"Prop collecting can be a unique hobby. Many of the low-budget movies from long ago only made one of each prop..."
In addition to collecting posters, lobby cards, stills, etc., collecting movie props can also be a great and fun hobby for the horror film buff. But, of course, caveat emptor always applies as you'll learn in...
(Note: This is an update to Dennis Phelps’s (creator of the Harry Thomas Web Page) original "Horror Movie Prop Collecting" article. Dennis, Jay Gowey, and David Wentink , all avid collectors of movie props, consented to be interviewed on the subject of collecting movie props and other memorabilia. The interview follows below.)
HORROR-WOOD: I've heard of collecting movie memorabilia like posters, lobby cards, and autographs, but collecting movie props seems unique. How long have you collected props and what got you started?
JAY GOWEY: I have been collecting movie props for over 23 years. I got into collecting when I saw Forry's collection in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. I was lucky to meet a local make up artist who had returned from Hollywood with quite a collection. My first item was a mask from Tourist Trap starring Chuck Connors and made by the make up artist.
DAVID WENTINK: I've collected props for about seven or eight years with an emphasis on vintage horror, sci-fi props. I think my first introduction to movie props was in the early Seventies when I went to Universal Studios. At the gift shop, they sold foam rubber bricks that you could throw at people or hit them in the head with the brick. I thought that was the coolest.
DENNIS PHELPS: Prop collecting can be a unique hobby. Many of the low-budget movies from long ago only made one of each prop. Unlike today where multiple copies of major props are made in case one is lost, stolen or damaged. I got started collecting props in the late Eighties. The first prop I ever got was the head alien's eyes from Killers From Space. Harry Thomas mailed them to me.
H-W: Dennis, you have an extensive collection of movie props, some of them tied to the memory of makeup maestro Harry Thomas. Which of the props from Harry Thomas are you fondest of? Which would you consider your "top prop" of all?
D.P.: I think my favorite Harry Thomas prop has to be the mask from Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958). The mask is Harry’s best work and the movie was very entertaining. My favorite prop changes sometimes when I get something new but I think I like the Black Scorpion armature best.
J.G.: My favorite collectable is a tough one. I think if I had to grab something off the walls it would be the Lead Mask from TVs Superman episode "Man in the Lead Mask." There were only two masks made and the other one is in a museum. Mine was actually stuck on George Reeves head!
D.W.: I recently purchased a radar type device that was used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It's probably my current favorite as authentic props from Ed Wood films are few and far between. I also have a piece of set dressing from the Lon Chaney version of Phantom Of the Opera, and an iron maiden that was used in The Raven (1935), Tower of London, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Man With Two Brains. It was probably used in many other movies, too. It is about six feet tall and made of iron strapping, weighing close to 100 pounds.
H-W: I've heard of movie props at auctions going for many hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Can an average person with an average income afford to collect props?
J.G.: I didn't have auctions etc. when I started collecting. I go directly to the source of what I want. Because of industry ties, I am often given items to preserve. I know many collectors who brag about how much they paid! I prefer to find the affordable items on eBay or call directly the person who made the prop.
however, eBay and the large auction houses seem to be the best source for
D.P.: Props can sell for huge amounts of money at auctions but this is usually the result of two bidders getting carried away. I usually avoid the big auctions because Planet Hollywood and other big bidders drive the prices above my reach. There are some great bargains out there if you search. I've bought props for $5 and up so it depends on what you are looking for and how badly you want a specific prop. You can find some real bargains from prop houses that went out of business.
H-W: Which kind of props are most collectible? Costumes, set dressing items, weapons, gadgets? Which kind are likely to appreciate faster in value?
J.G.: A key item from a feature will always maintain a steady growth in value. I tend to place more value on older items than the "flavor of the week" new release feature prop. Many films have been shaky and I wouldn't spend a great deal on props from them.
D.P.: All of these items are collectible and can increase in value. I don't collect very many costumes because they are difficult to display unless you buy mannequins. Set dressing items are fun to collect and are usually the least expensive. Weapons are very collectible and expensive especially if you have a "working" weapon used in close ups as opposed to the "non-working" model that was carried by the actor during most of the film. It is usually made of a lightweight material. There are a lot of replica weapons out there so be careful. Miniature props, especially spaceships and flying saucers are very popular and expensive.
H-W: What about having celebrities autograph props? Does it affect the value of the props?
D.P.: I like having the celebrity who used the prop autograph it. It really helps with the authentication and will make it more valuable. You might want to have it autographed on the back so it doesn't interfere with the display.
J.G.: As long as the autograph looks pleasant, then I'm all for it. But, a hastily done autograph can really mess up a good prop.
D.W.: Yes, it can enhance the value, but, it should be done in an unobtrusive area.
H-W: Is there any kind of "price guide" to movie props that you use? Are price guides useful in determining a fair price to pay for a prop?
J.G.: There is no prop price guide. There is such a large variety of movie props, a guide would be difficult to write. I play it by ear and do a lot of trading. eBay is a good reference but not always accurate. If you don't want to pay what people ask, don't buy it...and if you decide you must have it, then it is worth it.
D.W.: To my knowledge there is no price guide. The best way to get a feel for the market is to look at old auction catalogs and completed sales on eBay.
H-W: What are good sources to buy props from? Do you have anyone specifically to recommend? What should a novice buyer take into consideration when dealing with dealers and private owners of movie props?
J.G.: There are plenty of good places to start like Star Wares and many others. They offer paperwork with your prop and you can find many good items. I always consider the source of my props and again go directly to that person who made it. I don't always ask for paperwork. It can be in bad taste to ask a friend for a letter of authenticity. That is a very resale thing to do when I get so many donations.
D.W.: Again, I would recommend the major auction houses as well as eBay.
D.P.: The Internet has been a great source of props for me recently. I like to shop at eBay. A few sellers on eBay bought movie props from Ellis Props without knowing which movie they were used in. Unidentified movie props can be bought for very low prices. The value of the props can increase many times if you identify which movie it was used in. Post your movie prop wants here.
H-W: How can you authenticate props? How can you discern a "screen used" miniature spaceship from a cast from the original mold or a reproduction? Are there professionals who can authenticate props?
D.P.: Authenticating props can be difficult sometimes. First, buy from someone you feel you can trust. Try to buy props from people who worked on the finished film. If their name is in the credits, that is another plus. Ask for a few behind-the-scenes photos from the seller if he worked on the film. These photos will help authenticate the prop and verify that he was actually on the set of the movie. Ask for references and follow up. Always get a letter of authenticity from the seller with details like where he got it from, was it used on film or was it an extra prop, etc.
Freeze frame the video or DVD and compare your prop to the one in the movie. Try to match up scratches, dents and surface marks. Keep in mind that screen used props will have surface flaws and damage. If the prop looks brand new, it is probably a reproduction. Most authentic miniature spaceships will have some kind of a mount or connector used to secure and maneuver the ship for the camera. If you look carefully at the spaceship in Robot Monster, you can see someone’s hand holding the ship as it "flies" through space. Most ships will have connectors.
J.G.: I have an eye for a screen used item. Seldom do props deal with time and storage well. Most items have minor damage, are tagged or numbered and don't smell like fresh casting resin or new paint. Do your research. Look for some small details and match them up. Research the props source as well. Some so called experts have only collected a small time and their advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because you have a desirable prop doesn't make you an expert.
D.W.: This can be a difficult area of prop collecting generally you have to rent the movie and freeze frame at the point you prop appears to be sure it matches up. I would stay away from rubber molded items such as Batman Cowls, rubber knives, guns etc. They are easy to duplicate and difficult to screen used props from replicas. Generally speaking, replicas are worth only ten to twenty percent of the value of the actual film used item.
H-W: What kind of prop (hopefully not too expensive) would you recommend a "newbie" to look for to being his or her collection?
J.G.: eBay or other online companies like Star Wares are great starts for a newbie collector. And I repeat try the original prop maker first. That has worked for me dozens of times.
D.P.: Search eBay and some of the other online auctions, then buy what you like and can afford.
H-W: Any final words on the subject of collecting movie props?
J.G.: If you're into collecting props to make money. I think your into the wrong hobby. I collect what I like and what makes me happy (after all I'm the one who has to see the props most!). I love this hobby I have met interesting collectors and professional filmmakers and made many friends. If you want to collect something because it is a part of who you are and that film or TV show has made your life special and makes you happy...then go for it!
D.W.: Prop collecting is a great hobby, however, you must do your research and take nothing at face value. Beginning about 10 years ago, the Studios and independent prop makers began to realize the values of these items. Whereas in the past they may have only made one or two back up items (in case the original was damaged or lost) they now make as many as 10 of the items with the express intent of marketing them to the public after the film is released. Be sure you know and are able to verify the background of any prop you buy.
D.P.: Yes, prop collecting should be fun. Buy the props you like and can afford and display them for you, your family and friends can enjoy. If anyone has questions regarding props or where they can find that special prop, they can at contact me here.
Thanks, Dennis, Jay, and David! It seems the novice props collector needs to be careful but can still successfully pursue their new hobby. Readers, stay tuned--these three promise a "name that prop" article next time that will be a real noggin scratcher!
Interview copyright © Joe "Renfield" Meadows