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.
Even 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.