There was a bidding war inside Julien's Auctions over an axe. Specifically, it was the axe used by actor John Rhys-Davies when he played Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's what is known in the movie prop collection world as a "hero prop."
The axe is heavy, made of metal and wood with a leather grip. It's housed in its original display case and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity. A decade ago, this axe was a prize in a sweepstakes held by New Line Cinema and Hasbro toys. Now the representatives of bidders who aren't physically in this room volley the price higher and higher. Gimli's axe suddenly became worth far more than its estimated value of $50-70,000. In the end, there were cheers for a winner we didn't see. The axe sold for $180,000.
Thursday afternoon, the Beverly Hills auction house fostered the sale of the second largest solely-owned collection of props, costumes and other memorabilia from the Lord of the Rings films. In case you're wondering, the largest collection belongs to Peter Jackson, who helmed the film trilogy. That second largest collection, though, was, until yesterday, owned by Troika Brodsky of St. Louis, Missouri. Brodsky is a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings who, by day, works for a craft brewery. He spent the past ten years accumulating this collection.
That Gimli axe was his first major piece. He didn't win the axe, but managed to track down the family in Ithaca, New York who did. He paid them enough to get the daughter her first car. Years later, Brodsky auctioned off that same axe to help his own family.
Last January, Brodsky learned that his father was ill. "These things happen, but, when they happen, they tend to change priorities pretty quickly and pretty intensely," he said in an interview. Brodsky added that he also wants to get married. As much as he cherished his collection, it was time for Brodsky to part with it.
"I absolutely love this stuff, but, at the end of the day, it's stuff," he said. "I've got some living to do and some people I really care about and selling this stuff, especially if it does well, is going to be huge for my family."
He added, "It's the right thing to do."
Brodsky has spent his life collecting. He started out with comic books, which he eventually sold when he picked up Star Wars toys. Soon, he was selling off his toy collection to buy props from Star Wars films. The sale of those items afforded him the Lord of the Rings purchases. "I didn't buy any of this stuff with my paycheck," said Brodsky. Instead, he made some savvy collection decisions that paid off in the long run.
Brodsky had a lot of adventures with his collection. He dealt with people who worked on the films. He tracked down four winners of that New Line/Hasbro contest, including a woman who lived in a small New Mexico town. It took him six years to find her. There was also the pastor in Michigan who had Frodo's sword. They both drove seven hours to make the exchange in a parking lot. "It was a little cloak and dagger," says Brodsky, "but it was hilarious." He had the chance to take the collection on tour with Lord of the Rings in Concert, where he road a bus with members of the Munich Symphony Orchestra throughout the West Coast.
Ultimately, Brodsky's collection turned out to be an investment and that's partially why people turn to Julien's for auctions. They specialize in movie, sports and music items, which they auction on consignment.
Martin Nolan, Executive Director for Julien's Auctions, suspected that there would be more than just Lord of the Rings fans bidding on these items. Although there were a lot of props and costumes for Lord of the Rings, many of them are part of Jackson's private collection. For the public at large, items like these are scarce. That affects the value greatly.
"You have people, like hedge funds, who are looking to acquire these items because they're seen as an investment vehicle," Nolan said. "It's an asset." He says that museums, restaurants and hotels sometimes want a memento of these kinds of pop culture touchstones as well. "It brings people into their establishments," he said. "That's what it's all about. They're great conversation pieces."
An auction at Julien's is a big deal. Brodsky and the company worked together for most of this year to put together this event. Brodsky was extremely involved in the creation of the catalog. He handled the writing, layout and even the cover. The catalog is impressive-- Nolan says it a "great coffee table book" -- and gives a lot of insight into the stories and world behind the props. Putting together the catalog had personal significance for Brodsky. "When all is said and done, that's what I'll have, that catalog," he said.
Both Brodsky and Nolan pointed out that the catalog, called The Trilogy Collection: Props and Costumes from Middle Earth, was a good piece for fans who might not be able to bid on the items up for auction.
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Undoubtedly, these were high-end pieces from the Lord of the Rings world. Saruman's wizard staff, used by Christopher Lee, sold for $50,000. Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn sword went for $62,500. As for Frodo's sword Sting, wielded by Elijah Wood in the films, that sold for $156,000. Not everything in the auction met expectations, though. A pair of Hobbit feet prosthetics, signed by Sean Astin, who played Samwise, didn't reach the auction reserve.
Minutes before the auction, Brodsky reflected on this experience. He traveled to L.A. for the auction and managed to score tickets to the red carpet premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which happened to be this week as well. While he was at the premiere, he got Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) to sign his copy of the auction catalog. By happenstance, he also managed to stay in the same hotel as some of the stars of the film.
It was an exciting trip for a Lord of the Rings fan, culminating in a major life change. Right before he auctioned off the pieces of his carefully cultivated collection, Brodsky stood in the middle of it all. This small room inside the Beverly Hills auction house was arranged like a museum exhibition. As many of these items were previously kept in storage, it was a particularly poignant moment. "If I'm going to get rid of it," said Brodsky of his collection, "I can't think of a better way to have done it."