Movie Props Go for a Pittance — or a Pretty Penny

Cinema buffs who aren't aspiring stars but want to feel like part of the movies are heading online in droves to track down their favorite big-screen props.

While high-profile celebrity auctions have become commonplace in recent years, not everything connected to Hollywood costs a bundle.

For instance, much of the set from the recent movie Maid in Manhattan, starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, sold for next to nothing on, according to New Jersey prop collector Dr. Sheldon Levine.

The beautiful secretary desk used in the film went for just $105; a chaise lounge sold for $200.

"The prices were unbelievably low –- roughly 10 percent on the dollar," said Levine.

Movie prop collecting has become more popular in large part due to the public's fascination with Hollywood culture, according to some in the industry.

"You cannot collect celebrities for the most part, so the closest you can come is to collect the stuff they touched and wore," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Levine has amassed about 100 movie and TV props over the years, including a James Brown mask used in Undercover Brother for $235, a Roman spear from The Greatest Story Ever Told for $195, and a stethoscope/blood pressure cuff set used in the sitcom Doogie Howser, M.D., for $19.95.

"It's almost like you have a part in the movie in a certain sense," Levine said. "And it's a lot of fun to see your prop in a movie."

But would-be collectors have to be careful about authenticity, which can be hard to prove. And they should be aware that many props have standbys just as stage actors have understudies in case something goes wrong.

"There are a lot of phonies," Levine said.

Because of the potential for knockoffs, higher-end auction companies like Gotta Have It! — which offers a variety of pop-culture collectors’ pieces — do extensive research to trace a prop’s origin.

"We check on the provenance of all the items," said president Robert Schagrin. "We know where everything came from. We’ve gone to painstaking lengths to make sure everything is real."

The site has a March 12 Oscar-themed auction planned just weeks prior to the Academy Awards. Schagrin said items available will be an actual 1933 Oscar statuette awarded to the producers of a short documentary called Krakatoa (starting bid: $12,000); shoes worn by Madonna in Evita (starting bid: $500); and the complete peasant outfit worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro (starting bid: $2,000).

Schagrin said his company only auctions "iconic" props and other collectibles. They range in price from under $100 for an original Gone With the Wind print to $275,000 for a Superman outfit worn by actor George Reeves on the TV show.

"We like to have investment-grade, media-worthy items," Schagrin said. "We deal in every part of pop culture, but it has to have historical significance."

But for those more interested in snagging something fun but cheap – maybe a pink feather pen like the one Reese Witherspoon used in Legally Blonde for a mere $6.50 – eBay is probably the ticket.

There are three paths a film prop can take after production wraps, according to Schagrin. In some cases a director (like Star Wars’ George Lucas) controls the props, keeping them in storage or donating them. In other cases studios own the props and partner with an auction company to get rid of the items and promote the movie. Sometimes the propmakers might be in charge. Schagrin said many prop artists give studios the items for free on the condition that they're returned. The propmakers then auction the pieces off.

Nonetheless, prop sales often create a bidding and buying frenzy. For movie buffs, there's a nearly sacred quality to the pieces.

"I look at these things as relics," Levine said. "It's this whole transient, separate world that people spend their lives building –- and then it's taken apart and thrown away."

Thompson likened the prop-collecting hobby to the ancient practice of hunting for holy objects.

"In medieval times, you would look for a sliver from the cross or the Holy Grail," he said. "In a secular culture, this is the closest thing."