The Underground World Of Collecting Movie Memorabilia


“Previous generations bought Renoirs and Cézannes,” Dan Lanigan says. “We’re buying stormtrooper helmets and Ghostbusters proton packs.” The burly TV producer is referring to the obsessive (and costly) pursuit of prop collecting. “This is the fine art of my generation.”

It used to be an underground hobby. People did it, but nobody talked about it—not only because it was embarrassing to admit that you coveted Charlton Heston’s slave collar from Planet of the Apes but also because, since such things were studio property, it was illegal to own them. Shady studio insiders and a cabal of collectors struck deals in private. That all changed in 1970, when MGM cleared some clutter from its soundstages with a three-day auction. Among the frayed costumes and antique furniture that hit the block were two of the most important sci-fi props ever made: the proto-steampunk contraption from the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and the miniature model of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, better known as the Forbidden Planet flying saucer. The time machine sold for almost $10,000, and while there’s no record of what the silver saucer went for then, it changed hands eight years ago for $76,700. Since MGM’s auction, prices for the best sci-fi props have routinely hit six-figures. In October 2015, the miniature Rebel blockade runner ship from Star Wars: Episode IV pulled down $450,000.

This very expensive hobby is about more than snatching up the coolest specimens. It’s about lost youth, self-identification, preserving the past, and—though most collectors won’t admit it—hero worship and secret cosplay. There are some things in life more thrilling than watching your favorite movie late at night while clutching a screen-used prop from the same flick in your trembling, sweaty palms, but it’s a very short list.

Prop Deckard039s PKD blaster |  Film Blade Runner  | Designers Terry Lewis and Ridley Scott | Materials .222 caliber...

Prop: Deckard’s PKD blaster | Film: Blade Runner (1982) | Designers: Terry Lewis and Ridley Scott | Materials: .222 caliber Steyr-Mannlicher SL rifle, Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special, six LEDs (four red, two green) | Most Recent Selling Price: $270,000

Photograph: Dan Winters

When the Blade Runner gun surfaced, it was a big deal for the sci-fi prop community. After 24 years without a sighting, enthusiasts had resigned themselves to the idea that Deckard’s hand cannon was lost forever, like tears in rain. Then suddenly there it was, at the 2006 Worldcon, displayed under glass in all its off-world glory. Using 170 forensic photographs documenting every screw, scratch, and rust spot, hardcore collectors on the RPF hobbyist website were able to make a positive ID. Not only was this an authentic BR gun, it was the authentic “hero” blaster—hero being prop lingo for the detailed model used in close-ups—the very same weapon Harrison Ford used to blow away replicants. Three years later, Deckard’s PKD (a sly nod to Philip K. Dick, the author of Blade Runner’s source material) sold at auction for $270,000. The winning bidder was Dan Lanigan, a burly TV producer known for bidding up lots that pass the “mom test,” props so indelibly iconic that even your mother would recognize them. The allure of this hero blaster is that, unlike so many sci-fi heaters, it looks and feels like a real gun. That’s because it’s made with real gun parts. The steel slab atop the barrel and the magazine below are from a .222-caliber Steyr-Mannlicher SL bolt-action target rifle (the factory serial number is clearly visible: 5223). The other primary donor organs were pulled from a Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special. This inspired mix of high- and low-tech components strikes the perfect balance between dystopian sci-fi and gumshoe noir.

Prop ED209 VFX miniature | Film RoboCop  | Designer Craig Hayes | Materials Resin wire rubber and foam over a metal...

Prop: ED-209 VFX miniature | Film: RoboCop (1987) | Designer: Craig Hayes | Materials: Resin, wire, rubber, and foam over a metal armature | Estimated Value: $60,000 to $80,000

Photograph: Dan Winters



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