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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.

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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. Some who spoke for this story believe at least some of that can be chalked up to latent bias: Fine art is accepted as legitimate, and police are often intrigued by athletic keepsakes themselves. One robbery victim recalls: “When I spoke to the cops and named the prices of what was taken from me, they smirked, like, ‘Who in their right mind would pay that much for that?’ “

For much of their history, studios wantonly recycled, discarded and burned many of their assets, unconcerned on a corporate level with posterity and generally viewing the material as junk taking up precious backlot real estate. That some of the most traditionally common prop materials are among the most challenging to preserve is another impediment. Explains NBCUniversal director of archives and collections Jeff Pirtle: “Latex just starts to crumble away — very similar to old newspapers.” He notes that such pieces must be kept in climate-controlled environments and packaged in acid-free containers.

Now the promise of an ancillary revenue stream and the desires of today’s increasingly rabid fan culture have turned the local lobbies of high-end theaters like the ArcLight into revolving shrines to the latest releases, simultaneously stoking the interest of below-the-line Oscar voters and driving up excitement in the market for some of the objects’ eventual sale. Ergo, there’s an emerging business in the sale of assets immediately after the wrap of blockbuster films and hit television productions to leverage and burnish buzz (“We’re dealing directly with studios and producers so the provenance and chain of title is clear,” explains Brandon Alinger, COO of Prop Store). It also services a growing trade in high-priced official reproductions. Ticket seller Fandango, for instance, announced May 15 that it was partnering with corporate sibling Universal on limited-edition props like a $25,000 Jurassic World dinosaur-head replica crafted by the same artisans who made the “real” version.

Authentication is an unceasing trial in a milieu that traffics in visual deception in the first place. When clear provenance and chain of title can’t be established, it’s up to auctioneers and would-be buyers to ferret out frauds, whether purposeful or accidental, outsider efforts or insider cons, true “screen-used” pieces (the most prized) or indistinguishable alternates that may have been prepared for productions but ultimately never used in them (and bear far less value). “When you start selling Michael Jackson’s gloves for $400,000, the forgers come out,” says Julien, referring to his firm’s 2009 sale.

Still, the grandest hindrance to truth is most often simply potential customers’ own aching desire to believe. “Collectors are hopeful — they always see the good side, they really want to believe,” says Catherine Williamson, director of entertainment memorabilia at another auction house, Bonhams. “They overlook the glaring red flags that may or may not be there.”

Explains Laura Woolley, a specialist appraiser known for her appearances on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow: “It’s extraordinarily emotional. The people I talk to are purchasing a memory, an age of innocence, a sense of buying back and recapturing their youth, or a mental state — access to the awe-inspiring nature of experiencing art — that you can’t really touch. I’ve seen very poised, wealthy people brought to tears [by these objects].”

Alongside the cresting wealth accumulation and leisure spending power of baby boomers, the sector has developed its archipelago of now-established blue-chip standards — Star Trek, Marilyn Monroe — shaped by that cohort’s preoccupations. (The generation’s parents collected rare coins and antique furniture, realms currently in decline as they die.)

While some have started purchasing memorabilia as an exotic-investment portfolio play and others see such acquisitions as ego-stroking status baubles, for most it’s nostalgia — longing, wistfulness — that drives the impulse to collect their individual Rosebuds. “These objects have a mojo to them, a weird resonance, acting as a direct pipeline that takes them right back to a moment,” explains Jacob McMurray, senior curator at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, of the “talismanic” quality that tantalizes people who, particularly in hindsight, blend their memories of life and art: what was going on in their lives and the world around them when they were first enthralled by their favorite films and television shows. As consultant Comisar puts it, for many “it’s the story behind and around the piece that’s more important than the piece itself.”

Mandel, who keeps his vast collection in his onetime bachelor-pad apartment in L.A., illustrates a case in point. “I’d read an X-Men Annual when I’d gotten my appendix out as a kid,” he says. “Whenever I look at the original cover art [which he now owns], I’m transported back to Mount Sinai Hospital. That’s the journey: It takes you away.” Adds Sansweet, the uber-collector and former Lucasfilm fan relations director: “It doesn’t have to be the most popular thing in the world; you buy it because you have this psychic bond. It’s yours — it belonged to you.”

Executives at the auction houses describe daily bubble-bursting encounters with folks who’ve never questioned the veracity of the stories they’ve been told. “Did Dad know Marilyn Monroe? Maybe,” muses Margaret Barrett, director of entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions. “But that’s not her signature. We do tend to punch holes in family lore. It’s sad to do.” Maddalena, of Profiles in History, explains that, frequently, “when you come across fake stuff” said to be from older productions, “it’s so well-made that you know it’s not real.” Key giveaways are excessive shine (originals are more matte, so set lighting can control gleam) and too much detail (of the sort that simply wasn’t attempted in the pre-high-definition era).

Jason DeBord, who runs the industry watchdog Original Prop Blog, observes that in a domain with a still-limited noncommercial community (unlike with fine art, there’s no teeming academic and critical scene) it’s imperative that auctioneers not allow themselves, even mistakenly, to act as launderers because once items “go through the auction houses they become ‘real’ regardless,” acquiring the patina of respectability that arises from such sales.

Don Hrycyk, a detective at the LAPD’s art theft detail, contends that “it’s a difficult field to investigate,” one in which at times “there’s nobody else who can really identify an original [object] except the people who put it together, and even then they can’t really do it except when it’s in their hands.” Even then, the counterfeiter can also be the initial craftsman. “The prop makers will make six of something, but they’ll know there’s an aftermarket,” explains DeBord. “They’ll make an identical 20 for themselves and quietly sell them as ‘screen-used.’ So much comes down to tracking the object directly to the production.”

Lacking more conventional institutional guardrails, in recent years social media throngs have come to regularly serve as sunlight disinfectants, obsessively dissecting items that have newly surfaced in glossy catalogs and online announcements, then casting vocal aspersions. (In May, for instance, Profiles in History pulled an Obi-Wan Kenobi lightsaber after members of the Replica Prop Forum questioned its legitimacy.)

“The fans who care — they’ll at times have access to more records and videos and photographs than the celebrities and filmmakers themselves,” observes Julien. If the criticisms are deemed to hold weight, and even if they don’t, the auctioneers may pull the items because they’ve been, in the profession’s own parlance, “burnt,” or compromised in terms of their reputation and worth.

The Iron Man suit stolen from the Valley warehouse may or may not turn up. Regardless, studios are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the singular value of their physical assets, and how to protect them. Costume archivist Brown notes that one tack taken in recent years has been the incorporation of DNA into garments. “They document where it is on the costume,” he says. Might one surmise that strands of hair are discreetly threaded into the costume? Brown won’t reveal the exact nature of the trick. Who knows who will read this? And almost anything can be faked.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.