There was a time when movie props were worthless. When a film wrapped, the studio would often recycle props and costumes for use in other films, or sometimes simply throw them away. But that’s changed over the years, and now movie collectibles are a big business, with high-profile props going for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, when you start talking that kind of money, there are bound to be a few crooked characters who will do whatever it takes to get their hands on a piece of Hollywood history.
It’s believed there were six or seven pairs of Dorothy’s famous ruby red slippers made for the production of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Of those, the location of four pairs is currently known, including one that resides in the Smithsonian. The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, had their own pair, until the shoes were stolen one night in August 2005. The case went cold until this past April, when police received a tip that a resident in Homer Glen, Illinois, had not only bragged about paying someone to steal the slippers, but openly displayed the shoes in a glass box. Police raided the alleged thief’s house, but didn’t find the ruby red shoes. For now, the case remains open, and the shoes are still at-large.
There are few motorcycles more iconic than the ones ridden by Peter Fonda and the late, great Dennis Hopper in their counterculture classic, Easy Rider. There were four custom motorcycles built for the film—two copies of each bike, including the “Captain America” chopper ridden by Fonda, featuring a star-spangled fuel tank and an extra long fork for the front wheels. One of the Captain America bikes was destroyed during filming, while the other three motorcycles were stolen from a storage garage before the film was even in the can. Obviously the bikes weren’t famous yet, so they were presumably stripped and sold for parts. The thieves left the damaged Captain America bike, which was later restored, and now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.
In the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun, James Bond takes on Scaramanga, an expert assassin who charges $1 million per kill. The hitman’s signature is a custom-made, solid gold gun that can be cleverly disassembled and disguised as everyday items like a cigarette case, a lighter, a pen, and a cuff link. There were three prop guns made for the film—one that came apart, another that didn’t come apart, and one that could fire a blank round. In October 2008, one of these props (it’s unclear which one it was) was discovered missing from its display case at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England. Police still have no leads on the disappearance of the prop, worth an estimated £80,000 (~$117,000) on the collector’s black market.
There were a handful of falcon statues made for the 1941 noir classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett’s famous private eye, Sam Spade. Over the years, nearly all original models of the bird have been lost, making the few remaining copies very valuable—including one that sold for nearly $400,000 in 1994. For promotional purposes, plaster casts of the bird were made upon the film’s release, and Elisha Cook, Jr., a character actor who played a henchman in the film, got his hands on one. His copy of the bird was later acquired by John’s Grill in San Francisco, a restaurant dedicated to Hammett, who often wrote and ate there in the 1930s. The replica bird was on display for years, sitting on the second floor in a display case for all to see. That is, of course, until the day it disappeared in 2007.
After the falcon went missing, John’s Grill offered a no-questions-asked reward of $25,000 to the person who brought it back, but no one came forward. The owner could have easily gotten a good replacement replica off eBay for a few hundred bucks, but he took a different approach instead. He put the $25,000 towards the creation of a new, original design of the Maltese Falcon that is a more stylized interpretation than the one used in the 1941 film. The new statue is five inches taller than the original and weighs around 150lbs, three times heavier than the plaster replica that was stolen. To ensure this bird doesn’t go missing, it’s been bolted down and is monitored 24/7 by closed-circuit cameras. With that much security, the next time someone messes with this Maltese Falcon, it won’t take Sam Spade to crack the case.
Apparently no one’s spider-sense was tingling when crooks made off with four hand-made superhero suits from the set of the first Spider-Man film. Each Spider-Man costume, valued at around $50,000 a piece, disappeared from a locked building on the Sony Pictures lot, leading authorities to believe it was an inside job. Police received a tip from the ex-wife of a former security guard at Sony, Jeffrey Gustafson, who said he might be involved in the theft. Police searched Gustafson’s home and found records indicating that one costume was at a friend’s house, two were traced to a collector in New York, and the last one was in the collection of a man in Japan. Adding to Gustafson’s woes, police also found in his home a mannequin dressed in a $150,000 Batman costume that went missing from the Warner Bros. lot in 1996. Not coincidentally, Gustafson worked as a security guard at Warner Bros. at the time. For stealing the Spidey suits, Gustafson got 9 months in jail, 5 years probation, and had to pay $93,000 in restitution.
As he’s hunting android replicants in a dystopian future, Blade Runner’s Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, carries a strange-looking handgun that has captivated sci-fi fans for decades. The prop was custom-made using pieces from real firearms, including a bolt action from a rifle, two triggers, various knobs and dials, and even LED lights. To prevent their very expensive, one-of-a-kind prop from breaking, the producers made two solid rubber copies that were indistinguishable from the original at a distance, and could be knocked around during stunt scenes without getting damaged. But during the shoot, one of the dummy guns went missing and was never seen again.
Oddly enough though, about a month after the film was released, highly accurate plastic replicas of Deckard’s gun began appearing for sale on the collector’s market. These knock-offs were so close to the ones used in the film that they must have been created using molds taken from the missing, now presumed stolen, dummy gun.
While it’s certain the thief made a pretty penny by selling the dummy gun, he would have surely been better off stealing the custom-made gun instead—it sold at auction in 2009 for $270,000.
In March 2000, a few guys got their hands on the ultimate movie collector’s item when they stole 55 Oscars just days before the Academy Awards ceremony. Anthony Hart, a dock worker at delivery company Roadway Express, conspired with a fellow employee, truck driver Lawrence Ladent, to load 10 boxes of Oscars onto Ladent’s truck. Ladent then took the statues to the home of accomplice John Harris for safekeeping until they could line up black market buyers. However, the men got spooked by the publicity surrounding the missing statues and dumped the boxes in an alleyway instead. Shortly after, Harris’ half-brother, Willie Fulgear, found 52 of the Oscars while rummaging through the trash, looking for packing boxes to use during a move.
After reporting his find to police, Fulgear collected a $50,000 reward from Roadway Express, but the other men didn’t make out quite so well. Anthony Hart received the lightest sentence with three years probation. John Harris was sentenced to six months in jail, three years probation, and had to pay $921 to the Academy in restitution for the three missing statues. Lawrence Ledent was given six months in prison, five years probation, had to pay the Academy $1,050, and pay Roadway Express the full amount of the reward they offered to Fulgear.
As for the three missing Oscars, one was found in 2003 during a Miami drug raid, but the other two are still out there somewhere.
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