“There is no spoon”: Exploring the Undefined Frontier of Movie Memorabilia

Memorabilia of many kinds has long enjoyed high-visibility status. Auction houses routinely organize sales organized around collectibles representing an individual, an event, or an industry. Sports collectibles have had remarkable staying power, with each subsequent generation of fans vying for their hero’s jersey or helmet or autograph. But the rising interest in movie memorabilia may eclipse even sports, as fans of many actors and directors, genres and franchises compete with each other to own a piece of their favorite films.

In June 2018, the “Icons & Legends of Hollywood” auction in Los Angeles brought in more than $6 million with sales of props and costumes from films as diverse as Star Wars and Speed. But the increased volume of memorabilia sales has led to an equally disturbing increase in theft and fraud. High-profile collectors including Steve Sansweet of Lucasfilm and Joe Queseda of Marvel Entertainment have been the victims of six-figure robberies. Max Anderson, a well-known collector of Marvel memorabilia and the operator of the pop-up Stan Lee Museum that features on the Comic-Con circuit, has also suffered recent, significant losses.


Business Is Booming

The movie memorabilia business has grown exponentially in the last decade, with estimates suggesting revenues of $200 million to $400 million, compared with $20-$40 million ten years ago. While film collectibles have been popular almost since the earliest years of Hollywood, they have become a much bigger and more competitive arena in recent decades.

Two new museums, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, are scheduled to open in 2021 and 2019, respectively, and will help to contribute to the idea that movie memorabilia, far from being only the domain of obsessed superfans, is also a worthy subject of cultural interest.

But the very nature of movie collectibles, whether actual sets, props and costumes or mass-market objects designed to promote films, makes them challenging to value and authenticate. David Mandel, a major collector focusing on Star Wars, points out that people who would be very careful in making major business decisions will spend enormous sums on purportedly genuine artifacts without doing any due diligence, or questioning the authenticity of the objects they purchase.


Old Objects, New Value

The idea that the discarded sets, props and costumes of movies could have significant value is a relatively new one. While Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz have always had cachet, less distinctive pieces from less iconic films have not always enjoyed such prestige. The Movie studios themselves have not always assigned value to the physical remnants of their films after production is complete, often throwing away or recycling things that would fetch high prices in today’s burgeoning collectibles market.


What Makes It Authentic?

A significant challenge for collectors lies in the whole notion of authenticity. Unlike fine art, with its well-established experts and documentation, an item of movie memorabilia may be impossible to authenticate. How does the buyer know that this is the dress worn in their favorite movie, by their favorite star, and not just a well-made replica? And if it is a replica, what should its value be? Unlike the ballerinas who sign used toe shoes for sale to support ballet companies, or the quarterbacks who sign the balls that went for the touchdown, movie pieces have broken chains of custody that can make it almost impossible to say for sure that an object is what it claims to be.


Playing on Emotions

Unlike the market for rare stamps or coins, movie memorabilia gains much of its value from the emotional response it evokes in potential buyers. Jacob McMurray of Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture describes the way that these objects can take people “right back to a moment.” The object itself has less significance than what it evokes—memories of particular times and places. In many ways, these objects function as a tool for helping collectors access lost parts of themselves.


Buyer Be Aware

Ultimately, collectors need to decide for themselves what a sought-after object is worth, and what standards of authenticity will satisfy them. In a market where the incredibly rare mingles with the mass market, no one standard is likely to satisfy every situation. Go to that auction and see that memorabilia. Enjoy the rush of memories it triggers. But know that the collectibles, like the movies they represent, may be part of a larger fantasy.