Monday, August 4, 2014


A Star Trek collector I know made these comments on a forum regarding the BATCH OF PROPS I recently authenticated for a sale:

"Don Hillenbrand has been authenticating this one. I like Don but I am wondering what puts him in the position to authenticate props for auction houses. Especially when his focus is TOS."

Or, to paraphrase my favorite  eymorg from Spock's Brain, "Prop and Prop, what is prop?!?" Or something like that.

Frankly, though, I think it's a very reasonable question. It's a question that I think everyone should ask every time props and costumes come up for sale. If everyone did, there would be a lot less misinformation, exaggeration or outright fraud when it comes to Star Trek props and costumes in the marketplace.

So, what are my credentials?

I collect the kinds of things the seller wanted to authenticate. I assume that's why they came to me, pure and simple. If they had Voyager or Enterprise props, they might not have contacted me. But if they had, I would have told them the truth – I know very little about those properties but I know those that do. I would then put them in contact with someone I trusted and maybe work with them or not. But I would do NO authentications.

I know a lot about what I know about. Most collectors are satisfied to buy a given piece and put it into their collection. That's all well and good, but I'm far more curious about my collection. I want to know everything I can learn about every piece I ever own. I try to find out how they were made, who made them, how many were made and when. I want to know how my piece got off the lot and into my hands decades after its use. I've talked to many of the original prop makers and production people to better understand how things worked. I do the best I can to understand the materials, the details and the tells that make a particular piece unique. In short, I educate myself as thoroughly as I can so that I know the true history and nature of a given piece.

Peer review: I talk to other collectors and prop experts to get their take on things. If I own a particular prop and a version comes to market, I can speak very knowledgeably about that piece. But if it's a piece that is similar to something I have but not exactly the same, I start talking to people. Again, it's all about educating one's self and my peers have been a great help in that respect. Getting feedback and asking the opinions of others is a key aspect to authenticating, in my opinion. I've bought numerous pieces directly from Prop Masters and production people who worked on Trek over the last three decades and they all have interesting things to say.

I use the scientific method 100% of the time. I ask the basic question: is it real? I then look for things that support the idea that it is real as well as things that may disprove that assumption. You have to be intellectually honest. To use only the things that confirm the hypothesis while disregarding anything that doesn't is the height of dishonesty to the goal of truth.

My overall process regarding researching a given piece can best be shown in my story about my TOS Klingon Disruptor. It demonstrates how I go about examining a piece's physical attributes as well as its history. You'll notice that it involves all the key aspects I've mentioned in this story. But I'll warn you now – it's looong!

One last thing. I want to address the very legitimate concern that the original commenter made about the one single  TNG piece that was part of the sale in question. He quite rightly points out that, whatever I might know, TNG props are not part of my knowledge base. But my process doesn't need me to be an expert in anything to get to the bottom of it, because I know who to talk to about different kinds of props. Also, a simple yet distinctive PADD is as easy as it gets – especially if you get lucky. What are the odds that a piece (or an identical version of a piece) ends up being used on a publication as big as life? That's what happened with the blue PADD (though it was misidentified). One was used on those Newfield Data sheets that were out in the 90's and someone I knew remembered it. It obviously used materials that were totally consistent with other Trek props of the era. And I also knew that all the pieces in question (including the TNG PADD) originally came from the same source – a former prop master who was the original source of my photo-matched ST3-style Klingon Disruptor, which always gives credence to authenticity.

I have a few cardinal rules.

1. I assume nothing! Lot's of truisms aren't true all.

2. I don't make claims regarding things about which I know little or nothing. Some people in our little community like to pretend they know more than they do. But simply labeling one's self an "authority" does not make it so. Anyone who claims that they are an authority on all things Star Trek is full of crap. There's too much for ANYONE to be great at everything.

3. I seek out people who are smarter than me and who will tell me the truth, no matter what. I'm not looking for a rubber stamp. I want an honest opinion.

So when all is said and done, it's not just about what I know but also what am I willing to do to know more. You either have faith in my process or you don't. That's a call everyone has to make for themselves.

Who's the morg? I'M the morg!



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