Film memorabilia are objects that possess value due to their connection to the cinema, such as but not limited to costumes, props, scripts, posters, or signed items.
It is a relatively new sector of the art world, with the technology to produce films only being available for a little over a century. Nonetheless, one cannot help but find the world of cinema to be fascinating, as movies are perhaps one of the most major components of modern western culture. Objects from historic films have the ability to transport us to a fantasy world of another time, which is likely why collecting movie memorabilia has grown from a niche small scale hobby to a massive business, with millions of dollars being exchanged at big name auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
In order to properly shed light on the world of film memorabilia, one must first come to understand the world of film and cinema itself. While the advent of film is unclear, many accredit its success and popularization to the Lumière brothers, who publicly screened a series of short films in Paris on December 28, 1895. Shortly thereafter, film production studios were established worldwide, and the motion picture rapidly evolved from a mere novelty to a grand scale entertainment industry. Movies quickly became a staple component to peoples’ lives across seas, socio-economic backgrounds, and cultures, and has remained so for a century with no end in sight. Therefore it is no wonder that relics and trophies from films can be such an exciting sector of the auction industry for so many people.
"The film industry itself did not immediately recognize the value of such items which they thought to be taking up valuable space."
Fans and collectors covet such objects because of their cultural and historical relevance, their insight into the celebrity world, as well as their sentimental value. In the beginning phases of this industry, collectors tended to be interested only in autographs, posters, or photographs. For access to the trade, they relied on a small number of news magazines that featured a variety of sellers offering mail order catalogues, in addition to the occasional live auction event. In these early days, the community was fairly sporadic and disconnected, as dealers and collectors were spread out across the world with no reliable way to communicate quickly.
The film industry itself did not immediately recognize the value of such items which they thought to be taking up valuable space, and iconic props were often stored away and forgotten about, or even destroyed. Workers at this time had full access to items used for film production, and some were able to take trophy objects as souvenirs, or sell them without their employers caring. One such person was the costume designer, Kent Warner, most well-known for taking possession of the famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
The catalyst for the realization of what great economic value laid latent in the film memorabilia collecting hobby was the 1970 MGM Auction. James Thomas Aubrey Jr., the new president of the studio, decided to hold an event in which hundreds of thousands of items would be auctioned off in order to consolidate space and bring in a little extra revenue to the company. He sold the lot of over 350,000 costumes alone, along with tens of thousands of more props, to an auctioneer for a mere 1.5 million dollars. The event brought in eight times that amount, resulting in a cataclysmic moment for the film studio company, but a milestone event that marked the turning point for film scholars and the auction business, as a new major market was created for an area of collecting that was previously only existent amongst a few film enthusiasts and hobbyists.
As with any other community, film memorabilia collecting has grown increasingly widespread, accessible, and better connected since the advent and availability of the internet. Buyers and sellers alike found ease of communication via various online platforms, such as UseNet newsgroups, MoPo, and most withstanding of all, Ebay. Ebay became the foremost alternative market by 1997, with many professional sellers closing their traditional businesses in order to focus on selling via the website. The availability of online information has also allowed for the market to stabilise, as it is easy to compare lot prices with those of similar items.
Today, with the great presence of film media over our culture, it is difficult to imagine a time without its pervasive influence in our lives. When one looks at film memorabilia, one is reminded of the history of cinematic culture, what these items meant during their own time, and what it means to us today. Whether it’s a 1960 Time Machine, a Frankenstein poster, or Dorothy’s ruby slippers, these objects have a story to tell - perhaps that is what makes the film memorabilia market so interesting!