Random Ephemera

Obsessed With Movies? A Beginners' Guide to Movie Prop Collecting

Millions of people collect stuff, whether it's stamps, comic books, classic cars or any number of other things. About 17 years ago, my love of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show led me to discover prop collecting, and I've been hooked ever since. How'd that happen?

I was spending time on eBay looking for BTVS stuff, and noticed an auction for a prop that had been used in the production of the show. For some reason, I'd always thought that film and television props were either collected by a small group of wealthy people with good connections to Hollywood, or were carefully locked up in movie studio warehouses. The idea that any of those things could filter down and be available for the average person to buy had never occurred to me before.

In the days before the Internet, that was probably mostly true — there have been people collecting props since the dawn of filmmaking, but until recently, collectors had to know people in the industry or attend the occasional high-end auctions of movie memorabilia hosted by Christie's and other auction houses. More recently, online forums and professional prop dealers have sprung up, making it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to educate himself on his favorite films, and to buy items used in their production.

As a lifelong movie fan, I dove into the hobby, and haven't surfaced since. I've also learned quite a few things along the way, and thought I'd share them with people who might have an interest in collecting a few props from the movies they love.

5. It's Not an Inexpensive Hobby, But Doesn't Have to Break the Bank.

Unsurprisingly, the people who sell movie props don't usually price them as bargains. After all, in most cases, anything created specifically for a film production is either unique or one of a handful of that prop made for it. There just aren't an endless supply of them floating around, and if a film is popular, that will be reflected in the prop's price. However, in some cases, props can be had for less than one might expect, or can be paid for slowly over time — several of the bigger professional prop dealers offer layaway plans spanning months, making large purchases less difficult for many collectors.

Another money-saving strategy is to look for props soon after a production wraps up. A lot of the time, the market will get temporarily flooded with items in the months after a film is released, and that almost always gives buyers a bigger selection at lower prices than they'll find when the supply starts to dry up later. This is especially true if a film is a big hit — usually, props from movies that appealed to a smaller audience don't command as much money as those from a popular blockbuster.

4. To Hero or Not to Hero?

In prop collecting circles, the "Hero" prop is the one that is considered the most notable, is used by a major character or gets the most detailed screen time. For instance, the "hero" gun from Blade Runner is the real but heavily altered firearm that Harrison Ford wielded in the film. The consensus in prop circles is that only one of those was ever built, and it recently sold at auction for as much as a nice home. That doesn't mean other blasters weren't made for the film, though. Other cops in Blade Runner are seen with similar guns, and there were rubber "stunt guns" made for scenes in which the hero prop would've been damaged — almost any scene in a film where a gun is kicked out of someone's hand or thrown uses a rubber stunt gun. A few of those have made their way into the collector market over the years, and were way less expensive than the one-of-a-kind hero gun, but still sold for the price of a good used car. A person who wants a rifle used in Saving Private Ryan will have an easier time locating one carried by an extra in the background than he will one used by Tom Hanks — it's just a question of supply and demand. Obviously, knowing what you can realistically afford is a good indicator of what you should try to collect in this hobby.

3. Know Your Replicas.

Some folks decide to collect only real movie props, others are fine with a good replica, and some will collect a little of both. While the real film-used item is the only thing that's a genuine movie prop, there are plenty of options for collectors who want a nice display piece that looks good, and there's a lot of overlap between those collecting communities. All replicas are not created equal, though, and although some are offered by the studios that own the rights to them, there's also a lively underground of people who aren't satisfied with those and demand higher accuracy.

The replica prop community has a lot of talented members, including quite a few who have worked in the film industry, and those people will sometimes create replicas and offer them for sale. This isn't strictly legal, since they don't own the rights to the film they're lifting from, but generally it's on such a small scale that no one calls foul. Their obsessive attention to detail can yield a replica that is nearly indistinguishable from the original prop and is far more accurate than anything the studios make available to fans. The downside is that occasionally someone might be fooled by a great replica and think he's buying an original prop, so buyer beware.

2. Screen Used or Matched?

Another issue to be aware of is whether a prop can be seen onscreen at any point. Most large productions have an enormous amount of items created for them, especially in the case of big-budget sci-fi, horror or fantasy movies. The good news for collectors is that means a lot of props will probably be available should they want one, but it also makes some things difficult to ascertain.

For instance, if a person is about to spend serious money on a specific prop, he'll probably want to verify if it's ever seen on film. Can it be picked out of a scene? Or is it a background piece that blends into a sea of other similar props in a crowd scene. While almost any prop made for a film production is "cool," if it's screen matched, it's going to be considered cooler, and that could be reflected in its price or value in the collector market.

1. Is It Easy to Display and Care For?

One aspect of the hobby I didn't really consider until I'd been collecting for a while is whether or not an item will display well or be difficult to care for. Since real movie props are created to be used for specific purposes during the production of a film, they might not all be ideal candidates for some collections. Many props look great framed in special display cases, but things like size come into play. For instance, I own a fiberglass corpse from John Carpenter's The Thing, and it's an amazing piece, from a film for which very few other props have ever surfaced. It would also be difficult for some people to display in a way that would fit into the decorating scheme of most homes. It's big, and requires a custom case of some kind.

In other cases, the materials used to create the prop pose a problem. For instance, many items are made of foam latex, and over time the latex dries out and can disintegrate. Even with an optimal environment that can happen, since foam latex isn't a material that's intended to last for years and years.

There are a few specialists who can meticulously rebuild or preserve a crumbling latex piece, but they are expensive, so new collectors might want to consider that before spending money on a cool animatronic zombie head. Other items can be damaged by long-term exposure to the sun or certain types of artificial light, and displaying them safely requires special considerations, some of which are costly. Trust me, it's a drag seeing a cool prop you bought start to fall apart or sit in a closet unseen because it's hard to display or especially fragile. Someday these items might end up in a museum, and keeping them in good shape is the right thing to do.

These are just a few things I've learned collecting props over the years. It's not intended as a complete guide, but will at least give people new to the hobby an idea of what is out there and how they might approach collecting for themselves.

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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.