Guest Blog: Collecting Original Star Trek Props

By Alec Peters - October 22, 2010

The world of collecting Star Trek props and costumes was a small and expensive one prior to the big Christie’s Star Trek auction in October, 2006. That auction, sanctioned by Paramount and held in New York City at the world famous Christie’s Auction House, opened up the shadowy world of collecting screen-used props and costumes to Star Trek fans worldwide.  

I say “shadowy” because before the Christie’s auction, much of the Star Trek props and costumes in circulation where not legally obtained from Paramount. Poor security, insider theft and lax handling had resulted in props and costumes leaking out from Paramount over the years. Outside of the Bob Justman, Matt Jeffries and Bill Theiss auctions, all of which saw those legends sell off their personal Star Trek collections, much of what had previously been sold at auction or directly from insiders was basically stolen property with no legitimate provenance.

So what is “provenance”? Well, let’s get to some key terms you need to know before dipping your toe in the water of collecting Star Trek props and costumes.

Provenance is the history of an item. It is the trail of ownership that traces its history back to the production. So, with the Christie’s auction, the provenance is Paramount Studios, who was the owner of all of the Star Trek assets.  And any subsequent owner need only show that the item was sold at Christie’s to prove the item’s provenance.

Certificate of Authenticity is a document that traces the item’s provenance and shows where the item came from. A “COA” that merely states who you bought it from, even with the buyer’s guarantee it is authentic, isn’t worth anything. It must state how the item came from the production or trace the provenance.

So, now that you know about some basic terms that are important to understand what is authentic, let’s discuss how you describe a prop or costume.

There are two main classifications of original props and costumes:

Production Made

 Almost all props fall into this category. This term refers to any original prop or costume that was specifically made for a production. The prop or costume may or may not have been seen on-screen. Sometimes, it is simply that there is no way to prove that it is. Most collectors are perfectly happy with this category of item (I certainly am, and I have a big collection!)

Screen Used

A prop or costume is identified as “Screen Used” if it either is noted that way from the prop or costume shop in the item’s tagging, or can be screen matched (see below). This is a very high level of verification that is needed, and 98% of all props and costumes can never meet this level. Sometimes we know an item is screen used because it is the only item made, and therefore we know it is the one on screen. Other times the item is tagged specifically as the “hero” item and we know that the prop master has identified it as the one used on screen. And sometimes we can screen match the item and that is verification.

There are also two qualifiers that give more information on the nature of the prop or costume:

Hero Prop

A “hero” prop is a prop that has been identified as being directly used in the show, usually for a specific scene or a specific episode. “Hero” props are generally of higher quality, durability and functionality. They often feature finer details, as such props may be meant for—or have been used in—close-ups. In Star Trek, typically a “Hero” prop was  the light-up version with working parts. Often however, a “Hero” prop is merely the version that was actually filmed. There may be eight copies prepared for a scene, but only one was used, and thus this is the “hero.” For example, on Battlestar Galactica, “Hero” simply meant the one used on screen. At Propworx, items marked “Hero” have typically undergone verification, which includes referencing to behind-the-scenes materials (continuity books) and screen-matching the item, or finding the item specifically marked “hero” from the prop shop or costume department. 

Stunt Version

A “stunt” version of a prop is typically a low-quality version of a “Hero” or detailed prop so that the “Hero” version is neither destroyed nor causes harm to the people involved with the stunt. Stunt versions of props are typically made of rubber. Stunt versions of costumes will be the same quality, though specifically marked “stunt.” They may be old versions of the costume, used by the main actor and then given for use by the stunt actor, or they may be new versions, specifically tailored for a stunt actor.

Now knowing this, the only other thing you really need to understand is:

Screen Matched

The process of matching a prop or costume to what is seen on-screen, ensuring that it is exactly the same item as seen on screen. This means looking for specific identifying marks such as specific bends in paper or pitting and scratching in a prop, or fabric patterns or markings in a costume. The process requires a DVD player (preferably Blu-ray) and patience as you need to look carefully for identifying marks that will positively identify the item in your possession as the one on screen.

Ok, so now that you know all the basics, where do you get the stuff?

Well, there were two main sources for Star Trek props and costumes. The first was the Christie’s Star Trek auction, where 1,000 lots of props, costumes and set pieces were sold. After this, Paramount sold everything that was left through a company called It’s A Wrap, which sold close to 15,000 items over two years on eBay and through direct sales. As mentioned previously, the Bob Justman, Matt Jeffries and Bill Theiss auctions all had many great Star Trek items. Propworx recently held a Star Trek auction that had items from Doug Drexler, Mike and Denise Okuda, and Rick Sternbach, all members of the Star Trek art department for many years.

So, with all these items out there, a robust secondary market exists, through both eBay and the Propworx Star Trek auction, which is now an annual event. You can find items from $100 to $10,000. Everything from original TOS costumes to phaser rifles. The key is to always ask about the provenance. If it isn’t from Christie’s (where there were no COA’s, but you should demand an invoice, which every purchaser got), It’s A Wrap or one of the other auctions I have mentioned, you need to be VERY careful. And the best way to know is to join the Star Trek Prop, Costume & Auction Forum, where over 1,000 collectors share information and help each other out. The Star Trek prop forum is, without doubt, the biggest and best prop forum on the Internet. Members are very friendly and get together each year at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention to share their hobby.

And of course, you may want to read my blog, Star Trek Props, which has loads of information from my time in the hobby, from the Christie’s auction to the present.

Next time, I’ll go into specifics on how to start identifying your interests and building a collection.

 

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