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Giving Props Where Due: A Behind the Scenes Look at Movie Memorabilia Performance

Giving Props Where Due: A Behind the Scenes Look at Movie Memorabilia Performance
July 13, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Propstore

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For once, it was the trophy assets that failed and the rest of the pack that propped up the market.

For at least the last 12 months, the most coveted assets in almost every category have notched headline sales while the field floundered. That was not the case at last month’s Entertainment Memorabilia Live Auction at Propstore in Los Angeles.

The two most coveted items in the event - Batman’s Batpod from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and Princess Leia’s dress from the end of A New Hope - went unsold thanks to high reserves. In both cases, bidding soared to $975,000, but there was no Bruce Wayne to seal the deal with a handsome bid. No white knight for The Dark Knight.

In this market, which has been replete with headline-fodder, record sales, it’s become commonplace for consignors to hold their prizes in high esteem…and at high valuations. Wary of relinquishing a grail at an unsatisfactory price, they set reserves, perhaps not fully appreciating that failure to meet those reserves can have a damning effect on the asset itself in future sales opportunities.

We’ve seen a few instances of unmet reserves recently in sports. Most famously, there was the Jackie Robinson jersey featured in King of Collectibles. However, for a more illustrative example of an item being burned by an unmet reserve, look no further than the ball from Maradona's Hand of God World Cup match. Bidding surpassed £2 million at Graham Budd Auctions in late 2022, but the item failed to sell. It came to Goldin in February, and while bidding was still strong, it didn't reach those levels and once again went unsold. The opportunity to sell near those prices after two failed attempts may not soon come again.

At Sotheby’s, items of that stature - and with those reserves - haven’t even come to the block unless accompanied by an irrevocable bid that assures their sale. Sometimes, that’s been the only bid, but it shows there are differing approaches to sales of this magnitude.

At Propstore, Princess Leia’s appeals for a bidder (help me bidder, you're my only hope) fell on deaf ears. What will become of that dress and the Batpod remains to be seen. If the reserve was set because the consignor was truly happy to continue owning the item for several more years, then no harm done. But if liquidity is desired, it could be an opportunity missed.

When you set those notable unsold items aside, though, the market for high-end movie memorabilia, props, and costumes appears to be bustling.

Versus the 2022 edition of this event, the top 100 sales were down 9%. But, that’s where the failure to sell of the marquee items is relevant. Last year’s event featured a $2.4 million sale of the model Star Wars X-Wing used to film A New Hope. If you exclude that sale (and the top successful sale from this year), 2023 was actually up 18% over 2022.

There are very few categories or auction events you could say that about this year.

Interestingly, the event fared better than last year's in two ranges: above $200,000, which six lots achieved this year versus just 1 last year, and between $30,000 and $50,000, where 49 lots settled in 2023 versus 34 in 2022. These figures may speak to a a heightened degree of demand for a high tier of assets just below the trophy assets, as well as an emerging class of well-heeled collectors at a slightly more accessible tier.

When you browse Propstore’s catalogs, you quickly come to two realizations: 1) being a prop coordinator would be an incredibly demanding job requiring immense imagination, and 2) there is an incredible wealth and diversity of movie memorabilia found desirable by collectors. From Star Wars to The Big Lebowski, the offerings consistently cross a breadth of categories, fanbases, and generations, but as in other categories, the money filters uphill to the most desirable items from the most widely-beloved movies.

The large breadth and variety also means it can be hard for any one item in the middle of the pack to stand out in a given event. This event was not without its warning signs:

  • A short-bladed lightsaber of Obi Wan Kenobi's from The Phantom Menace sold at last year's event for $37,500. At this event, the same lightsaber was up for sale and went unsold with bidding reaching $27,500.
  • Darth Maul's lightsaber from the climactic battle of the same movie sold in London in November of 2021 for £50,000. It returned to this event, and bidding got to $47,500 but the item failed to sell.
  • One of the 500 first print copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone saw bidding get to $97,500 but the book went unsold. You could argue both that it might have been better placed at a book specific sale and that the reserve was excessive.
  • A feather from Forrest Gump - yes, a freaking feather - sold at February's event for $5,937.50. A different Gump feather sold at this event for $1,500. We love Forrest as much as the next guy, and we recognize the value of a moment more than most, but my goodness, just whack a down pillow a few times and save yourself some money.

There was one noticeable change in the marketing of this year's event. Despite 20% fewer lots than last year overall, 94 lots feature "screen-match" in their title versus just 33 in 2022. In any memorabilia category, collectors continue to demonstrate a preference for items that can be reliably placed in the star's hands or alongside them.

While there were sales from Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Poltergeist, the scariest sale of the event was easily the $262,500 paid for the screen-matched Jumanji game board. Have you lost your mind?! You paid $262,500 to willingly bring that into your home?! Please, please, please for Alan Parrish's sake, do NOT play that game.

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