If you’re a collector, you’d have been hard pushed to have missed the news. Yet even if you’re not, the sale was still covered by almost every newspaper. Bonhams’ Dr Catherine Williams explained its appeal:
“The spectacular price achieved reflects the statuette’s tremendous significance. The Maltese Falcon is arguably the most important movie prop ever, and is central to the history of cinema.”
But what struck me with the sale is that the film, in which Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade becomes embroiled with a group who are prepared to do just about anything to get the statuette, can be interpreted as an allegory for the hobby of collecting itself – particularly those unique items at the high-end of the market.
The Maltese Falcon symbolises the ultimate object of desire: the villainous Kasper Gutman goes so far as to say, “Well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.
I’m not saying your average collector will go quite that far (though maybe some of us have considered worse!), but it’s this same desire that drives the market. Every serious collector wants to obtain that piece that no one else owns, no matter what his or her interest. They each want to be added to the list of illustrious characters who have held the item in their hands and called it their own, if only for a few months or years.
Take the famous 1c Magenta from British Guiana for example, the only known copy of which was owned by US industrialist Arthur Hind until a second example surfaced in the 1920s. Using his vast wealth at his disposal, Hind paid a huge sum to buy the second stamp, only to set fire to it with his cigar, before exclaiming:
“I still own the world’s rarest stamp!”
A real life Kasper Gutman, no doubt.
But the stamp’s tale doesn’t end there. It then passed into the hands of John du Pont, the eccentric heir to the du Pont family fortune, who – among other actions of questionable sanity – hired professional wrestlers as body guards to protect his farm estate, before murdering one of them and spending his life in prison. The whereabouts of the stamp remain a mystery.
With stories like these, its easy dismiss the old stigma of dusty collectors pouring over their prized possessions in a stuffy room. With the right items, the world of collecting can be “the stuff that dreams are made of”.