by Dennis Prince
So you missed bidding on Lucy Liu's lethal Chinese Fighting Muffins at Yahoo Auctions' Charlie's Angels auction? No matter, online auctions are a source of more such silver screen mementos. Maybe you dream of owning an actual Terminator 2 Hunter-Killer, Bruce Willis' rubber feet from Die Hard, or just a handful of Gatling gun ammo blasted at the Predator. Well, with a little patience, a good dose of research, and some strategic bidding tactics, you might find yourself the proud owner of a piece of true motion picture history.
A Prop-er Education
Start with the word itself: prop is short for property, a term used to describe all manner of physical elements used in a film, television, or stage production. Props were once created and maintained by a studio's onsite Property Department and, in decades past, these props were dutifully numbered and inventoried, right down to the smallest ashtray. Many collectors dreamed of wandering through the Prop Department, fantasizing about the wonderful relics they might encounter.
Today, prop collectors know that just about any item they see on screen could be a fabricated mockup. "Almost every physical element you see in a movie or TV show isn't real. A knife isn't a real knife, food isn't real food, all depending on how it will be used," explained film sculptor and modeler Nelson Broskey. "Most props are made of resin, rubber, foam, wood, or whatever. They have to withstand hours on a set under the heat of lights, need to be lightweight and safe for the actors, and be reasonably durable for the length of the shoot. Real stuff just isn't practical or simply won't hold up."
OK. So if just about anything seen on screen could be a prop, how are such props created and what might collectors expect to find in their quest for these entertainment artifacts? Broskey offers up this list of prop categories (and some prop terminology), in order of general desirability and potential value:
The Master: Also know as a pattern or "buck," this is the original sculpture, assembly, or conglomeration of various parts and pieces used to make a mold for the subsequent props that find their way in front of the camera. Typically one of a kind, with very few surviving the molding phase, the buck is the most rare item in prop creation.
The Hero: This is the "working prop." Often one of a kind as well, this typically is the most detailed and functional prop seen on screen. It's the piece of hardware that beeps, lights up, or does whatever else is required for that all-important key close-up. If the hero prop will take a beating (as in the case of on-screen damage or destruction) and is not cheap or easy to rebuild, then duplicate "hero" props might be made.
Casts From Original Mold: When multiples of a piece are needed (such as weapons for the entire Starfleet entourage), the mold of the buck is used for as many pieces as are required. In addition to these "background" film props (which is often their use), the crew might make additional copies as insurance against defective or damaged pieces, as a gift for a production executive, or just for the purpose of having an extra for themselves (that is, if not forbidden by production companies). Although it's tough to determine whether these props have actually been captured on film, they are considered original simply because they are first-generation props--cast from the original buck. Expect these to be the most common type of authentic prop collectible you'll encounter on the open market.
Recasts: These are often mistaken or misrepresented as first-generation props, when, in fact, they can be significantly different. These are cast from a new mold struck from a first-generation prop (a task easily achieved by anyone with the most rudimentary crafting skills). While a recast still has lineage to an original prop, and thereby has a certain element of desirability, expect that some of the finer details found in the first-generation piece might be lost, obscured, or altered.
Replicas: Just as the name implies, these are new sculptures made in the image of an original prop. Therefore, they usually are available in the greatest quantity (as the original piece wasn't used or needed to generate the replica). They also are the least desirable of props among serious collectors but can be a low-cost alternative for a casual or decorative collector. These are typically deemed the "knock offs" of the prop world.
Since props aren't typically numbered, categorized, and housed in erstwhile Prop Departments anymore, collectors who seek only original pieces need to carefully research a prop, know the lineage, and, whenever possible, call in an expert.
When filmmakers think of prop experts, one name quickly comes to mind: Bob Burns. Having acquired his very first prop at the age of 13--the silver wolf's head from Lon Chaney's cane in 1941's The Wolf Man--Burns has since become the curator of some of filmdom's greatest prop treasures and is a sought-after consultant, providing expertise and commentary to the likes of Universal Studios (Universal Monsters DVD series), The Discovery Channel, and The Sci-Fi Channel.
Within Burns' amazing museum of movie artifacts, one can find the original time machine from the film the same name, the Alien Queen from Aliens, and thousands of other compelling--and authentic--pieces of film lore. However, Burns is not an investor, nor a dealer. Rather, he is an impassioned enthusiast of movie wizardry and a dedicated historian of the props he watches over. (Bob doesn't believe he "owns" any of these props that the industry has entrusted to his care--he is "merely the caretaker.")
So when asked to comment on authenticating props that are found for sale on the open market, Burns cites the need to know the item's origin. "It's much the same thing as collecting autographs: You need to know the history of the item," he said. "This is something people should look out for--there are a ton of bogus props out there." Though he takes no interest in policing the prop market, he has noted that many props he has seen for sale actually are replicas, which concerns him since that information isn't always explicitly stated. "It's definitely buyer beware out there," he said.
Burns acknowledges the bittersweet truth about authentic props: "If it looks brand new, it probably is. Most real props are deteriorated or discolored. If it's too clean and too nice, it's probably not authentic."
So does that mean collectors, dreaming of a beautiful relic to proudly display on their mantel, are headed for an aesthetic letdown? "It depends what [the props are] made out of," Burns said. "Fiberglass and wooden props will probably last forever. A rubber prop won't last long unless it's made of vulcanized rubber. Foam rubber, in a few years, will start to deteriorate--there are going to be cracks in it, there's going to be discoloration." According to Burns, some vintage rubber props deteriorate into a consistency that he describes as being like "a weird bubblegum that smells like a burnt automobile tire."
And though years of hands-on expertise and accumulation of thousands of props reveal the true toll that time takes on authentic relics, that hasn't detered Burns' fondness for authentic props. In his upcoming book, It Came From the Bob's Basement, he and co-author John Michlig treat readers to a rare glimpse into his museum of movie magic, giving collectors and enthusiasts the opportunity to see and learn about vintage props, their history, and their telling characteristics.
"This is the real stuff," he said. "It's wonderful and, although it's not always pretty, it's authentic and it's important film history."
An Ap-prop-riate Appraisal
But what are authentic props worth today? The answer sometimes can be as sticky as that weird bubblegum. It's time to call upon an experienced appraiser for guidance here. Elyse Luray Marx, AuctionWatch.com appraiser and specialist of entertainment memorabilia at The Auction Channel, appropriately notes, "It all depends on the item; it's a case-by-case situation."
Valuation begins with authentication, of course, but that's just the beginning. According to Marx, several other factors need to be considered, including the condition of the prop, who used it in the film, how important the prop was to the production, the historical significance of the film, and even whether the film was an award winner.
But if many props are unique, how is a dollar value to be assigned? "You have to sit back and look at the marketplace at the time the item is being offered," Marx explained, "while also considering what other similar props have sold for in the past."
And how about the hype factor? The current popularity of a film or actor definitely plays a strong role in the potential value of an item. "John Travolta's white suit from Saturday Night Fever was purchased by film critic Gene Siskel years ago for $2,000," Marx recounted. "At the time Siskel bought it [at a charity auction], Travolta wasn't as popular. After his comeback in Pulp Fiction, Christie's auctioned the suit and it sold for $145,500." Though it could be argued costumes aren't actually "props" (they are termed "wardrobe" or "costumes"), the correlation is no less applicable.
However, it can't be stressed enough: Authenticity is key to a prop's value, just as it is to desirability. Marx noted that if no identifiable marking or tagging can be found (such as is common in wardrobe pieces and vintage studio props), it's important to track down the indisputable--preferably well-documented--provenance of the item. As Burns noted, the history of an item is crucial to determining its origin and, as Marx confirms, is tantamount to determining a potential value.
The Pursuit of Props
Today, independent groups and businesses that specialize in manufacturing film faux create most props. If you're thinking about dropping by such a prop-shop, though, think again. "Many prop houses are simple garage-type setups that are almost impossible to find," Broskey said. "Production companies keep a very low profile, maintaining a watchful eye and tight lip on props intended for productions that are in progress. These shops can't afford to be detected by stray passersby."
During a production, many props literally are destroyed and abused to the point that many never make it out of a production intact. If they do survive, some studios and filmmakers are very thorough about ensuring their props are properly recovered or destroyed (or sent to Bob Burns' archive), preventing them from falling into unauthorized hands.
"Collectors have to really beware that some props [being sold or auctioned] may have been stolen from studios," noted Burns. "That's illegal and an eventual owner could have the prop taken away by the studio that holds copyright." Indeed, it's well known that George Lucas had his people track down stolen Star Wars props. One such prop was found and recovered, and the unlawful, not to mention temporary, owner actually was prosecuted.
Given that, aspiring prop collectors are left to wonder where they can find authentic props. The good news is that studios have seen the market value of authentic props and actively are engaged in providing such pieces for sale and up for bid at online auctions.
"Auctions for authentic props are strong today, and the studios know that," said Marx. "In the contemporary market, it's a good time to buy props." And, with studios backing such auctions, authenticity is practically a nonissue.
Of late, both Amazon.com Auctions and Yahoo Auctions have been host to a number of special, studio-sponsored online auctions, featuring authentic memorabilia from films such as Charlie's Angels and Gladiator. The traditional auction houses, including Sotheby's, Christie's, and Butterfields, and film studios also often hold prop auctions, online and offline.
Finally, collectors can find hundreds of additional prop auctions within eBay Great Collections and the standard auction listings at eBay, Yahoo Auctions, and Amazon.com Auctions. Of course, the caveat always remains: Bidders and buyers need to be well informed and adequately assured of an item's origin and authenticity. Auction venues and sellers can make mistakes, and collectors are best protected if they know even more about a coveted prop than the proprietor offering it for sale.
If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact Dennis Prince at firstname.lastname@example.org