Entertainment

The Mystery of the Maltese Falcon

A statuette from the John Huston-Humphrey Bogart classic The Maltese Falcon is one of the most recognisable, 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.

Aong 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 — via redwolf.newsvine.com

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