The Maltese Falcon Sells for $3.5 Million at TCM Auction

Maltese Falcon_Bogart“This is genuine coin of the realm,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) says to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) while haggling over the value of the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 film of the same name.

He wasn’t kidding.

Today at Bonhams in New York City, the statuette of the iconic “black bird” from John Huston’s noir classic brought in a whopping $3.5 million at auction after a protracted bidding war between a bidder in the room and an unidentified party on the phone. The remote buyer, whose bids were delivered by Bonhams’ Director of Entertainment Memorabilia Catherine Williamson, emerged victorious, and a cheer arose from the assembled – and somewhat stunned – crowd. (The final sale price, including Bonhams’ service fees, will be $4,085,000.)

Here’s a video of the moment of the historic sale. Auctioneer Patrick Meade is at the podium and Williamson is at the center of the seven-person phone bank. (Note my fellow audience member’s sacrilegious exclamation of shock at :34.)

But the new owner of the Maltese Falcon wasn’t the only winner on Monday. Although final numbers have not yet been officially confirmed, by my math, What Dreams Are Made of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction as Curated by TCM brought in just under $6 million (including winning bids and buyers’ premiums attached by Bonhams of up to 25 percent). Meade suggested at the conclusion of the event that the take might be a record for an entertainment auction, though Bonhams representatives in the room were unable to confirm that.

2013_11_25_TCM_Auction_MeadeEven more surprising, the auction achieved historic results despite the fact that nearly one-quarter of the 309 costumes, props, movie posters and pieces of film-related ephemera did not meet their minimum bids and were not sold. And some of the 83 items that were “passed” were among the highest profile in the well-publicized event. For example, the bidding on Sam Spade’s red upholstered chair from THE MALTESE FALCON stalled at $120,000, well below the reserve of $150,000. And Joan Crawford’s polka dot dress from MILDRED PIERCE (1945), John Wayne’s cowboy hat (worn in six films) and chaps (given to Joel McCrea by Wayne), and Steve McQueen’s jacket from LE MANS (1971) all fell shy of the minimum bids required by their sellers.

And it was a dark day in Gotham City, as three costumes from the previous generation of Batman movies failed to capture buyers. Jack Nicholson’s Joker costume from Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) earned a bid of only $32,000, far below the minimum of $45,000. Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader outfit from BATMAN RETURNS (1992) only scored bids of $19,000 against a $30,000 minimum. And equally un-Batastic was Chris O’Donnell’s Robin costume from BATMAN FOREVER (1995), falling just shy of its $10,000 minimum.

But the winners far outpaced the losers in the six-hour event at the British auction house’s Madison Avenue gallery. The 1940 Buick Phaeton car from CASABLANCA sold for $380,000 ($461,000 including Bonhams’ fee), but the seller kindly offering to throw in a free break tune-up before transferring ownership of the 73-year-old vehicle. Hal Wallis’ heavily annotated working copy of the shooting script from CASABLANCA, labeled “Master My Copy / Only / Must Keep,”  earned a winning bid of $55,000. An eight-page handwritten letter from Marilyn Monroe to her foster mother Grace Goddard went for $45,000. A 50th anniversary replica of the Ruby Slippers from THE WIZARD OF OZ, produced from the same molds as the original, proved there’s no place like home with a winning bid of $28,000. Vivien Leigh’s negligee from GONE WITH THE WIND scored a very enticing $45,000. And Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy hat from FUNNY FACE will warm the head of some lucky film fan for $70,000 (against an estimated sale price of $17,000-$22,000.)

After Meade banged the gavel on the final item – appropriately, a Twentieth Century Fox “The End” title – an assistant rolled out a cart filled with tubs of champagne on ice. While the folks from Bonhams certainly earned a celebratory toast, so did TCM. The network has announced that a portion of the proceeds from the auction will be donated to The Film Foundation, the non-profit preservation entity founded in 1990 by Martin Scorsese. Some fans have expressed sadness at seeing this iconic memorabilia scattered to the four winds, and I can’t say I disagree. But it’s heartening to know that at least a part of the proceeds will be dedicated to restoring and preserving classic movies for a new generation of viewers.

And no, I didn’t buy anything (though I had my eye on this and this.)

For all the results of the auction, click here. To relive my live tweet-along, click here.

2012_11_25_TC_Auction_close

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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10 Responses to The Maltese Falcon Sells for $3.5 Million at TCM Auction

  1. Thanks for the write-up, Will. I was shocked at the number of ‘pass’ items in the final tally. I couldn’t help but wonder if the sellers had unrealistic expectations or if they had paid too much to acquire the items in the first place.

    Also: Irish. ;)

  2. How exciting! Did you stay for the whole six hours? I wish I could have been there!

  3. Thanks for the report. I don’t know how the auction was advertised but I seems that some items were better placed in a separate auction, especially the Batman items. Were the high end comic collectors aware of this auction?
    What I recognized that almost all production art went considerably above the estimation. These are great for the wall. Guess we may see more in future auctions.

    • willmckinley says:

      I don’t know if comic collectors were aware, but the modern Batman items felt very out of place in what was almost exclusively an auction of classic film material. I know we’re approaching the 25th anniversary for Burton’s BATMAN, but I don’t think *this* audience considers it to be a classic (at least not yet). Interestingly, TCM has been hyping the BATMAN costume since they first announced the auction at the TCM Film Fest earlier this year. They even had the costume on display at the Festival. It much must have cost a fair amount to ship that thing back and forth across the country, only to have it not sell.

      • I searched in one comic collector forum with many members spending quite some money for single books and I didn’t find any mention of this auction. I guess the stuff from the “newer” films like Batman and Indy would get higher bids in a auction more focused on these.

  4. Jen says:

    Thank you for posting the update. It will be interesting to see where these things end up going—even to loan them to museums would be kind on the part of the new owners (I say this having seen the Maltese Falcon in person at a museum several years ago—I about died on the spot, let me tell you!). I, too, think the inclusion of BATMAN memorabilia is odd, particularly considering it didn’t sell.

  5. Shel says:

    Would like to get my hands on some Strickfaden electrics, but ONLY those utilized in FRANKENSTEIN ’31 and that remain 100% unaltered, not any that had been re-engineered or cosmetically changed for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Add in the street shoes sticking out from under the sheet in FRANKENSTEIN ’31, but that’s a tough one as was likely the actor’s own shoes, and add in the Colin Clive dummy thrown from the windmill and that of Dwight Frye hanging in the downstairs lab dungeon.

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