Collecting up movie magic
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Whatever happened to Robby the Robot? As it turns out, he's alive (activated?) and well, and still making money. Eight weeks ago the seven-foot tall robot - along with his jeep - was sold at Bonhams, New York, for $5.37m (€4.39m). That makes him the most valuable movie prop ever sold at auction.
Robby was created for the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956). The British film critic Matthew Sweet describes him as: "a being with metal claws, a domed head alive with whirring mechanisms, and a silhouette as recognisable as Marilyn over the air vent." He goes on to describe how Robby was designed by Robert Kinoshita, an artist who had spent part of World War II in a Japanese internment camp. The robot was made from wood, Plexiglas and a rigid thermoplastic material called Royalite and the cost of making him accounted for 7pc of the film's $1.9m budget. In the 1950s, that was a great deal of money.
MGM got its money's worth out of Robby. The following year he was recycled to star in The Invisible Boy (1957). He also featured in The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mork and Mindy like, as Sweet describes "a once-great star obliged to play smaller and smaller venues".
Now, in the world of collectables, Robby has pushed the former world movie prop record - the Maltese Falcon - from its perch. That 12-inch statuette starred in the 1941 film of the same name along with Humphrey Bogart. In fact, before it topped the auction charts, the lead falcon was famous for damaging Bogie's toenails when it fell on his foot (you can see the bent tail feather at the end of the film when Sam Spade carries the falcon out of the apartment). The bird that sold was one of two identical lead models but - crucially - it had the damaged tail feather. This meant that it was the same one that had made contact with the toe of Humphrey Bogart. This is one of the very rare instances when an imperfect object is worth more than a perfect one. It sold for $4m (€3.26m) at Bonhams, New York, in November 2013. That's the stuff that dreams are made of alright!
Here in Ireland, there are plenty of people who collect cinema props. "We buy and sell from Ireland all the time. There's definitely a community for it," says Tim Lawes of the UK-based Prop Store an online retailer and auctioneer of props and costumes (all of which come with certificates of authentication).
The Golden Age of prop art, Lawes explains, was the 1970s and 1980s. Because they weren't valued or perceived as collectible at the time, these are the items that have appreciated most in value. "A storm trooper's helmet from 1970s and 1980s Star Wars films could now be worth €90,000," he explains. "Back then, props and costumes weren't worth anything at all."
Now, it's a different matter. Movie props are big business. Two of the most recent Star Wars films included scenes filmed on location at Skellig Michael, but anyone hoping to pick up Luke Skywalker's abandoned cloak from a rock will be disappointed.
"Since Disney bought the Star Wars franchise they actively keep track of all props and costumes. They're fitted with microchips and you have to scan them in and out of a shoot."
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a different matter. After the filming of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the X-Wing model miniature, used in the rebel evacuation from Hoth, was gifted to Brian Johnson, the special visual-effects supervisor on the film. The model was created by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) but, to save time and money, it was built from a commercially available model kit and painted to give the impression of laser fire and smoke damage. In 2016 it went under the hammer at the Prop Store's September auction, along with a letter of authenticity from Johnson and a printed production storyboard with handwritten notes. It sold for £90,000 (€101,995).
In the same auction, the clapperboard from Jaws (1975) sold for £70,000 (€79,380). It was a distinctive piece. The "sticks" of the clapperboard (the part that opens and closes) have been replaced by a customised set of shark's teeth. It would be an easy one to fake, but the auctioneers were able to match the scratches and markings on the board with a well-known photograph of Spielberg holding the clapperboard on set. Snap.
As Lawes explains, it's not difficult to predict which movie props will make the most money at auction. "The most popular collectibles come from the most popular films," he says. "Indiana Jones, Fight Club, James Bond… You'll find them all in the top listings at IMDB." But there's also a market for props and costumes for cult classics, like The Princess Bride (1987), and Lawes collection includes two personal favourites from that film: the sword and the mask worn by the Man in Black. That's the character played by Carey Elwes and famous for such quotes as: "You mean, you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword, and we'll try and kill each other like civilized people?"
Irish movie props can also make big bucks. In the early 2000s the clan Wallace in Scotland, which had been left many of the key props used in the Irish made Braveheart movie, sold them at auction to raise money to buy the land where the 'Big Yin' was captured by the Sassenach. Mel Gibson's five foot claymore prop had sold months before at auction for $170,000.
See bonhams.com and propstore.com.
In the Salerooms
There's a little snapshot of the way things might have been in The Eclectic Collector auction at Whyte's, which takes place on February 3 at 11am. It's a page from a dinner menu signed by Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera - shortly to become bitter enemies.
Ironically, the menu is printed with three toasts, the first of which is to "Ireland One and Indivisible". That's food for thought… It is estimated to sell between €200 and €300.
The line-up also includes a silver medal (est €300 to €500) awarded to the lifeboatman Henry Williams, Coxswain, Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in recognition of long and gallant service. The medal was awarded in in 1881.
Williams died, along with his son Alexander and 13 other crew members, when their lifeboat capsized during the attempted rescue of the crew of the Finnish ship, SS Palme, on Christmas Eve 1895. Among other interesting items in the sale are a Fender Jazz bass guitar (est €3,000 to €5,000) once owned by Noel Redding, the bass player of the Jimi Hendrix Experience who settled in West Cork. He sold the guitar to a local musician and the lot includes a receipt for a deposit of £200 signed by Redding. See whytes.ie.
Contemporary designer furniture anyone? A timed Online Art & Design at de Vere's includes the contents of a Cork house: a range of furniture from B + B Italia, Cassina, Poltrona Frau, and Ligne Roset - all of which was purchased new by the vendor. The auction takes place at on Tuesday next at 6pm. Look out for a set of 12 leather '401 break' dining chairs by Mario Bellini for Cassina, Italy (est €2,000 to €3,000); and a set of six 'EA108' swivel office chairs, by Charles & Ray Eames, for ICF Italy, (est €1,500 to €2,000); and a pair of aptly named 'Orange Slice' chairs (above), by Pierre Paulin for Artifort, upholstered in red (est €800 to €1,200). Viewing is at 35 Kildare Street from today until Tuesday at 5pm. See deveres.ie.
It's the season for attic auctions - the great annual clear-out of auction houses around the country. Usually there are bargains to be had, and the line-up at Sheppard's Attic2Auction sale on Tuesday promises good solid value.
The sale, described as "works of art from the attics, stables and storerooms of important clients", takes place in Durrow, Co Laois with viewing from tomorow to Monday from 10am to 5pm on each day (one €10 catalogue admits two adults). With all upper estimates less than €1,500, the line-up ranges from an Edwardian period mahogany and boxwood string inlaid breakfront bookcase (est €1,000 to €1,500) to a 19th-century Oriental carved wood and ivory cabinet (est €500 to €800), plus some interesting historical items such as a 19th-century butter churn (est €100 to €150). See sheppards.ie.