Fans Want the Maltese Falcon Statue Even More than Kasper Gutman Did
Posted on February 27, 2016 at 8:00 am
Seventy-five years ago, The Maltese Falcon was first released, the very first film from director John Huston (with his father, the distinguished actor Walter Huston, in a small non-speaking part for good luck). It was the third version of the story by Dashiell Hammett, and the second version, with Bette Davis in the second, Satan Met a Lady. So if you ever want proof of the difference a director can make, you won’t get a better example than this one.
The title object is a priceless sculpture, encrusted with jewels, and the characters in the film are willing to lie, cheat, and murder to get the statue. The prop in the film (which — spoiler alert — turns out to be a fake) has inspired only slightly less passion from collectors. An entertaining article by Bryan Burrough in Vanity Fair tells the story of the fans who sought to own the “real” Maltese Falcon.
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.
The story deserves a movie of its own, and if it gets a director as talented as John Huston, it just might be a classic.