bids exceeding $80,000, then $90,000.

“Is there an advance beyond $90,000?” commanded the auctioneer. Then: “$100,000 has been bid.”

The room fell silent.

“Selling once. Selling twice. Selling for $100,000!” Thunderous applause.

“That was fun,” a women exclaimed, telling a friend who was in the bathroom. “You just missed Bob Dylan’s door. It sold for $100,000.”

Built in 1884, the imposing, redbrick building at 222 West 23rd Street has a list of famous former tenants that reads like a greatest-hits package. Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock and Jim Morrison—even Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen once called the Chelsea Hotel home.

“We have a history of doing unique auctions—but this is unique amongst the unique,” Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger, said. "It’s part of an exciting period, because the Chelsea was the definition of excitement. It was a place for creativity, romance, and occasional murder. But all kinds of wonderful things going on; interesting things.”

A magnet for creativity, Stanley Bard served as the hotel's manager until 2007, when the hotel was purchased by the BD Hotels in 2016 for $250 million. In lieu of rent payments, Bard was known to sometimes accept works of art, which he’d showcase in the lobby. The paintings have been gone since renovations on the Chelsea began in 2012. Much like the closing of CBGB’s in 2006, the sale of the doors symbolizes the end of a bygone era in New York.

On the other hand, as Ettinger put it, "The doors represent the preservation of a NY landmark."

Prior to the auction, people had registered to bid on the Chelsea doors from as far away as Hong Kong, Ireland, and France. “It’s hardly just a neighborhood event,” he added.

Gabriel Marchisio

The doors were rescued by Jim Georgiou, a former resident who lived for a decade in room 225—Bob Dylan’s room. Hit on hard times, Georgiou found himself homeless in 2007. So enamored by the Chelsea, after his eviction, he slept in the hotel lobby for a month, and eventually began sleeping outside of it. In 2012, when the new owners began to renovate, Georgiou saw workmen carrying out the doors and leaving them on the curbside for the garbage trucks.

"It was a procession every single day,” Georgiou recalled. “I don’t quite understand how this sort of history gets thrown in the garbage.”

The doors took on a very powerful meaning to Georgiou. He enlisted a friend with a truck to help salvage them, and asked another friend, Turkish-born artist Cigdem Tankut, who lived on the same block as the Chelsea, to use her storage unit. Of the roughly 200 of doors that were thrown out, Georgiou managed to save 52. The rest went into the trash.

Tankut, the unsung hero of the night explained, would hold onto the doors for half a decade. As the auction began to swing shut, she told me she had mixed feelings about the event. "I put them first in my storage space, and I kept them there. I sustained these doors for five years."

Just ten months ago, Georgiou gave Ettinger a cold-call at Guernsey’s and explained his cultural find.

“When I got off the phone with Arlen—within 30 seconds he understood what this was,” Georgiou said. “My gut said these are the people, and they get it.”

But what cemented Guernsey's commitment to the auction was a suggestion from Georgiou. Though he was homeless, he wanted half of his earnings to go to City Harvest, a food rescue and distribution non-profit in New York.

“It was a perfect fit,” said Ettinger.

Cigdem Tankut, who helped Georgiou store the doors

Before the auction, dozens and dozens of people gathered in the gallery to view all the doors on display.

One of them was actor Elizabeth Pugh, who featured as one of the hotel's residents in Abel Ferrara's 2009 documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks .

“New York is a state of mind and it’s important to preserve that,” said Pugh. "To be here is very difficult. It’s very sad. It’s very emotional,” she said beside the door to Room 828. That night, she bid on the door—which also once housed Herbert Huncke, the poet who coined the term "Beat Generation" and who gave William S. Burroughs his first fix.

“I think that the building was unfairly raped," Pugh continued. "These doors are a significant aspect of that. It’s a fine line between this coveting of fame and fanning those flames of certain people’s fame.”

So, how did Pugh feel going through door 828 every day?

“Safe— I’m safe,” she recalled. “The sense of community was incredible… There were paupers to gazillionaires. The equanimity was the same. Stanley yelled at everybody the same."

“It was a nightmare oasis," she added. "It was like a haunted house, all-inclusive.”

Moments before the bidding began, Pugh whispered to me that she wasn't totally convinced it was her door on the auction block. “My door was a dark brown.”

Elizabeth Pugh beside the door to Room 828

“Good luck and bid high,” exclaimed the auctioneer, and the Chelsea Hotel doors went under the hammer.

The door where Madonna once fit her key after coming to New York in the early 80s was sold for $13,000 (she also shot photos for her book, Sex, at the hotel).

The door attributed to both the Rolling Stones' late founder Brian Jones and actor Liam Neeson made the crowd hoot. Then came the door behind which Iggy Pop and Bette Davis once lived, though not at the same time. The door belonging to Jim Morrison, the Doors frontman, was scooped up for $7,500, while Jimi Hendrix's door went up for $13,000.

“That’s nothing!” exclaimed an astonished auction attendee. “It’s Jimi Hendrix’s door!”

Then, more big buys. The door to the room where Andy Warhol filmed Edie Sedgwick in Chelsea Girls got the gavel at $52,500. The other big taker of the night was the very door, 424, behind which musical icons Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen had the sexual tryst that would inspire Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."

“Selling once. Selling twice. Sold over the phone for $85,000.”

At the slam of the gavel, Gabriel Marchisio, a Uruguayan painter and current resident of the Chelsea since 1999 (roughly 50 rent-regulated rooms still remain), remarked on how surreal the whole experience was. "It’s kind of dramatic. I feel I know these doors," he said through a thick accent. "In 1999, I would never suspect it. How can you imagine that people would pay $10,000 or $100,000 for something like a door?”

Marchisio suggested that the memory of the Chelsea Hotel’s former glory is why people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for wooden pieces of its history. “Of course, it’s nice to have our memory of a place, when you worship a person like Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. It’s interesting. These small particles are filled with the energy of the big portal that is the Chelsea Hotel.”

Jim Georgiou

At the end of the auction, Tankut told me that she felt Guernsey's did a good job, and was glad that some of the money would be going to a good cause. She didn’t mind someone else got to be the star, but admitted that she should have been “the moon,” adding, “I’m ready for my next project. I don’t want to dwell on this.”

Meanwhile, Georgiou warmly addressed the patrons: “This is not about me. This is about the hotel and the spirit of the hotel," he said. "The hotel was founded on a utopian principal—of kindness, cooperation, and love. I think the symbol of what this represents is that a community like that can exist... There was light. There was dark. There was kookiness. There was elegance and sinisterness. Everything just collided together to make it a very magical place.”

Afterward, I asked Georgiou how he felt about the auction, while he stood by his, and Bob Dylan’s, former door.

“It’s a nice feeling because I think it was a celebration. I think everyone that was here appreciates the building—what it stood for,” he explained.

“What was it like going through this door every day?” I asked, gesturing to a portal that was now worth $100,000.

“It was wonderful," he said. "I loved living in there. I mean, it was the biggest door in the hotel. It was a sanctuary.”

Pugh, in the end, wasn’t able to buy her door. It went for $5,500—Pugh stopped bidding at $3,000: “Which is ridiculous—and I’m not even convinced that it's my door—but I thought, I lived there, you can’t buy experience," she said. "To be honest, I feel sad. I spent so much of my life hand-to-mouth, so to spend money on a door at a place that I lived and then I left... it didn’t make any sense.”

I asked her what she thought of the person who spent $100,000 on Bob Dylan’s door.

“Good for them,” she said, adding, “Maybe he bought it?” But for now, the story of the door's final resting place remains an open one.

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