Saturday, June 29, 2013


When a Star Trek phaser from the original series (TOS) hits the market, it's incredibly exciting to collectors like me. That's why I went a little nuts when I saw the new Profiles In History Hollywood Auction 56 catalog which features a TOS Phaser in all its glory. Unfortunately, as with all things TOS, the first question is "is it real?" Why? Because there are far more fake TOS pieces out there than real ones. Especially phasers. The TOS Star Trek phaser may well be the most replicated/faked prop in history. So with that in mind, the number one issue becomes authentication. If the piece can't be authenticated, it won't be recognized as real.

Photo page from Profiles catalog
Let me interject something here. I do not profess to be an expert about TOS props. I do know a lot thanks to there being so much information out there with which to learn from. But, for instance, I've never had the opportunity to actually handle a real TOS phaser, tricorder, or communicator prop, unlike some more informed people. And that's a big, big deal. So I rely on lots of people who know a lot more than I. The best sources for all things regarding Star Trek TOS props are the Trek Prop Zone (a Board for enthusiasts) and Herocomm (an informational site). These 2 sites represent more information than one person could ever assimilate, and I highly recommend them.

It's interesting to note that the consignor of the Phaser, a collector named Gerald Gurian, is not as enthusiastic about these sites as I am. These sites are all about facts and ONLY facts. Supposition is all well and good, but at the end of the day "consistent with" does NOT mean "it is". And, in my opinion (as well as many others) a number of Mr. Gurian's claims regarding some of his props are specious, to say the least. He swears they're real, others (more informed, in my opinion) swear they aren't.

The other issue with this auction is that I think Profiles really sucks at authenticating items in their auctions. They are motivated by profit to make things sound as good as possible, even when they aren't. Profiles has famously had 2 different catalogs that featured fake items on their covers. They ended up not selling the items due to the uproar, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that THEY FEATURED FAKES ON THE COVER!

So when this new Phaser (which Profile's has attached to Mr. Gurian) came to my attention, I was somewhat skeptical. OK, I was REALLY skeptical. Here's what the Profiles auction says about the Phaser, in part:

Description page from Profiles catalog
"This fiberglass mid-grade pistol phaser is perhaps the most extensively researched TOS prop that we have ever auctioned, with all of its major features and numerous subtle contours in its design painstakingly screen-matched to several late 2nd and 3rd season The Original Series episodes including “Assignment: Earth”, “Spock’s Brain”, “Plato’s Stepchildren” and “The Cloud Minders”. In particular, a tiny mold flaw/ridge line deviation in the rear in appearance was matched on-screen in “Spock’s Brain”; the integrated “one piece” handle and main body construction of the pistol component of this prop was matched on-screen in “The Cloud Minders”; and the design of the hand-grip section with an elongated central groove extending along the entire length of the handle was matched on-screen in “Plato’s Stepchildren”. The uniquely patterned silver foil material on top of the permanently affixed hand phaser unit has been photo matched to the foil on the Greg Jein TOS Hero Type 2 Phaser and is another key element of authentication. And most significantly, the presence of both a uniquely contoured scratch line and a small blemish formed by excess paint on the front face of the pistol body slightly above the silver nozzle, as well as the relative locations of the grooved regions on the silver nozzle ring, precisely match those evident on a screen capture from “Assignment: Earth” (first airdate: Mar. 29, 1968), which directly establishes the on-screen use of this prop in that highly memorable The Original Series time-travel episode."

Now let's start with the broad strokes. First of all, if all these claims are true, I'm pretty sure this would be the single most identified prop in Star Trek history. After all, they claim that it can be identified ("screen-matched") as being used in four specific episodes. That's unheard of! I know of no other prop that could meet that claim. Alas, this one doesn't either. Like the saying goes – there's good news and bad news.

Here's the good news: after doing a bit of research, I think this is a real Star Trek TOS Phaser prop that can actually be screen-matched to a specific use.

The bad news is that it can only really be screen-matched once. One episode. Period.

In the scheme of things, that ain't bad. One match is enough to authenticate it. The rest is just gilding the lily, IMO. And while I might not be an expert on these props, I am an expert at photo analysis as I do photo manipulation for a living.

Let's take episodes mentioned one at a time. Here's a comparison of the Profiles Phaser (left) and the phaser in "The Cloud Minders" that Profiles claims is a screen-match.
So what, exactly is a "screen-match"? To put it simply, it's when a prop can be positively identified as being used in a film or TV show through identifying distinct markings, unique to that piece alone. So while Profiles points out that the two pieces have the same "hand phaser shape" or "high ridge accent line", I don't get too excited. After all, those features would show up in every phaser of this type that was ever made. These matching details certainly help make the case that this is an actual TOS prop and not a copy. But the "Cloud Minders" image is of such poor quality that a specific screen match is simply not possible. As a matter of fact, it might not even be the same type of phaser prop – it might be a rubber "stunt" – I just can't tell. There are no DISTINCT, UNIQUE DETAILS to merit calling this a screen-match.

So let's move on to the "Plato's Stepchildren" version (bottom):
Again, because of the lack of detail in the screen cap and with no evidence of unique flaws or features, there can be no screen-matching. The two are certainly consistent to each other, but that only supports the idea that this is a real prop, not that it is THIS real prop as shown in the episode.

Next up is "Spock's Brain":

Unlike our first two examples, this screen capture is nice and clear. But unfortunately there are still no distinct features that we can concretely say are exclusive to the two versions shown. Interestingly, Profiles claims a screen match because "In particular, a tiny mold flaw/ridge line deviation in the rear in appearance was matched on-screen in “Spock’s Brain”" That's faulty logic, unfortunately. We can't know that a flaw in the mold is unique to a given piece without showing other examples of it NOT appearing. Since these phasers were probably all made with the same mold, there's no reason to think that they don't all have the same details, flawed or otherwise. And with no other distinct details to go on, I call this a non-match. It MIGHT be the same, but there's no way to prove it.

So finally we come to the "Assignment Earth" version and here's where things get interesting. Check it out:
Finally we have an angle that shows enough key detail as to ascertain specificity. And look at all the matching details! The crack on the front of the main body is so organic and specific in nature that it's unthinkable that it isn't a match. The Plate Overlap, Chip and Glue Squeeze areas all help make the case as well, but the Crack is the single most important piece of evidence.
Nozzle details appear to be correct though slightly rotated.
Is it possible that this is a fake? Absolutely, and I'd be irresponsible if I said otherwise. But given the photo evidence, is it LIKELY to be a fake? I say no, it's not. In this case, I believe Mr. Gurian got it right. I still don't think there's more than one episode that is screen-matched. But one is enough when the details are so specific.

If I were interested in pursuing this piece – and with an $80,000 starting price there's no way in hell that I would be – I'd want a real expert – someone who has handled other specimens – to check this out. I'll bet it would pass inspection with flying colors.

Is this worth the $80,000-$120,000 estimate that Profiles gives it? That's for the market to decide, but personally I can't imagine spending that kind of money on something I can't live in. We'll see if this goes or not. Keep in mind that just a few months ago a TOS Phaser Rifle went for almost a quarter million bucks. This isn't in that league, of course (that was a one-of-a-kind) but anything can happen.

ADDENDUM: After the auction took place and this item didn't sell, the consignor had a few choice words for me. Read about that HERE



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