In the late 1960's, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda went to a surplus auction and purchased two Los Angeles Police Department used motorcycles: Props for a small budget film they were making about two buddies taking a road trip across America's South during the twilight days of the hippie era. The bikes were engine-overhauled and heavily chromed. Ape-hanger handlebars were mounted on the front ends. The gas tanks were painted with red white and blue flag decoration and the front forks were lengthened and re-angled at a 45-degree slant. One of the bikes was wrecked during production. Its mechanical understudy was stolen before the filming was finished. Peter Fonda recently speculated that the sole surviving "Captain America" chopper was probably disassembled and sold off for spare parts. Nobody thought of movie set hardware as having antique collectible value in those days. And concerning the film itself, how many people would have guessed "Easy Rider" would become a hit, not to mention a cultural icon?
In 1970, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer commissioned a three-week auction to dispose of 45 years of accumulated costumes (numbering 150,000+), set design elements and props (numbering 12,000+) used in more than 2000 movies. Being twelve years old at the time, I did not attend the auction. Shame, because my life's savings earned as a paperboy and farmhand would probably have afforded me several interesting lots. Things like: the trench coat Clark Gable wore in several movies, a circa 1958 coat of mail used in making "Ben Hur," a gilded and upholstered classically designed throne chair used in "Cleopatra" (1962), a hat an parasol graced by Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (1964) and the brass bed Elizabeth Taylor purred-around-in making "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). I doubt I could have afforded the Wicked Witch of the West's 20" tall hourglass ("The Wizard of Oz," 1939) or The Cowardly Lion's costume but my parents and most of friends' parents certainly could have. While posters and such ephemera items have always been popular with antique and Hollywood collectors; film and TV hardware fetched little money several decades past.
A 1979 movie memorabilia article for Time/Life's "Encyclopedia of Collectibles" reads, "Such objects-the equipment used in making movies-are collected by only a few specialists. Extensive collections present a major storage problem." If only we could have gotten over that problem of "storage" and did a little investing back then, we'd be Singing in the Rain today. Demonstrating how times have changed, here are a few representative entertainment prop prices recently achieved at auction:
- One of approximately seven pairs of Ruby Slippers made for Judy in "The Wizard of Oz." (Three pairs were bargained away by a studio costumer at MGM's 1970 auction.): $660,000, May 2000.
- Three piece white polyester suit worn by John Travolta in 1977's "Saturday Night Fever:" $145,000, June 1995.
- 16-plait kangaroo hide bullwhip snapped by Harrison Ford in all three Indian Jones films: $44,160, December 1999.
- 30" wide lunch box used in the Lily Tomlin film "The Incredible Shrinking Woman:" $604
- Two crisscross pattern doors prominent in Rick's Café in the 1942 movie "Casablanca:" $20,700, December 1994.
- Played by Frank Sinatra in 1967, private detective "Tony Rome's" photographic I.D. cards reading from A&A Investigators, Inc.: $3,055, May 2000.
- Pale Yellow Linen jacked worn by Elvis Presley in 1966's "Spinout:" $9,400, June 2001.
- Two Mickey Mouse Club shirts, one each worn by Annette Funicello and Sharon Baird in the 1955-1959 TV series: $10,575, May 2000.
- Mid 19th Century terrestrial globe pictured in the library scene of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:" $25,080, March 2002.
Not all movie props fetch big prices. Various props from the recent classic film, "Cider House Rules" (1999) including a farm table ($660), cast iron stove ($110), library stand ($259), four chairs ($99) fetched little more than they would have without star billing at a recent auction near Amherst, Massachusetts. Prop collectors and the plethora of today's "Planet Hollywood" type buyers want sexy, highly noticeable props and costumes from shows that have star appeal and lasting qualities. Things like Luke Skywalker's light saber, James Bond's secret agent gadgets, the Phantom of the Opera's mask, Superman's cape and Orson Wells "Rosebud" sled from "Citizen Cane" (1941). Imagine what that would fetch today! If "Easy Rider's" original set chopper were to resurface, unencumbered by legal liens, etc., its market value would come in at around a half million dollars. You can well imagine it prominently displayed in Jay Leno's famous motorcycle collection. The Late Night host might even house it in his living or game room. That is, if Jack Nicholson or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Pickerington, Ohio's "Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum" didn't have another kickstand local in mind for one of the long lost Kings-of-the-Road of Harley-Davidson choppers.