The Smart Spend: Investing in movie memorabilia

It's easy to see the appeal of owning a little piece of movie history that's been touched, driven or worn by the silver screen's best-loved stars.

The grey wool suit Gene Kelly wore in Singin' in the Rain was up for auction. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

Having watched James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me as a young boy, and marvelled at the ability of 007’s Lotus Esprit to transform from an (albeit odd-looking) car into a submarine, one can only imagine how excited the billionaire tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, was to acquire the vehicle earlier this year.

The iconic, water-friendly Esprit had been lost after its star turn in the 1977 movie but was rediscovered in 1989, wheelless and looking a little worse-for-wear, in a storage container in Long Island. Musk picked it up for nearly US$1 million (Dh3.67m) at an auction in London.

Musk, who is the CEO of the electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla Motors, subsequently said, “I was disappointed to learn that it can’t actually transform. What I’m going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real.”

What will become of the Esprit – which is believed to have cost $100,000 (Dh367,300) to build in the 1970s and was dubbed Wet Nellie on set – under its new ownership remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the nostalgia-infused market for movie- and entertainment-related memorabilia is as strong as ever.

Last month, a figurine from the classic 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon, fetched a record $4.1 million (Dh15m) at auction, making it one of the most expensive pieces of movie memorabilia ever sold – surpassing the $2 million (Dh7.3m) paid for Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz in 2012, and in the same league as the £2.6 million (Dh15.6m) fetched by the Aston Martin driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger in 2010.

The statuette, one of two made for the film, which was based on the 1930 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett and starred Humphrey Bogart, was the top lot in a Bonhams sale called What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic At Auction As Curated By Turner Classic Movies, held on November 25. At the same auction, a 1940 Buick Phaeton automobile from Casablanca was sold for $461,000 (Dh1.7m); an Audrey Hepburn Givenchy hat from Funny Face fetched $87,500 (Dh321,388) – quadruple its estimate – and a Nautilus Diver’s Helmet from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea sold for $81,250 (Dh298,431).

“The spectacular price achieved reflects the statuette’s tremendous significance,” says Catherine Williamson, the director of the entertainment memorabilia department at Bonhams. “The Maltese Falcon is arguably the most important movie prop ever, and is central to the history of cinema.”

Margaret Barrett, the director of entertainment and music at the Beverly Hills-based Heritage Auctions, links the increased interest in movie memorabilia to a growing sense of nostalgia among buyers. “I think the farther we get from Hollywood’s ‘golden era’ – the 1930s to the 1960s – people are getting more sentimental about the past and are happy to have a chance to own some of these special pieces from film history.”

Heritage Auctions held an Entertainment and Music Memorabilia Signature Auction on December 6, which included items ranging from a motorcycle jacket worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day to a prop Luger gun used by Elvis Presley in the movie G I Blues. One of the standout pieces, however, was a suit worn by Gene Kelly in the 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain (pictured). “What’s special about it is that it was worn by him in the scene where he’s actually singing the title song and it was bought by the current owner at the now-famous 1970 MGM auction,” Barrett explains.

When it comes to memorabilia, anything related to Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley or The Beatles is guaranteed to fetch a handsome price, notes Barrett. “Typically, items that are from beloved films or that relate to beloved actors do well. For example, items from The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and Gone with the Wind are always sought-after and popular at auction.”

But, while the “golden oldies” are ever popular, items from more recent movies are also emerging as worthy investments. A sale of costumes from the first Hunger Games in November saw Katniss’s famous “girl on fire dress” fetch $300,000 (Dh1.1m) and her signature hunting jacket fetch $60,000 (Dh220,380), while The Elder Wand used by Harry Potter in the last two instalments of the blockbuster franchise recently sold for $10,100 (Dh36,730), double its estimated price.

Whether your tastes veer towards Frodo Baggins’s Sting sword or Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine desert poncho, there’s a little piece of movie history out there for everyone. “First, collect what you love,” advises Barrett. “And second, concentrate on items that are obviously real, like movie stars’ passports, driver’s licences, annotated scripts or costumes with the right labels.”

Movie props are notorious for going missing — the 1964 Chevelle Malibu driven by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction went AWOL for 19 years after being stolen from Quentin Tarantino and only recently resurfaced, while the golden gun from the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, four Spider Man suits stolen from the set of the movie in 2001 and over 70 items from Star Trek: The Next Generation have yet to be recovered. So who knows what new treasures will be making themselves onto the market in coming years?