As per tradition, (see 2007 Year in Review, 2008 Year in Review, 2009 Year in Review, 2010 Year in Review, 2011 Year in Review), what follows is an editorial featuring my personal observations and opinions with regards to the business of buying, collecting, selling, preserving original pop culture artifacts – looking back at the top trends, developments, and news stories of 2012. As is always the case, this is a completely subjective exercise, and merely touches on the developments and events that relate to the hobby.
10) Crime & Punishment
As per usual, there is a handful of higher profile cases of fraud in the news… and most of the rest of it flies under the radar.
The bigger stories covered by the mainstream media this past year were the following:
- Vintage Poster Scandal Update: Judge Sentences Kerry Haggard to over 6 years in Federal Prison and Orders to Pay $1,380,000 in Restitution to Victims
- Judge Sentences eBay Entertainment Memorabilia Dealer to over 8 years in Federal Prison and Orders to Pay Nearly $175,000 in Restitution to Victims
- FBI: “William Mastro and Two Other Executives of Former Mastro Auctions Indicted for Allegedly Defrauding Bidders in Online and Live Auctions of Sports Memorabilia and Other Collectibles”
- New York Daily News Update on Mastro Auctions Scandal: Bill Mastro To Plead Guilty To Fraud, Altering Memorabilia
One of the positive developments of 2012 was dealer ScreenUsed’s move into the live auction space. A long time dealer and pioneer in the industry, the reputable firm held two live auctions last year (one in the Summer, one in the Winter), which appeared to be very successful, and in talking with others in the hobby who took part on the consignment side and the buying side, all things appeared to go very smoothly.
It is good to see a company that is run by principals that are actually involved in collecting and passionate about it themselves go into the live auction business, and provide another viable alternative to the marketplace.
In contrast to #9 above, in many ways the market is pretty stagnant, with (relatively) long-time dealers failing to innovate and evolve, or really put out much effort at all. Yet somehow things don’t change too much, though some have failed an gone away, it would be nice to see some of the dealers try out or adopt some more consumer-friendly practices.
Hollywood Treasure and “Reality” Television was my #2 topic last year, and while still important (and just as annoying), it seemed to be less relevant in 2012. Another season (I’ve lost track of how they number them) of the show starring Joe Maddalena and the related principals associated with Profiles in History has come and gone, though perhaps the novelty and “characters” were not compelling enough to bring back a mainstream audience.
More interesting to me are the number of production companies that contacted me in 2012 (well over a dozen) wanting to develop “me too” and copycat shows based on Hollywood Treasure, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and American Pickers (“but with movie props!”). Based on my communications with those who contacted me in this regard, the majority were clueless to laughably ignorant about this subject matter that I suppose they feel that they can capitalize on.
My favorite is the company doing what amounts to Pawn Stars meets Hollywood Treasure, who I suspect at this point must have contacted anyone who has every bought or sold any movie prop, who pitches the idea of coming on the show to “really sell something”, “fake sell something”, or have them cast an actor to “really sell something” or “fake sell something” from your collection. And they call this “reality” television?
Although this is not any more credible than what was portrayed in the terrible and unwatchable Comic Book Men earlier this year (see “‘Comic Book Men’ AMC TV Series Features Laughable Star Wars Luke Skywalker Lightsaber Movie Prop Authentication & Valuation“). I wonder if they could get anyone to watch this show without the constant promos during The Walking Dead.
There was one very interesting interview about Hollywood Treasure this year that at least sheds some light on how that show is put together (see “Fascinating, Candid, and Revealing Interview with Tracey McCall of ‘Hollywood Treasure’ on Reality Television and Profiles in History“).
All in all, for a hobby that is great material for an honest and sincere look at how it all works, I don’t hold out any expectation that someone in Hollywood is savvy enough to understand this and produce a show or documentary that is “real”.
The big news with Lucasfilm this year was it’s sale to/acquisition by Disney. It will be interesting to see if there are any ramifications in 2013 by the big change in ownership, as the companies operate with very different philosophies.
Will Disney do anything with the vast collection of original props, costumes, and other assets from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises? Will they in any way affect or interfere with the open sale and trading of that material which somehow escaped the LFL empire? Have we really seen the end of the Ainsworth legal battle over his sale of unofficial and unlicensed memorabilia?
5) Apples to Apples
One of the Profiles in History sales this year provided a rare opportunity to do an “apples to apples” market check, in that the consignor of the collection purchased most of the material from the same auction company he chose to resell it… so while still a somewhat subjective exercise, it gave people a chance to look at the original purchases and resale results and compare… to wonder if changes in the prices realized is a reflection of the times, if the market is going up or down, or if maybe just two buyers pushed the original prices up (and with one buyer now out of the running as the reseller).
- Profiles in History The Dreier Collection Movie Prop Auction “Apples to Apples” Sale Comparison: After Sale List, “Peer Review” Update, Props as Investment?
4) Museums, The Public, & The Mainstream Media
Last year, my top stories of 2011 included the news of the “Hollywood History Museum” in development by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). There was some news on this in 2012, but also the announcement of yet another museum, James Comisar’s “Museum of Television”, which will be located in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona.
Both of these efforts are huge developments in the long-term preservation of important pop culture artifacts.
The Associated Press ran a story with an interview with James Comisar, which can be read on Yahoo News (see “A huge collection of odd TV stuff needs a home“).
Unfortunately, the news report came from a somewhat disrespectful angle, beginning with the “odd TV stuff” headline (and in case that was overlooked by the reader, later in the body of the article reiterated as “cool but somewhat oddball stuff“), and seemed a bit fixated with Spock’s ears from Star Trek… I guess reaching for a sensationalist-seeking readership, or one that would poke fun at this collection of material? Somehow in his interview with James Comisar (who I know fairly well), he incorrectly pegged him as against private collectors as caretakers of pop culture artifacts, which I’ve since clarified with him was somehow mistranslated in the article.
Perhaps just as interesting are the “Reader Comments” published by what I would assume are mostly the general public – people not too familiar with or anyway engaged in the collection and preservation of movie and television props, costumes, and other material… at the time of this writing, 506 comments! Much more than would be found on any website actually dedicated to discussion of this subject matter. If anything, it provides an invaluable insight into the perspective of a wide range of opinions… (of course, many comments are merely throwaway gibberish, but that is the nature of any popular news website).
In any event, just as interesting as the progress made in making these two museums a reality will be how the mainstream media and general public perceive them and try to define them.
There was an ongoing and extensive dialogue with Fong Sam (at the time serving as General Manager of Profiles in History, who has since left to start up his own competing auction house) about efforts to bring more transparency to Profiles in History and their business. But aside from a lot of talk, nothing really materialized, nor do I expect any big changes from the leading seller of entertainment memorabilia. But, to be fair, though they are the most well-known in selling this material, I can’t say that any of their competitors are any more transparent than they are.
- Profiles in History Pledges More Transparency; Open Q&A On Website Regarding Provenance, Authenticity, Other Questions
- Profiles in History Pledges More Transparency: Update & Response to “What We Are Currently Working On”
- Profiles in History “Peer Review” on George Reeves Superman Cape; More on 12/29/75 Western Costume Letters
- Profiles in History: Multiple Topic Housekeeping on “Peer Review”, Auction House Reserves, and Online Discussion Forums
- Profiles in History “Peer Review” on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Helmet – Previously Sold as a “Henry V” Helmet?
Really, “Reserves” crosses over into #3 above, but it is such an important issue, it should really be highlighted… the longer I’ve been involved in this hobby, the more this notion of “reserves”, which I’ve found that principals at auction houses can’t even clearly define themselves, is generally a bunch of bunk.
As I understand it, by law, the reserve cannot exceed the low pre-sale estimate in an auction. But I’ve seen cases in which that is not true, and quite honestly, who exactly is performing oversight on these live auctions anyway? Yes, that’s right, as far as I know, no one. So the rules are the rules, no one seems to understand them, there is no uniformity, and most buyers lack the curiosity to even question what is going on at these sale events.
To me, this is the biggest problem in the hobby today – worse than fake props – because fake props can be proven fake (or at least, as a buyer, if you are discerning it’s in your power to make the seller prove something is authentic, or not buy it). Who can prove what is really happening with these auctions? What the reserve is? Who is the bidder that the auctioneer is calling out of the air? Who is on the phone? What is the policy for someone not interesting in actually buying an item being a participant in the auction.
In any event, this goes hand in hand with transparency… with no transparency, no clearly defined parameters as to reserves, hidden reserves, opening bids, starting bids, and the like, it all just comes across as a confusing mess.
Obviously, auction houses are businesses, and it does not make business sense for them to constrain themselves in ways that their competitors do not… unless one auction house really wants to build their reputation on ethics and doing things in a different way. And I’m not aware of any auction house that has taken such a stand on principles over the bottom line.
Update (shortly after publication of this article – maybe an hour): I was actually just contacted by Desi DosSantos from ScreenUsed, and he pointed out the following with regards to their new live auction business and how they handle reserves:
“[O]ne thing we are very vocal about in our auctions is that we have NO reserves, and never plan to. Starting price is it; only one bid, oh well that is what it sells for; if there is more interest then the price goes up based on what the buyers feel is correct.”
1) The Bubble (“Jackpot” Estimates Jump The Shark?)
“The Bubble” was the number one story on my 2011 list, and has been at the forefront of topics for 2012 as well.
Is there an artificially inflated market? Are there signs of a bubble bursting? Or are values merely leveling off, or cycling? Are collectors becoming investors looking to metaphorically “hit the jackpot” by setting high reserves and estimates on consignments to auction houses, hoping to lure lightening into a bottle? Will the auction houses “self police” this trend and force consignors to set realistic values on pieces for sale, or continue with “hopeful” estimates with high (and sometimes unprecedented) opening minimum bids?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but perhaps 2013 will prove informative.
Maybe the most significant data to mine with regards to these questions are the results from the last Profiles in History auction of 2012 (see “Profiles in History ‘Hollywood Auction 53′ Results in Passed Lots, A Few Surprises; “Jackpot” Reserves/Estimates Finally Out of Control?”).