Now, 3,700 unpublished black-and-white and colour negatives and transparencies of Greene's Monroe archive are going on the auction block — with copyright. They are but a fraction of 75,000 celebrity negatives and slides Greene shot in the 1950s and 1960s that are going on sale July 27 at Profiles in History in Los Angeles and online.
Copyrights are included with all the material, which is spread over 268 lots, meaning a potential buyer can print images from the negatives and transparencies, sell them and license the material.
"It's a big, big deal. It's like selling the recipe for Coca-Cola," said Joseph Maddalena, owner of Profiles in History, which auctions original Hollywood memorabilia and artifacts.
"It's nearly unheard of in a public venue, particularly for an entire archive," said Christopher Belport, the photography consultant for Profiles in History.
The archive also includes hundreds of production stills of Faye Dunaway during the filming of "Bonnie & Clyde" and Cary Grant and Doris Day in "That Touch of Mink." Among others are Sid Caesar, Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve, Ava Gardner and Marlene Dietrich.
Most of the lots are expected to fetch between $1,000 and $15,000 depending on the number of negatives in each lot and the featured celebrity. But it's anyone's guess what they will bring. "It's unchartered territory," Maddalena said.
Peter Stern, an attorney specializing in arts-related matters, raised concern that unsigned prints made from the negatives could hurt the market. "It's not that hard to sign a photo," he said.
But Maddalena noted: "There are no vintage Milton Greene photographs. ... He was a work-for-hire photographer" shooting covers for Look, Life, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and other magazines.
Like his contemporaries, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Greene is credited with elevating fashion photography to fine art. But unlike them, Greene did not commercialize his work. "Only a handful was published," Maddalena said.
"The sudden opportunity to acquire a large number of camera artifacts from a historically significant photographer will likely amplify the value ... and provide fuller context to those that are sold in the future in auction or privately," Belport said.
The seller is an unidentified American photography collector who purchased the archive about 10 years ago.
The items came from the Greene estate "via a financial institute in Poland that had secured ownership from Greene in a business dealing" with the copyright, the auction house said in a statement.
The photographer's son, Joshua Greene, called it "a bad business deal."
He said that in the process of severing the partnership, he gave them the copyright, calling it "my mistake, which I regret to this day."
Greene operates Archives LLC , a Florence, Ore., company that sells digitally restored prints of historical collections and owns 110,000 negatives and transparencies that his father gave him before he died in 1985 at the age of 63.
Greene said Profiles has the residual of the total film archive of 280,000 items, but not all of it would be of interest to the public.
Archives' limited edition prints are all signed, stamped and authenticated by the estate of Milton Greene.
"The fine art market is protected," Greene said, because any prints made from the film offered at the auction would be far less valuable without the seal of authenticity.
He plans to attend the sale.
"I hate to see Humpty Dumpty broken up into so many pieces — 268 lots. I'd like to see it all come back home under one roof where it belongs," he said.
Negatives and transparencies fade and deteriorate and would need to be digitally re-mastered by anyone who bought them to preserve them forever — a lengthy process that Greene said takes up to 20 hours per negative.
Milton Greene's 1953 assignment for Look was the start of a close friendship and business relationship with Monroe. He shot more than 5,000 images of her during more than 55 sittings over the next four years — until she married Arthur Miller.
Greene was her confidante and mentor. Together they formed Marilyn Monroe Productions, which resulted in "Bus Stop" and "The Prince and the Showgirl."
The rarest other celebrity negatives in the sale are of porn star Linda Lovelace.
He shot 2,000 images of her between her filming of "Deep Throat I" and "Deep Throat II" for a project that was never realized, Maddalena said. "Not one has ever been seen before, and we have them all."
Mark Vieira, an author on the photographic history of Hollywood, said he was flabbergasted by the vastness of the collection.
"Usually this kind of material offers you a slice of history. The Greene collection is more like a chunk of history," Vieira said.