As anyone exposed to Trek collecting knows, it can be quite a minefield out there. There are several ways that a collector can get screwed, First, there's the idea of sellers knowingly selling fakes. This is an obvious concern of which everyone is aware and on the lookout for.
But there's a far more subtle pitfall out there and it's the subject of this story: those collectors who unwittingly bought a fake and then try to sell it without understanding its true nature. I call them The Believers – they Believe the original story they were told that was usually a version of one of these:
"I got it from a guy who worked on Star Trek."
"I got it from a relative who worked on Star Trek."
"I got it from a guy who worked at Paramount and got it out of the trash."
"I got it from ________ (fill in the blank with any famous Star Trek person – Roddenberry, Shatner, Nimoy, etc"
"I got it from the prop guy during a studio tour." (one of my favorites)
There's a zillion variations on the story but you get the drift. The thing that is so enticing about these stories, of course, is that they all refer back to the studio, and what could be better than that? And while occasionally these stories are actually true (swear to God!) the vast majority of the time they aren't.
But why would any halfway intelligent person buy into one of these stories in the first place without some kind of solid proof to back it up? Tough to say. Gullibility? A desire to own something, however vague its history? Frankly, I'm not sure, but as the saying goes "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people".
For a certain percentage of these people, whatever their reason for buying into the story is irrelevant. Because once they make the deal, they Believe – down to their very soul, they Believe! And no amount of proof to the contrary will convince them otherwise.
Once these people get their piece, generally one of two things happen. Either they do zero research on the item to actually try to confirm its authenticity OR they do research but accept only information that confirms authenticity while ignoring anything that inconveniently does not. Both avenues lead to the same place: Unshakable Belief.
Now as long as these people hold on to these pieces, that's fine. It doesn't cost anyone else anything to let them live in a dream world. You believe you have Captain Kirk's Communicator because that's what the guy who sold it to you said? Good for you. But inevitably, these things come to market. People lose interest, they need money – whatever – and out they come into the light of day. And at that point, it's caveat emptor – buyer beware.
A number of years ago when I was just starting to collect screen-used stuff, I got to know a collector who had been buying screen-used Star Trek for many years. The more I heard about her awesome collection, the more mesmerized I became. Here was someone who had already walked the road upon which I was just embarking. She had all sorts of cool props and costumes – things that I hoped to own someday.
As time passed, this collector had a major upheaval in her life and needed to raise some serious cash. To that end, she offered me several pieces, one of which was a Star Trek III style Phaser that she got from one of the Star Trek film prop masters. Like any self-respecting Trek fan, I LOVE Phasers so I made the deal as fast I could. After all, here was a long-time collector who got it directly from the prop master on a Trek film. She really, really knew her stuff so it would be a safe purchase, right?
Not even close.
|My beautiful Star Trek 3 Phaser|
In the mean time, though, I remembered that I had some photos of a proven, bonafied Generations Kirk that I could use to compare. I then found every frame of film that I could that showed Shatner wearing the costume and I started learning everything I could about the piece. I examined every little detail that I could find, every nook and cranny. In short, I was looking for those small details that would define a Generations Kirk as a Generations Kirk. What I found was not what I was hoping for.
The photos of the proven version showed certain specific details that matched the style shown in the screen versions. I couldn't say that they were a screen match (that the piece was a specific one used in a certain scene), but I could clearly see that things like the vest's zipper and zipper-pull matched in style the versions I saw on screen.
And I could also clearly see that the version offered to me did not match.
Then things got very strange. I shared my findings with the seller and instead of being concerned or upset, she was completely unfazed. She said that maybe the zipper had been replaced (with a completely different style and color?), maybe there were different versions for close-ups and other shots (huh?). Whatever it was, she was sure that the piece was what she claimed it to be. Why? Because that's what she had been told by the person that she bought it from. She had been given no proof of the claim – no photo evidence, no letter from Paramount, nothing. Just a story that she wanted to believe and so she Believed. And despite any evidence to the contrary, she continued to Believe, Blindly and eternally, she Believed.
But I did not, so I sent it back. And that got me thinking about my phaser. My wonderful, beautiful phaser.
I started looking for where, exactly it was used. My reasoning was that if it came from the prop master, the proof must be out there. So I began to educate myself about Star Trek III Phasers. I learned about the prototypes, the production-made versions and the copies made later for Star Trek: The Next Generation. I learned about the hero versions, the stunt versions and the static versions. I found out who made them and when. And after all this research, I discovered one thing: that contrary to what I had been told, mine probably wasn't real. None of the details on mine matched the production-made versions. Oh they were close – very close, in fact. But they weren't exactly the same. And as I was to discover, the Devil is in the details.
While doing my research, I came across a number of replica versions of the Phaser – close copies made for the fan market. Much to my chagrin, after comparing some of these replicas to mine, I discovered the virtual twin to my version. It was identified as having been made by prop-maker Ed Miarecki. Ed had worked on various Star Trek productions and had made replicas on the side, all of which had various differences (tells) so that they could be identified as replicas versus real props. Mine was apparently one of his replicas.
Once again I was deflated. And when I confronted the seller with my findings, once again she shrugged them off. "That piece is real", she insisted. "The prop master said it was a background piece used in Star Trek V and that he had personally put the clip on it."
I shared all my data with her that clearly pointed to it being a replica but she would have none of it. "It's real," she said, and that was that. This was to be my first exposure to a Believer. Facts didn't matter. Evidence was disregarded. After all, she had been collecting Star Trek for years and she knew what she was doing.
Then another piece that she sold someone else was found to be a fake as well. When I pointed this out to her she said they were wrong. I never saw my money.
I want to be clear on one point – I don't think the seller thought she was selling me a bogus piece. Being a Believer, she couldn't conceive of owning something that wasn't what she claimed it was – what the original seller convinced her it was – a real prop.
I later had some dealings with Ed Miarecki himself and, remembering the Phaser, I sent him some photos. He confirmed my conclusions – he had definitely made the piece as a replica and it had his tells. I asked him if any of this style had been used in ANY production. He said that he was sorry, but no. And it was not the first time he had heard this kind of claim before.
A few years later I would repeat this situation, this time with a Genuine Walking Tribble that wasn't so genuine. It was only after I had owned the piece for several years that I discovered the key "tell" that defined it as a fake. It was a really nice-looking fake, too.
So I've been around a bit and I've gotten some lumps. I've taken some chances, most of which paid off. But some didn't and let me tell you – those instances sting like hell. No one wants to think that they can be cheated. We're too smart for that, after all. But in reality we're not. If a story is well-enough crafted and the piece is of a certain quality, ANYONE can be fooled.
So The Believers have taught me well and, as a result, I'm not one of them.
When I buy a car, I use the magazine "Consumer Reports" as my Bible. It helps me make an educated, informed choice rather than simply pick a car that's pretty and shiny. Unfortunately, no such thing exists for prop and costume collectors. We're left to find our own way, and to that end I follow the "Consumer Reports" model: prove it. These days, the only way I will believe a prop or costume to be genuine is if there is specific, measurable proof. And I don't mean some vague, blurry photographs that sort-of/kind-of match the piece in question. I mean solid, unqualified proof like a perfect screen match or paperwork that can be traced back to the studio. I'll only buy anything after I've done my homework and satisfied myself as to the authenticity of a piece. Which means I disregard anything the seller has to say about the piece and make it stand on its own merits. That way, I can't fall prey to Believers ever again.
Many current Star Trek collectors won't take any chances on a piece. If it wasn't sold at Christie's or It's A Wrap and includes a paper trail, they won't touch it. Frankly, I don't blame them. The problem with that approach for me, though, is that many things that I'm interested in – like Original Series pieces – never went through those auction venues.
And so I'm always on the hunt, and it's a tricky path, indeed.
So I urge you to learn from my mistakes and, above all, don't become a Believer yourself.
• Question everything. Don't be fooled by unprovable stories or blurry photos that claim to show something when in fact they don't.
• Ask yourself if a given claim actually makes sense. Don't buy anything until you've done your own homework and can determine for yourself whether or not the seller's claims are true. If they can't be proven, I advise you walk away.
• And if a seller gets angry about asking questions, don't walk – run. After all, if it is a real piece, why should they fear questions?
Some collectors think that my standards are too high, too unrealistic. To them I say: I don't care. People are free to accept my approach or not. I don't really care if anyone agrees with me or not – it's my process and it's necessary for me. But, for the record, many do agree. I've gotten many e-mails (and a few calls) about various articles from readers who are in step with the idea that proof should be paramount to buying a piece, and demanding it is not only not unreasonable, but plain common sense.
The idea that people will believe what they want to believe is a universal truth, and it is nowhere more prevalent than in this hobby. When lies are given a seat at the table, truth dies. With that in mind, beware The Believers. They'll have a great story to tell, but in the end, that's all you might get – a story.