Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"The Mystery of the Maltese Falcon, One of the Most Valuable Movie Props in History"

From Vanity Fair, Feb. 19, 2016:

Left, one of Hank Risan’s two plaster statuettes.; right, a still from The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart admiring the elusive Falcon statuette. Digital Colorization by Lorna Clark; Left, by Paul Schraub/The Collection of Hank Risan; 
Right, from the Everett Collection.
A statuette from the John Huston–Humphrey Bogart classic The Maltese Falcon is one of the most recognizable, and sought-after, pieces of movie memorabilia in history. In fact, Steve Wynn paid $4.1 million for it. But was it the genuine article? Bryan Burrough tracks down a flock of Falcons, with links to both Leonardo DiCaprio and a famous Hollywood unsolved murder.

“What is it?”
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
—A cop asking Sam Spade about the Maltese Falcon in the final scene of the 1941 film.
Along with the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz and Orson Welles’s “Rosebud” sled, which burns in the final frames of Citizen Kane, there is probably no more iconic item of Hollywood memorabilia than the Maltese Falcon, the black statuette that Humphrey Bogart, as detective Sam Spade, tracked down in John Huston’s classic film of the same name.

Lost to history for decades, it resurfaced in the 1980s in the hands of a Beverly Hills oral surgeon, and beginning in 1991 traveled the world as part of a Warner Bros. retrospective, with stops at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and elsewhere. In 2013 it was offered for sale by Bonhams auction house. There was talk it might go for $1 million or more. But at the auction in Bonhams’s Madison Avenue showroom on November 25, 2013, the bidding quickly passed $1 million, then $2 million, then $3 million. Spectators gasped as a bidder in the audience dueled with one on the telephone, driving the price higher and higher.

Only when the bidding reached $3.5 million did the bidder in the crowd surrender, sending the Falcon to the man on the phone, who was later revealed to represent Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas hotel and casino billionaire. With the buyer’s premium, the total price came to a stunning $4.1 million. The crowd burst into applause. The auctioneers wheeled out a tub of champagne bottles to celebrate.

And with good reason. It was one of the highest prices ever paid for a piece of movie memorabilia, and two of the others were for cars: the original Batmobile, which had sold for $4.6 million earlier that year, and the Aston Martin Sean Connery drives in Goldfinger. News of the Falcon sale was carried on the network news and in newspapers around the world. Today it sits, along with a pair of Picassos, a Matisse, and a Giacometti sculpture, in a meeting room in Wynn’s Las Vegas villa.

That is the official version of what happened to the Maltese Falcon. But it is just one chapter in a complex tale. It turns out there is another, far stranger version, and another Falcon, several more in fact. And this version, which draws in characters as diverse as Leonardo DiCaprio and the woman butchered in one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved murders, constitutes a real-life mystery every bit as bizarre as the one Sam Spade confronted on film.

Flight of Fancy
Hank Risan, the protagonist of this noir thriller, is as unlikely as the tale he has to tell. A sinewy, 60-year-old Internet entrepreneur, he works out of three modest office suites in downtown Santa Cruz, the Northern California surfing mecca. In Silicon Valley, Risan is best known for creating a massive library of computer-generated copies of popular songs, including the entire Beatles catalogue. When he took them online in 2009, selling individual downloads for a quarter, the EMI record label promptly sued to shut him down. (Risan settled without admission of liability for $950,000.)

His second business is a software start-up that Risan, using the shopworn promotional language of entrepreneurs everywhere, swears will “revolutionize” computer security. He says he is working with everyone from the Internal Revenue Service to the National Security Agency to put his software on government and corporate computers. In the start-up’s office, though, I see only a single employee working beneath whiteboards covered with calculations.

What one can say for certain is that, whatever the success of his business ventures, Risan is one of the country’s leading collectors of rare guitars. When he put nearly 300 of them up for auction two years ago, Guitar Aficionado termed it an “immaculate collection,” a “staggering” assemblage featuring instruments used by the likes of Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and Stephen Stills. Its centerpiece, still in Risan’s hands, is an 1835 Martin long owned by Mark Twain. In 1999 Risan played a Stephen Foster song on it on National Public Radio.

Dozens of guitars are on display at Risan’s home, a tidy urban compound packed to the rafters with modern art and collectibles, including a Warhol screenprint, and Risan’s latest obsession, antique British chess sets. We enter past a Jaguar in the carport, into a small room hung with graffiti-inspired paintings. “This is my Banksy room,” Risan says, taking a moment to explain the stories behind several of them.

Through the next door is a courtyard with a glassed-in guesthouse, a workshop where Risan’s assistant is busy restoring an antique guitar, a conversation pit, and a hot tub sitting under a set of bison horns.

We turn away from all this, stepping into the bungalow, then through a kitchen into a dining area.

“And in here,” Risan says with a flourish, “I might as well show it to you first. This is my Falcon.”
Suddenly here it is, plopped down in the middle of an antique chessboard like a massive rook, a foot-high black statuette of a falcon. The hunched, brooding shoulders are instantly recognizable.
There is a long moment of silence.

“This is the thing dreams are made of,” Risan announces....MUCH MORE
HT: The Paris Review's "Remember to Authenticate Your Falcon, and Other News"