A history of movie memorabilia collecting

From the 1920s onwards, the film industry boomed. Blockbuster movies captured the imaginations of millions, but still the thriving business failed to capitalise on a potential moneymaker - memorabilia collecting.

Clark Gable dressing gown
Fancy relaxing in Clark Gable's dressing gown? This one was used in his down time while filming Gone with the Wind

Props, costumes, stage sets, promo materials and more were being thrown away or reconfigured. Sure, there were a few employees collecting mementoes from the film they worked on, but the public had yet to catch on.

In 1970, this was all to change: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, the vast movie-making complex that presided over the film industry, decided to sell a vast cache of its unwanted memorabilia "for a mere $1.5m" to auctioneer David Weisz.

A market awakens

Included in Weisz's remarkable job-lot were over 350,000 costumes alone, not to mention scores of scripts and mountains of memorabilia. Weisz soon catalogued all of the items and held an auction - the event that awakened a powerful demand for movie memorabilia.

"How much do we hear?" asked auctioneer David Weisz as the auction got underway, according to a report in the LA Times. "Decanter, cut crystal. Start at 10 I have 20. Thirty bid by the lady. Who bids 40? I have 40. Fifty bid. Fifty-five. Sixty. Do I hear 70?  Who'll make it 80? Going at 90. Fair warning. Going. Sold for 90."

Included in the catalogue - today a collectible in its own right - were relics that would make some collectors weak at the knees today: the Cowardly Lion costume from The Wizard of Oz, the original prop from 1960's The Time Machine and the loincloth worn by Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan.

Among the auction's attendees were some of the major players in the future of film collecting, including actress Debbie Reynolds, and Kent Warner, who was employed to help catalogue the hoard and retained several pairs of ruby slippers from The Wizard of OZ - some of the most sought after pieces of memorabilia on the market today.

"The turning point came with costumer Kent Warner, who realised there was a market for these items and amassed a large private collection that he liberated from the films he worked on - it was even said that he saved Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca trench coat, which was about to be incinerated," explained antiques expert George Johnson to Money Maker Magazine.

Unlike today's auctions, thousands of items remained unsold after the gavel fell for the final time, and were then sold in the gift shop of MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

Exponential entertainment

Think iconic: the best pieces are those that are permanently held in the public mind

The sale received widespread media attention and from then on the market for movie memorabilia exploded. Small businesses and dealers began to spring up in the US, slowly spreading around the world throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Christie's became the first auction house to offer sales dedicated to entertainment memorabilia in the 1980s, with its prestigious name validating the hobby and attracting top collectors. Soon after, the buzz became contagious, and even the most reluctant businesses were forced to accept that movie memorabilia collecting was here to stay.

A landmark came in 1982, when director Steve Spielberg paid $60,500 for a "Rosebud" sled from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

As big sales continued to draw attention, more film studios and production companies were holding on to their most valuable props, increasing the rarity of quality items and driving values higher. With this came the development of limited-edition pieces specially created as "collectibles", which remain one of the biggest pitfalls for the prospective collector.

Yet, the collecting community was disjointed, a group of individual collectors and enthusiasts with no central hub in which to meet and exchange tips and ideas.

Enter the internet and therefore, the modern age of movie memorabilia...

You've got mail

When the internet reached the homes of thousands of collectors, its intended use was obvious to movie collectors: connecting with the like-minded legions around the world.

Email groups and discussion boards such as MoPo (a mailing list for movie poster lovers) gave collectors the power to compare and contrast their collections at last.

With this came a greater empowerment of the collectors, who could use their combined knowledge to spot fakes and counterfeits. The hobby became self-regulating, and now very few collectibles slip through the net without first being scrutinised by dedicated collecting sites.  

With the market firmly established and jaw-dropping items regularly making headlines (such as the Maltese Falcon prop, which made $398,500 at Christie's in 1994), the market was ready for another watermark event.

Reynolds' return

That sale came in 2011, when Debbie Reynolds, an attendee and buyer at the now-legendary 1970 MGM auction, and one of the world's biggest collectors of film memorabilia, decided to part with her awesome amassment.

Leading entertainment auction house Profiles in History was chosen to handle the sale. $22.8m of costumes and memorabilia crossed the block, including:

  • Marilyn Monroe's Seven Year Itch dress - $5.6m
  • Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady dress - $3.7m
  • Judy Garland's Dorothy dress - $910,000
  • Julie Andrews' Sound of Music dress - $550,000
  • Charlie Chaplin's Tramp bowler hat - $110,000
My Fair Lady Dress
Lady Gaga has said Hepburn's My Fair Lady dress is her all-time favourite costume

"I heard the news that MGM was going to sell their inventory of costumes and props. I went everyday for weeks and focused on purchasing the costumes and props of Academy Award winning films," Reynolds said at the time of the 1970 sale. "It soon turned into an obsession… until now!  I've concluded that my dream of having a museum cannot be fulfilled, so I have decided to share my fabulous collection with other collectors."

If there was ever any doubt as to the strength of the movie memorabilia hobby, the Debbie Reynolds sale certainly provides proof to the contrary. The auction was held in the midst of the global recession, a time when even the most weathered collectibles markets slowed.

This success has brought investors into the game, attracted by the returns and benefits that memorabilia can offer as a diversification tool. While collectors may be disgruntled by these fair-weather traders, their presence has bought an added level of liquidity and ensures that values for top pieces continue to rise.

The art of cinema

In 2013, we saw a further boost for the film collectibles market. Bonhams, in association with Turner Classic Movies, presented its What Dreams Are Made Of auction in New York, which presented memorabilia as though it were a revered piece of art or prestige furniture, placing added emphasis on the cultural significance of the items.

What was once the preserve of film geeks and those working in the industry is now widely accepted, and museum-quality pieces of movie memorabilia sit next to Picassos and Rembrandts in the homes of some of the most respected collectors in the world.

Paul Fraser Collectibles has a wonderful selection of movie memorabilia and autographs available. Our free newsletter also keeps you up to date with the latest auction news.

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