Collect John Wayne memorabilia and you connect yourself to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history.
Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, Wayne’s six-decade career made him an icon of rugged masculinity and the epitome of the American cowboy in Hollywood.
Wayne's journey into acting began in the 1920s when he found work as a prop man and extra.
His breakthrough came with the film "Stagecoach" in 1939, directed by John Ford - the start of a long and successful collaboration between the two. The role established him as a leading man in the industry.
Often portraying characters with a strong, simple sense of morality and justice, Wayne's on-screen persona resonated with audiences.
Probably his best known films were The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), and True Grit (1969), the film for which he finally earned an Academy Award for Best Actor.
He also led the cast of 1962s How the West Was Won, one of the greatest assemblies of stars in Hollywood history, which among its leading players featured Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, Debbie Reynolds, Caroll Baker, Lee J Cobb, Karl Malden, Carolyn Jones, Robert Preston, and Karl Malden.
When he appeared in El Dorado alongside Robert Mitchum the film was trailed as “the big one with the big two”.
In 1966 Wayne was an established Hollywood legend.
Beyond acting, John Wayne was associated with conservative political causes, anti-communism and American patriotism.
He tried to serve in World War II, but his age, family status and usefulness in propaganda largely restricted his military service to tours entertaining the troops. He was later a prominent supporter of the Vietnam War.
He was married three times, and had seven children. His hard-living reputation and tough onscreen persona were not reflected in his family life, he asked his grandchildren to call him “Granddaddy”. Three of his sons, Michael (who died in 2003), Patrick, and Ethan followed him into acting, as did his daughter Aissa. Patrick (who is retired from acting) and Ethan (who now runs the charity foundations in his father’s name) both started their careers in John Wayne pictures.
His long, and incredibly prolific career, mean he innevitably made some missteps, including playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror.
He produced a large number of his own films, directed several, and appeared in over 170 movies. By some reckonings, he is the most lucrative box office star in film history.
His final film, The Shootist, about a terminally ill gunfighter was a suitably melancholic close to his career. He died in 1979 three years after it was released, an American archetype.
John Wayne memorabilia
An enormously long career taking in the golden age of Hollywood, when much of the world went to the cinema multiple times a week, gives a big scope for collecting John Wayne memorabilia.
As with any star, the key to long-term value for collectors is good provenance and authenticity.
Without a documented history and a provable connection to the star you may find yourself with an unsaleable piece.
John Wayne autographs
An example of Wayne's autograph. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions.
Wayne was a star in an era when stars were expected to carry out extensive publicity duties for the studios that employed them.
That led to large scale mass production of non-genuine autographs for many big actors - some were signed by staff, others were stamped (particularly onto hand-out photographs).
So, you do need to know how to spot a genuine autograph.
Autographs are a personal link to a star and they gain added value if they are linked to a particularly notable moment in their career.
For movie actors this may mean signatures on scripts or press coverage related to their biggest roles.
With Wayne, those would be his westerns.
A good quality autograph, framed and with an appropriate image might cost around £1,500.
Dear Duke: a letter from John Ford talks about films planned by Wayne's own production company.
We have letters to Wayne, signed by Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, and best of all, James Stewart, and John Ford. Their prices reflect the contents and interest of the letters as well as the value of the stars. Stewart and Ford in particular are closely associated with Wayne.
John Wayne film props
These are hard to come by and hard to authenticate (props are a type of replica or fake to begin with).
However, if you can find original film props linked to Wayne’s appearances then you should expect to pay high prices for them.
A gun Wayne used in several movies sold in 2021 at auction for over $500,000.
Wayne's revolver proved extremely valuable. Image courtesy Roadhouse Auctions.
It was fired by Rooster Cogburn among others, appeared in several of Wayne’s biggest successes, and was exhaustively documented.
As a contrast a superficially very similar Colt revolver used in the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (a 1936 western) has so far failed to find a buyer despite listing at a well-known online auction house.
That’s the magic of the Wayne name, the right movies, and good provenance.
John Wayne’s legacy is now preserved by a family-run company, John Wayne Enterprises, that sometimes sells items to help fund the John Wayne Cancer Foundation (Wayne, who smoked heavily for much of his life, died of cancer).
Some of the best props from Wayne’s personal collection have entered the market this way.
A 2011 sale of over 120 items realised more than $5 million.
Star sales were the green beret (worn in The Green Berets) that made a then record price for a movie costume hat of nearly $180,000. A cowboy hat worn in two movies made nearly $120,000. His True Grit eye patch was just short of $50,000.
A title graphic from How the West Was Won showing Wayne's name raised $6,000 at auction.
Much more accessible are:
John Wayne film posters
The Searchers is a classic western, considered among the best in the genre.
Classic Hollywood posters are extremely popular with collectibles.
Themed poster collections are a wonderful way to celebrate your love of the cinema.
Signatures, as ever, add value. Condition, size, and authenticity also matter.
A 1956 poster from the Searchers, made for use in cinema lobbies, is listed on eBay for around $4,000 - a figure the carriage costs easily take it over.
Other publicity materials - lobby cards, stills - also have collectible and aesthetic value.
John Wayne merchandise
Wayne was a big star, and he and his films inspired all sorts of made-for-collectors merchandise.
Some of this might be considered kitsch or even tacky, but there is certainly a charm to some of this material.
Mass produced items made for collectors very rarely achieve much value (there are exceptions).
But things like cigarette lighters, glasses, t-shirts, toy guns or cowboy figures might be something you want represented in your collection.
For example, Zippo made a John Wayne series of collectible lighters, and they can make over £100 in good condition.
Wayne smoked heavily on and off screen.
A Congressional Medal was struck to honour Wayne, and these have made over $500 in sales.
Wayne liked to have custom mugs made for fellow cast and crew members on his films. These have been sold on, with the price highly dependent on the quality of the movie, but often over $1,000.
John Wayne’s life
Personal effects can have value.
Wayne was such a big star that he has genuine interest as an historical figure - I would argue this certainly isn’t true of all actors, not even of all stars.
So documents from his life - like a marriage certificate - have value as historical relics. And that value might increase.
What a unique memento this marriage certificate is.
Wayne’s Golden Globe for True Grit sold for nearly $145,000 in 2011. Even a driving licence was worth just short of $90,000.
We don’t know how much of the Wayne collection is still in his family’s custody and it’s possible new sales may occur. Look out for notable anniversaries, as these help to raise the profile and value of memorabilia sales.
Wayne’s legend for you
Is John Wayne a big enough star to support a stand-alone collection?
Absolutely. He’s in the first rank of movie actors commercially and culturally.
No survey of the American film industry would be complete without covering his work.
A young John Wayne starting out on The Big Trail.
The length of his career and the number of films he made mean that there is a lot of material out there too.
You can get a Wayne film script - unsigned - for less than $1,000.
He’s quite accessible as big stars go.
This amount of material and the length of his career means that single signatures, for example, will never reach really extraordinary values. Sadly, it’s the short lives of, say, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, that mean a reduced supply and very high prices.
To get really high prices for Wayne material you need really good quality items, personally linked to him, well documented, and of historical or cultural importance.
But any collection can have great personal satisfaction for its owner, and perhaps that’s the most important aim.
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