by Tim Edwards
I was a prop collector for about five years, at one time owning as many as six original items from the first "Star Trek" television series. That's not a whole lot but I was very proud of my collection and, in the process of obtaining and selling these rare objects, I gained a unique insight into the strange and perilous world of "Trek-Props." No longer a part of this elite circle of collectors, I look back on those days with mixed feelings. I miss my original Trek props a great deal, yet I am enormously relieved to be done with it all. Those of you few who are privy to this microcosm of prop owners will understand. To the rest of you, pay me a listen. You may save yourself a lot of agony if you plan to buy an original.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi would have put it, the arena of prop collectors is a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." Every time I bought an original, it was as if I was making a drug deal: everything had to be paid for up front and in cash, the owners were always skittish and they never wanted to let you know where they lived. To give you an example of how much money we're talking about here, I would estimate that I put close to twenty thousand dollars into my Trek originals. My first buy was a black and blue dummy phaser 11 that I bought for $3,500. I never thought that I could ever own a piece of "Star Trek" history, but through a twist of fate, there it was, wrapped in plastic on a dealer's table at the Shrine Convention Center. The owner of this prop was Clint Young who would later become one of my best friends. But at the time, he must've known I was a potential buyer because I was the only one whom he allowed to actually hold his original prop. I was in awe, but I also remember thinking, "What a piece of crap!" It was so crudely painted and put together that I couldn't believe anyone would pay thousands of dollars for a hunk of plastic adorned with aluminum fittings and a strip of velcro glued to its side. I thanked him, put it back in its bag, and bought one of his much nicer looking replicas for a hundred and fifty dollars.
Later that night, as I was watching a "Star Trek" episode on channel 13, I began to think of that prop. On my coffee table was a TV Guide with "Kirk vs. Picard" on the cover. Back on the TV screen, Kirk ripped his phaser from a velcro strap sewn onto his pants, and I started to think about the great history of "Star Trek" . . . I called Clint up the next day and told him I wanted his original pistol phaser.
My friends were casually impressed with my new treasure, though they could never understand why I would pay such a price for the thing, "especially when that replica looks ten times better!" But the replica was looking less and less realistic as I began studying the episodes and my Fotonovels more closely. I had the actual *real thing*! And despite its crude nature, it far out-shone my pristine and inaccurate counterfeit phaser. My family was a bit less understanding about my purchase - - In fact, they were downright hostile about it, and to this day, I never hear the end of it, "How *could* you throw so much money away on such a worthless piece of crap!"
The irony of it all is that the only people who will ever truly appreciate your original prop are the collectors themselves. Aside from a precious few, many collectors are double-dealing scum bags who have allowed their original props to become the all-important possessions of their lives, overshadowing all else, including family, integrity and honor.
For example, let me tell you about a guy I knew who used to run a jewelry shop in northern California. Let's call him "Jack." My friend Clint and I were discussing the odd world of Trek props when Jack's name came up. Since Jack lived very close to my family up north, I thought I'd give him a call to see if I could have a look at his collection next time I was in town. Clint suggested I let Jack give *me* a call (although I now owned five original ST props, I was still an outsider).
Friends also gave me advice, "Be careful of those guys . . . many are crooked." - - advice I subsequently failed to heed.
A few nights later, Jack gave me a call. You couldn't ask for a more friendly and pleasant fellow - a little competitive though (although he had never seen my collection, Jack suggested that*his* pieces were of a higher quality). Well, you can't blame a guy for bragging a little about his toys. Weeks later, when I had finally made the trip to his house, we showed off our collections. His was very nice indeed! A beautiful tricorder, two dummy phaser 11s, a communicator, one dummy phaser 1, in addition to two excellent hero phaser 1 units. He also had a Klingon disruptor, although he made it a point that his main interest was "Federation Issue" props. The problem was, Jack himself didn't seem "Federation Issue." For the first time, I really began to wonder about this guy - Here was a man who ran a jewelry store, owned a giant-screen TV and every original ST episode, had a collection easily worth over twenty five thousand dollars, yet his run down house was in one of the worst neighborhoods of the area, and his wife and kids were inthe kitchen eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. And I knew that for sure because his wife even offered me one!
Jack's just one of the many morally challenged characters that I've come across in the lovely little community of "Star Trek" props, but remember his name (changed to protect the guilty), for he reappears later in this account.
One of the great things about being friends with Clint was that I could always sit with him at his dealer's booth during conventions, and we'd have a ball just sitting there and watching all the looney people who would show up. Inevitably, someone would stop by the table, look around to be sure no one was watching, and then say in a hushed voice, "I've got an original." Clint and I would always look at each other, knowing the poor schmuck was probably in for a big letdown; in all our years at the dealer's table, never once did someone bring by an actual Trek original. Usually the guy would pull out a "Jim Kirk" communicator ("Jim Kirk", his real name concealed by a his own invented pseudonym, was one of the first dealers to make communicator replicas),and we'd spot it right away. There's nothing worse than having to tell someone that the "original"they paid thousands for - *isn't* an original. The look of humiliation on their faces is not easily forgotten, yet unscrupulous crooks are constantly passing off the earlier replicas as originals.
Once, we were confronted with a clever replica of a phaser 1 unit - it was textured and had a red LED light in the tip. When we informed its owner that he was in possession of a unique forgery, he balked at the idea. We told him that *none* of the phaser units were ever textured, and in any event, they didn't even have LED lights in the 60's. Undaunted, he pulled out certification of authentification signed by none other than Gene Roddenberry himself. Unfortunately, actors and producers frequently sign these certificates, possibly truly believing they are seeing an original prop. Most people forget that these individuals never pay the kind of fanatical attention to detail as we collectors due. Don't be fooled by certificates signed by actors or any others - they don't mean squat. All of this advice is coming from someone who knows what it feels like to be burned. Remember"Jack"? Well, when we were comparing our respective collections, he really had an eye for my black and white first season hero phaser 11, complete with removable hero phaser 1. Years later, when I was going through a devastating financial disaster, I remembered his interest. Desperate for money to make my loan payments, I gave Jack a call and offered to sell him the prize of my whole collection. I had originally bought it for eight thousand, five hundred dollars, but Jack got me to come down to seven thousand. It was a big loss, but I needed that money.
The problem was, Jack couldn't pay the lump sum. He wondered if he could make monthly payments until it was all paid off, but of course, he had to have the phaser sent to him first. Now, was it pure desperateness or complete foolishness that made me agree to that deal? I leave it to you to decide, but I think it was little bit of both. Anyhow, I shipped it off and never got more than a thousand from him (the amount of his down payment). When I would call him at his jewelry shop, he'd put me on hold while he "dealt with customers", then he'd never get back on the line. When I called him at home, his wife always claimed he was out.
I was a fool - we had nothing but a verbal contract, and he lived two hundred miles away. Meantime, loan payments were coming overdue. Because that immoral piece of slime didn't send me any monthly installments, I had to sell off my collection, one by once, taking a loss on each item. When you have time to look for a buyer or enter an auction, you have the potential to make a good profit on original props, especially Trek props. But when you have to sell in a hurry, you usually end up selling at a loss and giving away your favorite possessions just to give over your earnings to the bank.
Meanwhile, my family was saying, "I told you so . . .only a fool would pay that much for apiece of junk." Thanks a lot, Jack. But this isn't the end of the story. The last original I had was a very clean communicator and I sold it to Clint. Meanwhile, a guy from Pennsylvania (who we'll call "Bob") was interested in getting the communicator from Clint. Lo and behold, he told Clint that he was holding the black and white hero pistol phaser for Jack as collateral while Jack was verifying the authenticity of some of Bob's Trek props. This was my chance to at least make back*some* of the money I had lost.
I called up Bob and said, "How'd you like to own that hero phaser?" Bob knew exactly who I was, because Jack had told him, "Tim doesn't have any paperwork on me - he couldn't even take me to court! As far as I'm concerned, he sold me his black and white for a thousand bucks!"You can imagine my anger upon hearing this distortion of the facts, but I kept my cool and offered Bob a deal to keep the phaser if he'd pay me four thousand for it and pay Jack the one thousand to make up for his first payment. Bob knew it was a very sweet deal but was loathe to cross Jack.
After many phone calls, I finally convinced him to commit to the deed. I re-couped four thousand dollars and Jack got the return of his one thousand and was very pissed off. That's the way it worked, he broke even and I lost my collection. A story with no winners, actually.
My error was trusting him. But he's only one of the "wretched hive" out there. I know of others just like him. As their collections begin to get bigger and bigger, they become obsessive to the point of madness. They neglect their families, their lives turn to shit, and they may even engage in criminal behavior because they *have* to own more original Trek props, and everything else in life is secondary. The most important thing to them is to get *just one more* item for their precious collections. Sound too bad to be true? Ask any serious collector and they'll tell you there are people like that - and worse.
All of my Trek props are gone now, and maybe that's for the better. There's a hell of a lot more to life than a thirty year old piece of molded fiberglass. I doubt if I ever would have become like Jack, but you never know - I could have done *so much* with that twenty thousand dollars. But my story is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many others out there who *live* only for Trek originals. I don't think Wah Chang or any of the Desilu prop makers could have foreseen the true drama that their little creations would bring about. Inasmuch as the series has reached legendary status, the props themselves have become worshiped idols, coveted, priceless, all important . . .
Photos by Tim Edwards.