Movie props let you own tangible pieces of beloved films

A custom-made hoverboard used for effects shots in ‘Back to the Future: Part II’ achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A custom-made hoverboard used for effects shots in ‘Back to the Future: Part II’ achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Some of the most well-known movie props are in museum collections, but other iconic screen-used pieces from legendary films are available to the average bidder, and are hotly pursued.

One of the best things about collecting movie props is that there are hundreds of ways to build a collection. A fan of robots might wish to collect robot props from movies that span several categories, while horror buffs can concentrate exclusively in that genre. You can collect by studio, director, or even by film-making era. The list of approaches is nearly infinite.

Serious collectors seek authenticated production props instead of replicas, though replicas can be collectible in their own right. In most cases, several versions of a prop are made in different materials during a film’s production — for example, as a lightweight version that is easier to hold, and another designed to be demolished. Car props almost always have an iteration that is cut open to better allow filming inside. Reportedly, the Back to the Future movies relied on six versions of the DeLorean that served as the time-travel machine.

A Wicked Witch of the West hourglass prop from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ earned $400,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A Wicked Witch of the West hourglass prop from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ earned $400,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Props that have been screen-used and can be matched to a particular scene are inherently more valuable, and those that are key to the movie’s action are even more desirable, such as the hourglass that the Wicked Witch of the West repeatedly holds in The Wizard of Oz. In one memorable scene, the witch, played by actor Margaret Hamilton, taunts Dorothy with the hourglass filled with red glitter, saying, “Do you see that? That’s how much longer you’ve got to be alive! And it isn’t long, my pretty! It isn’t long!” Several production props of the Gothic-style hourglass were made for use in that movie, including one that appears to smash to bits as Dorothy tries to escape the witch’s castle. Among the lightweight props made of wood and papier-mache was a 20in-tall version that attained $400,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Heritage Auctions.

The most coveted movie props are those from blockbuster movies released by major film studios. If the hourglass and the witch’s broomstick are the most emblematic of The Wizard of Oz, then Marty McFly’s borrowed hoverboard and the DeLorean car are certainly among the must-have props from the Back to the Future trilogy. While all six DeLoreans are presently unavailable for sale, one of the hoverboard props used in the second movie in the series was recently offered at auction. A hoverboard custom made by the production team and painted hot pink realized $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Heritage Auctions. The 28-by-48in hoverboard was modified to remove the foot pad because it was used to create effects shots with actor Michael J. Fox suspended from wires to appear as if he was hovering.

A Velociraptor claw prop from the 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’ realized $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A Velociraptor claw prop from the 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’ realized $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

When acquiring movie props, display space needs to be taken into account; some are large and bulky while others easily fit into the palm of your hand. Smallish items that aren’t fragile and don’t require special care are smart bets, such as a Jurassic Park velociraptor claw that brought $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Heritage Auctions. Made of cast resin painted black, the five-inch claw was used by Sam Neill’s character, Dr. Alan Grant, to show how the dinosaurs tore up their victims. This particular piece reflects a collecting trend for pieces associated with lead characters and designed to be shown prominently on screen. Dubbed “hero props,” these items are regarded as extra-valuable.

This six-foot-long screen-used ship prop from the 1925 film ‘Ben Hur’ sold for $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2017. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

This six-foot-long screen-used ship prop from the 1925 film ‘Ben Hur’ sold for $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2017. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

While most of the highly sought-after movie props tend to come from films dating to the 1970s and onwards, simply because that material is more likely to have survived, there are exceptions to every rule. Hollywood’s silent film era is notable and still of interest to film buffs and collectors. From the original Ben Hur, released in 1925, came a six-foot-long screen-used ship that sold for $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at Milestone Auctions.

Blockbuster movies such as Star Wars remain a solid investment for collectors of props. Lightsabers used by actors Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson have auctioned for more than $100,000 and $60,000 respectively in the last 18 months. Even tiny props that don’t seem all that sexy can bring good money. A case in point is a four-by-two-inch prop section of the Death Star that sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Van Eaton Galleries. Used in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the prop was created out of dense foam by Industrial Light & Magic and painted. The Death Star was certainly a key element of the plot of the movie, so even though it’s just a hunk of painted foam, it’s not surprising to see die-hard fans bid this item up to 10 times above its low auction estimate.

While not as visually striking as a lightsaber, a four-by-two-inch prop chunk of the Death Star in ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’ made $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

While not as visually striking as a lightsaber, a four-by-two-inch prop chunk of the Death Star in ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’ made $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Several decades ago, it was hard for collectors to acquire movie props if they were not in the inner circles of Hollywood, but fortunately, things have changed. Today, movie props come up at auction frequently. Thanks to the wealth of information available online, buyers can research a prop to vet it and determine its screen use. Collecting props can be a fun way to forge a tangible connection to beloved movies.