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How the LA library bid $144,000 for a hidden trove of celebrity photos

Christina Rice’s obsession with a 1930s movie star led the Los Angeles Public Library last year into an auction for 12,500 celebrity photographs — the vast majority never published — taken by a post office worker who spent nights and weekends at the parties, haunts and ballrooms of the famous.

The idea of attending the sale came to Rice, head of the library’s photo collection, after a friend noticed that pictures of actress Ann Dvorak were part of an immense portfolio left by deceased photographer John Verzi set to be auctioned at Bonhams. Rice had published a biography on Dvorak, who starred with Paul Muni in the original “Scarface” and Bette Davis in “Three on a Match” before moving to Hawaii, where she died in 1979.

“It’s insane Verzi got these pictures. Dvorak was reclusive. They’re astounding photos,” said Rice, whose red lipstick, thick-framed glasses and Bettie Page haircut evoke a 1950s panache. “I personally couldn’t afford the whole collection just to get two photos.”

A woman stands next to a wall covered in photos.

Christina Rice, head of the L.A. Central Library’s photo collection, stands in front of her office, lined with memorabilia of actress Ann Dvorak. Rice wrote a book on her life. She is now working on the portfolio of roughly 12,500 slides of celebrities taken by photographer John Verzi, who died in 2018.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Rice suggested that City Librarian John Szabo consider purchasing the collection as an addition to the library’s archives. “I sent it to John as a kind of joke, saying ‘I think we should buy this,’” she said. “But he instantly saw the value of it, and we registered for the auction. This fits the Library’s mission. There are so many locales and specific events — play openings and restaurants — that aren’t documented elsewhere.”

The collection, according to Rice, includes the only known photograph of Marilyn Monroe at a private dinner in 1961 at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills honoring director Billy Wilder.

Verzi’s work was a diary of A-list celebrities taken over decades. But the breadth of the portfolio and its significance to Hollywood and entertainment history is its focus on character actors, child actors, aging silent film stars, musicians and others who shone briefly and fell into obscurity.

“It’s pathological in a way to have 12,500 best friends, but he found a way to take care of them. They’re all in perfect condition. No fingerprints on them.”

— Wendy Horowitz

“This collection is so Los Angeles,” said Rice, whose biography on Dvorak, “Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel,” was published in 2013. “Dvorak trusted Verzi enough to let him photograph her in her backyard in Honolulu in 1971.”

When Verzi died in 2018, he was an 83-year-old gambler living in a trailer in Las Vegas. His one-page handwritten will left everything, including boxes of photographs and 25,000 autographs, to his best friend at the Venice Beach post office, where he worked until 1989. The autographs — one of the largest collections even seen — were sold for about $80,000. David Kaye, a rare-books and memorabilia dealer, arranged the autograph sale and for the photographs to be auctioned.

A man stands between rows of bookshelves, his upraised right arm resting against a shelf.

Book dealer David Kaye, shown in his store on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, arranged for the auction of 12,500 celebrity photographs taken by John Verzi, a savant who disappeared years ago to a trailer in Las Vegas. Verzi died in 2018.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

They were the life’s work of a man who, like a monk, protected all he gathered into a treasure few had glimpsed. “They were unpublished,” said Wendy Horowitz, a library archivist cataloging the collection. “It’s pathological in a way to have 12,500 best friends, but he found a way to take care of them. They’re all in perfect condition. No fingerprints on them. The photographs look as fresh and clean as the day they were taken.”

“We all became obsessed with John,” said Kaye. “How the hell did this guy get that kind of access? You couldn’t do that today. I think almost none of the pictures were ever published. He wanted it private until his death.”

Rice remembered the day she and Szabo showed up at the auction house. They received the requisite paddle and waited for the bidding. “John controlled the paddle,” she said. “I don’t have a poker face. Someone online was bidding against us. There was applause when our bid ($144,000) won. I exhaled. Maybe a tear fell. It was very suspenseful.”

Verzi’s photographs will join an estimated 4 million other images in the library’s permanent photo collection. They will go online — no date has been set — after they are cataloged and archived.

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