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A Tangled Web of Movie Prop Thievery

Stolen items find their way to auction houses, fans and EBay. Studios are tightening security.

November 30, 2002|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The day of filming on the "Spider-Man" set in April 2001 ended like any other, with the one-of-a-kind suits locked up in the costume room for safekeeping.

But during the night, four superhero suits vanished from the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City.

And as quickly as Tobey Maguire switched from geeky teenager to crime-fighting arachnid, investigators launched an all-out search. The studio offered a $25,000 reward. Hundreds of tips poured in. Investigators traveled around the globe in search of the handmade suits, each valued at $50,000.

"This was like a Hollywood whodunit," said Mike Moser, executive director of security operations for the studio.

With collectors willing to pay top dollar for rare movie props and costumes, thieves know that there is a market for stolen studio memorabilia. The appetite for Hollywood collectibles has exploded in recent years, especially since the creation of the online auction site EBay, police say. Prices for prized memorabilia have skyrocketed as they have become more popular.

The ill-gotten treasures make their way into living rooms and private collections. "There is no more famous place in the whole world than Hollywood," said Phyllis Caskey, president of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. "It's owning a piece of fantasy. You don't always say, 'Where did it come from? How did you get it?' "

Tinseltown theft has hit all genres, from classics to comedy. Police have recovered props and costumes stolen from studio sets of science fiction favorites "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." Earlier this month, an oversized golf ball and key disappeared from a fenced off-studio set of "The Cat in the Hat" in Pomona. Superheroes haven't been immune: Batman and Superman have been targeted along with Spider-Man.

One of the most-publicized thefts in recent years was not that of a costume or a prop, but rather that of the ultimate Hollywood icon -- the Oscar statuettes. Just days before the 2000 Academy Awards, 55 Oscars disappeared from a loading dock in an industrial neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles.

A salvage man found nearly all of the statuettes in a secluded parking lot, earning a $50,000 reward and a seat at the Academy Awards ceremony. Three men were convicted in the heist: A former truck driver for the shipping company pleaded no contest to grand theft and the others, one of them a dock worker at the warehouse, pleaded no contest to receiving stolen property.

In the past, studio executives were not particularly careful about protecting movie and television memorabilia because the items weren't seen as all that valuable, police say. Props and costumes critical to a movie shoot were often tossed aside as junk or knickknacks once a film was in the can.

Employees frequently walked off sets with costumes and neighbors searched through dumpsters for discarded items and were not accused of theft. Some say that's what happened with at least one pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz."

Over the last decade, however, studios have recognized the commercial and financial value of memorabilia and have stepped up security to protect and profit. Studio executives now limit access to sets, monitor surveillance cameras, post security officers and lock up costumes and props.

"Some companies ultimately realized that there was a big market out there," said Chris Horak, a former Universal Pictures employee who is now curator of the entertainment museum. "So they started paying attention and taking measures to control inventory during and after a shoot."

At least three studios have held their own Internet auctions of movie merchandise, Horak said. The studios also work with legitimate dealers to sell memorabilia, he said. Warner Bros. opened a museum in 1996, which can be visited only on a guided tour, to show off and protect many of its props and costumes.

Studios also began reporting thefts to police departments and working closely with detectives to investigate cases of stolen merchandise.

But tracking down the thieves is not easy, said Burbank Police Capt. Ed Skvarna. "You're not going to find a storefront on Hollywood Boulevard selling this stuff," he said. "These deals are done on handshakes and telephone calls and e-mails."

In one case, police spent two years searching for "Star Trek" regalia valued at $150,000 that had been stolen from Paramount Studios. They found about $50,000 worth of the costumes and accessories and arrested a fan, Kevin Buehler, as he tried to sell some of the merchandise. He was convicted later of receiving stolen property.

Prosecutors say they frequently have the evidence but don't have witnesses to the studio theft, so criminal charges often involve receiving stolen property.

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