There were three reasons why Beverly Hills dentist and movie memorabilia collector Gary Milan sold one of his two pianos from the movie "Casablanca" last week.
"I felt selfish. Nobody should have both pianos from 'Casablanca,' " he explained.
"Then, obviously, money was somewhat involved. I was curious to see what its value was. But, also, I have relatives who have never believed that movie memorabilia was worth any money or had any value to begin with. I was hoping to prove them wrong."
Did he ever.
On Friday, an unidentified Japanese film buff outbid real estate tycoon Donald Trump at Sotheby's with a $154,000 offer for Milan's green upright piano--on which Sam played "As Time Goes By" to Rick and Ilsa in a Parisian cafe during a flashback scene in the 1942-1943 Warner Bros. classic.
Suddenly the dentist found himself riding a new international wave of acquisitive passion for the cast-offs of decades of Hollywood history. As prices rise for movie memorabilia and more emerges from storerooms and attics, Milan and other collectors are reaping unexpected financial windfalls. At the same time, however, concerns are mounting that the new run on Hollywood bric-a-brac hidden around Los Angeles and the rest of the country could end up on foreign soil.
"I just think these movies have a worldwide appeal, and this is evident in the international types of buyers we had," said Sotheby's collectibles expert Dana Hawkes, noting that Friday was the first time that a Japanese person has bid on a major Hollywood prop. "Movie memorabilia has gained in popularity in the last three years. But, before, it's always been the Americans who wanted it."
Also at last week's auction, an Australian collector scooped up the witches' hat from "The Wizard of Oz" for a whopping $33,000. In June, a pair of Dorothy's Ruby slippers sold for $165,000. And last month, an unidentified Canadian buyer set a record for animated artwork by paying $135,000 for a black-and-white celluloid and watercolor background from Walt Disney's 1934 cartoon "The Orphan's Benefit."
Now two London costuming houses are reportedly trying to get hold of a staggering
1 million-piece collection of period costumes being sold by Paramount Studios for an asking price of $3 million. And Eric Vance, an American representative for Japan's giant C. Itoh & Co. trading firm, announced on Friday that "we expect to be back to purchase more articles," since the Japanese now see movie memorabilia as both a "hedge against inflation" and part of a newly fashionable trend currently under way in their country of "collecting American culture."
Milan felt some regret when he learned that a Japanese had bought the "Casablanca" piano.
"That doesn't make me real happy," the dentist rued. "While I'm pleased with the price for the piano, I'm a little unpleased that it's probably leaving the country."
Maybe so. But the sudden entrance of the Japanese into the movie memorabilia market--at a time when they're buying up artwork by Van Gogh and other masterpieces at record prices--is a signal to the collecting world that the value of Hollywood-related
items, which already went up substantially in 1988, could really soar in 1989.
How high will prices go? Nobody knows.
One thing is certain: The higher that prices go, the more movie memorabilia will come onto the market. And that spells good news not just for collectors but also for the artifacts themselves--props, celluloids and even costumes--which too often were lost, abused or even destroyed over the years because they were thought to have little monetary value.
"More publicity generates more interest and then more material comes out into the open," noted Sotheby's Hawkes. "Each feeds into the other."
Currently, record prices are being set left and right. At Sotheby's last Wednesday, an unidentified buyer paid $143,000 for an annotated type-script of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," which was broadcast over CBS Radio on Halloween night in 1938. The price was more than four times Sotheby's expectations and is believed to be a record at auction for a radio script. Meanwhile, another buyer on Friday paid $77,000--almost 20 times the expected price--for Clark Gable's leather-bound personal script from "Gone With the Wind," even though it was not even autographed or annotated by the actor.
But Nashville arranger-composer Hank Levine and his wife never considered putting their witch's hat up for sale until an anonymous American collector in June bought a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" at a Christie's East auction for $165,000, making it one of the highest sums ever paid for Hollywood movie memorabilia.
"We saw the news article on TV about the red shoes and, well, we had the hat for almost 20 years and we figured it was time to let it go," Levine recalled. "Plus, my wife had some things she would like to do with the funds."