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Bidding biz

Auctions thrive on hunger for memorabilia

The rubber shark teeth went for $3,000. The sub-carpeting — meaning the stuff below the carpet anyone walked upon — commanded $11,000. And somebody paid $50 for three quarters.

Insane to most people. But to a discerning few, the fact that the shark’s teeth came from “Jaws,” the sub-carpeting from “Star Trek,” and the quarters from “Driven” — hardly Sylvester Stallone’s most memorable effort but a Sly pic all the same — made them well worth the price. In the world of entertainment memorabilia, there’s simply no accounting for taste.

There is, however, real money to be made by betting on the fact that to somebody, somewhere, almost every prop, costume, or memento from a film or TV production is worth money. At a recent Profiles in History memorabilia auction in BevHills, one fan successfully bid $110,000 for an original costume from the 1950s “Superman” series.

It was one of the few bids to come from the crowd in the small room, which numbered only about 25. Much of the bidding came via phone and Internet, with proxies holding a receiver or typing on a laptop and driving up the price of a pistol from “Blade Runner” to $17,000 and originally handwritten lyrics from “The Producers” to $24,500.

“Four hundred dollars on the Net, do I hear five? Five? Yes we have $500 in person,” said the fast talking auctioneer, turning from the audience to operators to the computer operator. “How about $600? OK, $600 on the phones …”

Total haul from the four-hour auction: more than $1.2 million for 369 items.

The confluence of three trends — the explosion of do-it-yourself auctioneering on eBay and its rival Web sites, more careful accounting by studios for every piece of property, and a growing awareness among industryites that production detritus is now worth something — has made entertainment memorabilia a booming business in recent years. Even studios are now getting in the act, directly selling props from movies such as “Austin Powers” and “Terminator 3.”

Insiders agree, though, that if any one event helped launch this market, it was the expansion over the last 20 years of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, both of which feature entertainment memorabilia adorning their walls.

Planet Hollywood spurred the memorabilia market in a different direction when it auctioned off some 300 of its items last December to help repay creditors as it emerged from bankruptcy.

The event, held by Sotheby’s in New York, raised $1.2 million from sales of Bette Davis’s best actress Oscar from 1935 for “Dangerous,” ($207,500), a dress worn by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” ($19,120) and Rudolph Valentino’s toreador costume from 1922 pic “Blood and Sand” ($32,862).

Planet Hollywood still has plenty of items left, however, and plans to display many of them in a new Las Vegas hotel and casino its opening in place of the Aladdin. A group of investors that includes former Hard Rock CEO and Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl recently announced the plan.

While top auction houses like Sotheby’s occasionally dabble in the field, companies like Profiles and New York’s Gotta Have It!, which operates a physical shop and online auctions, cater to it exclusively. On the lower end, the marketplace is dominated by eBay, which currently lists more than 250,000 items in its entertainment memorabilia category.

Indeed, while the actual size of the movie and TV memorabilia market is hard to pin down — in part due to all these online auctions — participants agree it has grown tremendously in the past few years, with items from sci-fi and horror pics, which often have the most devoted fans, leading the way. Profiles in History CEO Joseph Maddalena estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 people worldwide spend at least $1,000 a year on memorabilia, whereas 10 years ago there were “just 500, practically nobody.”

Who are these tens of thousands of people around the world who spend hard-earned money on would otherwise be a near worthless item but for the fact it appeared on a movie or TV screen?

A few are Hollywood insiders. Maddalena confirms that he has had several “A-list” buyers, with most showbiz pro memorabilia collectors being writers and directors.

Most, though, are devoted fans, the kind who don’t just love movies, but love Hollywood, and yearn for a piece of the magic. Some just want a shirt or a prop used by a favorite star, while others spend hundreds of thousands to build a thorough collection of items from a favorite film, TV show, or actor’s career.

“I started off just getting things for my personal enjoyment, but as my collection grew I started tying them in by film or actor,” says Doug Haase, a marketing consultant from Arkansas who estimates he and several friends spend around $50,000 a year on memorabilia. “Hollywood has done an extremely good job of marketing movie magic, so when you have a piece of it in your home, it’s as much a great conversation piece as memorabilia.”

It’s clear that in this market, demand is not the problem. Rather, locating and obtaining actual items from old productions is the challenge.

The growing number of outlets to sell memorabilia has created a niche market for those who connect Hollywood pros with potential buyers for their memorabilia

Former MGM exec Herb Solow started just such a business with his wife, Harrison, after the pair cleaned out their garage and made a tidy profit by selling items they had previously regarded as junk. The pair have since arranged the sale of a number of items through Profiles, including a command chair from “Star Trek” that went for more than $300,000, the highest price ever paid for a single television prop.

“There are all these retired show business pros who have boxes full of stuff they think is literally junk,” Harrison explains. “But this stuff is always valuable to someone. You just need to connect them.”

It’s not so easy today for crewmembers to take props home and sell them a few decades later, though. After catching on that ex-employees were making money selling items that once belonged to them, studios now keep careful track of every item used in productions. And they’re turning those items into a new revenue stream and a marketing tool.

Many studios now work with online auction sites like eBay and Yahoo Auctions to sell props, costumes and other leftovers.

Studios are starting to get into the online auction game directly, too. New Line runs its own Web site, where it has sold items from every one of its films since the second “Austin Powers” in 1999. This summer it expanded beyond its own movies for the first time, auctioning costumes and props from “T3.”

Studios view online auctions as a marketing tool more than a revenue stream, often giving the take — a few hundred thousand dollars — to charity. The auctions are timed to release dates and promoted along with the film.

In fact it’s usually marketing departments that coordinate the auctions, working on their own or with an intermediary company such as Premiere Props to liaison with auctioneers, collect items, and handle shipping and sales.”All we’re doing is fantasy fulfillment,” observes Maddalena. “Some people are so enamored of Hollywood they want to be as close as possible, and that’s why there’s a market for the costumes and props and set pieces that bring movies and TV to those fans.”