A Marvel Heist and the Booming Business (and Seedy Underworld) of Movie Collectibles

With the market for memorabilia breaking records, collectors and auction houses must contend with thieves, fakers and skeptical police who wonder, “Who in their right mind would pay that much for that?” The hero’s shield from Captain America. Robert Downey Jr.’s mask from Iron Man. A set of X-23 claws from Logan. They’re among the more than $1 million in memorabilia stolen in late February from a Southern California public storage unit in suburban Rancho Cucamonga, allegedly by a pair of thieves now being prosecuted by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. The cache, much of which has yet to be recovered, comprised part of Marvel collector Max Anderson’s Stan Lee Museum, a pop-up exhibition he’s operated for seven years on the Comic-Con circuit. Around the time of the Rancho Cucamonga heist, an Iron Man suit reportedly valued at $325,000 was plundered from another storage unit, this one 60 miles away in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Pacoima. LAPD detectives are still attempting to solve that case. It’s unclear whether there’s a link. The crimes — along with recent six-figure inside-job robberies targeting the rare collections of Steve Sansweet, the former longtime head of Lucasfilm fan relations, and Joe Quesada, Marvel Entertainment’s ex-chief creative officer — highlight what insiders and experts already know. The untamed, boomtown realm of entertainment artifacts, especially the geekiest ones derived from studio productions and actors’ personal estates, has become a potent business (with some auction house experts estimating it has ballooned from $20 million to $40 million in annual sales a decade ago to $200 million to $400 million today). “I have hedge funds looking to diversify into this market,” says Darren Julien, CEO of Julien’s Auctions. The interest is arriving as Hollywood collectibles are on the verge of a major wave of canonization in the future permanent displays of L.A.’s forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. This follows decades of condescension or outright dismissal. (The previous high-visibility marker for memorabilia reverence in the public sphere was the 1990s, when patrons of Planet Hollywood franchises convened under typically zeitgeist-driven chazerai on the order of Tom Arnold’s getup from The Stupids.) James Comisar, a collectibles consultant recognized for his authentication expertise, describes how, in an increasingly “seismic” market, collectors “with unlimited spending potential are trying to club each other to death” for a limited number of the most “iconic pieces — the pieces that you recognize from across the room, the ones that don’t need a descriptive plaque, the instantly recognizable ones where you creep up to the display case, your voice drops, and you go, ‘Holy shit!’ ” As a result, the hunt is always on for the next cache, and auction houses are constantly working relationships in the hope of securing the deaccession of a production’s original materials or a star’s personal property, the latter governed by the so-called Four D’s of estate sales: death, divorce, debt and downsizing. “That’s what I do all day,” says Joe Maddalena, owner of Profiles in History, who has handled a series of sales of Debbie Reynolds’ belongings before and after her 2016 death, grossing more than $25 million. Sansweet jokes, “I’ve been approached by several auction houses: ‘Any time you’re ready to sell!’ ” Reynolds was the industry’s own most famous collector of Hollywood memorabilia, accumulating items ranging from Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe’s white “subway grate” dress from The Seven Year Itch to a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat. (Now that title arguably belongs to Guillermo del Toro, who maintains Bleak House, a private suburban L.A. residence in the western San Fernando Valley, for his substantial holdings of horror props and other objects.) Reynolds began amassing her trove at what’s agreed to be the dawn of memorabilia collecting: When MGM, under financial pressure, unloaded its physical assets in a first-of-its-kind 1970 auction, resulting in an unprecedented flood of tens of thousands of relics. “I saw people coming in from New Orleans, taking back trucks’ worth of costumes for Mardi Gras,” recalls noted costume archivist and conservator Glenn Brown, who helped stage the event. (He also modeled key pieces onstage, including Clark Gable’s suede outfit from 1951’s Across the Wide Missouri.) “Now I’ll see items associated with the biggest names — Judy Garland, Joan Crawford — selling for 100 times what people paid for them, and others are making copies that are either faked or misidentified in [auction] catalogs, like a Rembrandt.” Adding to any authenticator’s challenge is pop culture collectibles’ unique paradox: These commodities are frequently ersatz objects in the first place, they weren’t usually built to last, their value is in most cases purely symbolic, and their wealthy buyers are, almost by definition, hopeless romantics when it comes to the glory of being deceived by screen illusions. “If [these individuals] were buying a company, they’d go up and down over it a million times and not take anyone’s word for it — they’d do due diligence,” posits Veep executive producer David Mandel, a major collector of Star Wars and comics paraphernalia. “But yet people buy stuff all the time and merrily go, ‘I don’t care.’ ” It’s also a category in which larceny and fraud can flourish because some of the structural safeguards found in analogous markets like the fine art world and sports memorabilia scene have yet to materialize. In addition, law enforcement has generally taken thievery in those other sectors more seriously than cases in the entertainment collectibles realm.

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