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Sam's Instrument--at $154,000--Is Star at Memorabilia Sale : A Piano's Value Soars, as Time Goes By

December 17, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A Japanese trading company outbid New York developer Donald Trump for a piano featured in the movie "Casablanca" and an Australian collector scooped up the witch's hat from "The Wizard of Oz" at an auction Friday that experts said would signal a worldwide spiral in prices for Hollywood movie memorabilia because of unprecedented international interest.

In addition, Clark Gable's leather-bound personal script from "Gone With the Wind," which he had given to a secretary he was dating at MGM, sold for $77,000--almost 20 times its expected sale price. Dick Purtan, the private collector from Detroit, who bought it, "came out of the blue," according to Sotheby's collectibles expert Dana Hawkes. "No one knew that he was going to be bidding this kind of price."

A lower price had been expected because although the 1937 script's cover is embossed in gold with Gable's name, it is not signed or annotated by the actor who played Rhett Butler.

Parisian Cafe

The turquoise upright piano from "Casablanca," on which Sam played "As Time Goes By" to Rick and Ilsa in a Parisian cafe during a flashback scene, fetched $154,000, substantially above the $75,000-$100,000 estimate put on it by Sotheby's. (In the 1942-1943 Warner Brothers classic, a second piano was later used to "play it again" in Rick's Cafe.)

The winning bid for the piano just missed being the highest sum ever paid for Hollywood movie memorabilia: that precedent was set June 21 when a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" was sold to an American for $165,000 by Christie's East in New York City.

Masahiro Kanaoka and Eric Vance, both executives of the non-ferrous and light metal department at the American offices of C. Itoh & Co.--which Vance described as the largest trading company in the world--said they made the piano purchase on behalf of Japanese investors who asked not to be identified by name.

"There are many Japanese fans of the old '40s movies," said Kanaoka. "So there was good reason to buy because of the nostalgia." He also noted that the colorized version of the movie has been shown on Japanese television at least twice recently, "so everyone knows it."

The sale of the piano came down to a bidding war between the Japanese and Trump, who attended the sale. Trump exclaimed good-naturedly after he lost: "You win a few and you lose a few."

The C. Itoh representatives also tried unsuccessfully to buy the "Gone With the Wind" script. Vance said Japanese collectors see movie memorabilia as a "hedge against inflation" and also part of a trend currently under way in Japan of "collecting American culture."

"And they're quite avid collectors as we've demonstrated here," Vance noted. "We expect to be back to purchase more articles."

According to Hawkes, the piano sale was the first time that a Japanese has bid on a "major Hollywood prop. It's always been the Americans. I just think these movies have a worldwide appeal and this is evident in the international types of buyers that we had."

The piano's seller, Beverly Hills dentist Dr. Gary Milan, who has the world's biggest collection of "Casablanca" memorabilia--including the second piano--admitted that while he was "pleased" with the price, "I'm a little unpleased that it's probably leaving the country."

An expert on movie memorabilia prices, he also predicted continued Japanese interest. "And that doesn't make me real happy."

The black wool "Wizard of Oz" hat, worn by Margaret Hamilton playing the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film, belonged to a Nashville couple, film composer Hank Levine and his choreographer wife, who purchased it in 1970 at the MGM auction in Culver City for a mere $450. It had been expected to go for $4,000-$5,000 at the time.

But on Friday, the hat sold for $33,000 to an Australian private collector who requested anonymity, and there was some surprise that the final price was not much higher than its estimated price of $30,000-$50,000 since it was the single original. By contrast, Dorothy's famous ruby slippers had been made in multiples.

"But the shoes have a much more magical appeal than the hat," noted Hawkes. "The shoes are good, the hat's wicked. And it's black and not colorful."

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