Like Indiana Jones, Prop Store founder and CEO Stephen Lane is an obtainer of rare antiquities. Also like Indy, he has come into possession of the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, although (so far as we know) he didn't have to battle thugs in a burning bar to acquire it.
Prop Store founder and CEO Stephen Lane (right): "When I first started, if you told someone you were a collector, they'd say, 'You do what for a living?' Nobody got it." The headpiece, an actual prop from Raiders Of The Last Ark, sits casually on a table in Lane's office. This alone would make any self-respecting movie geek giddy as a schoolboy. But in this room the mystical medallion has some serious competition. On one wall hangs a bona fide battered John McClane vest, complete with NYPD shield. On another is a case containing an authentic Conan sword. Back To The Future 2 hoverboards are lined up above the main desk. Visible out of the window is Captain Nemo's ludicrously pimped-up car from The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hell, even the drinks coasters are miniature Gotham City manholes, created for Batman Begins.All these bits of movie-making history — and many, many more — have been acquired over the years by Lane, who has spent the best part of two decades building up his company. Through Prop Store's website, customers can buy everything from the exotic (a Gremlin, as seen in Empire's new reunion photoshoot: £7,389) to the relatively ordinary (one of Frasier's vests: £109) to the utterly baffling (a crew parking pass from Under Siege 2: Dark Territory: £49).
This well-oiled machine would not exist were it not for his passion for collecting. Early in the ‘90s, Lane was at a collectors fair in London, selling some of the duplicates from his rare toy collection, when he was offered an original Rebel blaster from Star Wars. It was a eureka moment. Lane sold his sign-writing company and began tracking down lost relics from cinema's past.
"When I first started, you were really geeky if you were onto owning a film prop," he tells Empire. "If you told someone you were a collector, they'd say, 'You do what for a living?' Nobody got it. Back then I was in my bungalow, with a shed at the end of my garden with stuff in it. I'd upload four items to the website every other Tuesday."
Little by little, Prop Store grew. It now has 22 employees and a second base in Los Angeles; like the London warehouse it's not open to the public, but its cornucopia of riches include a fake horse used in Django Unchained, a herd of Narnia minotaurs, what looks like the entire wardrobe department of Pacific Rim and a Bob Gunton mannequin. (Unless it actually is Bob Gunton, standing very still.) Like Lane, US operating officer Brandon Alinger has the air of a man living his dream. As a teenager he convinced his parents to take him to Tunisia to look for Raiders and Star Wars leftovers (he bagged some hieroglyphics and bits of the Flying Wing). Now he owns a genuine lightsaber and cuts deals with big-name filmmakers.
"A lot of industry people collect," says Alinger. "But a lot of non-industry people are also into it too. For fans, these items are magic. I see people collecting from films that affected them when they were younger. To have some piece of something that really meant something to them is a big deal."
Before we leave Prop Store HQ, we have to ask: given the array of iconic costumes here, from the T-1000's cop uniform to the Jack Nicholson Joker threads, has Lane ever put one of them on?
"Only once, and it's not even really a costume," he says. "When Brandon first came over from LA, before he was working for me, he was en route to Finse, where they filmed the Hoth battle scene. When I found out, I phoned my wife and said, 'I'm going to Hoth tomorrow!' But I didn't have any snow gear, so I borrowed a merc costume from Chronicles Of Riddick. It was the one time when I put a costume to practical use. But people do. I had a client who bought an Austin Powers blue velvet suit for a Swinging Sixties party. It was thousands of pounds, but he wanted the real thing."
See below for a gallery of some of Prop Store's memorabilia. Visit www.propstore.com to check out their complete catalogue. An auction of props from Rush is currently running.
Stephen Lane: "It might be the oldest piece in my collection. I got it in about 1997, right at the start of the company. I was cold-calling people to try to find Conan stuff, and I heard that one of the special-effects guys had it in a container, with Valeria's scimitar, Arnold's daggers, one of his big axes, plus a Princess Blade sword and some Braveheart stuff. It was a great cache. The Conan sword is a retract sword, which are incredibly expensive and time-consuming to make. They're a precision piece of work."
Stephen Lane: "Yes, the head does come with it. We have a lot of items from Rush. I phoned them up as soon as they announced they were in pre-production. I just thought, 'That stuff's going to be cool. It's going to have a real crossover appeal between F1 collectors and movie fans.'"
Brandon Alinger: "This sled was in Florida with a guy called Jordan Klein, who was the underwater photography supervisor on Thunderball. He’s had it since they did the movie, almost 50 years ago, just hanging off the rafters in his garage. He decided the time had come to part with this thing, found us and said, 'Are you guys interested?' We had to repaint it, as it had been done again in the wrong colours. Fortunately, when we took off the access panel on top, the original silvers and reds were still under the lid."
Brandon Alinger: "This is what they had sitting behind the AT-AT Walkers when they were animating them. It's done by hand on canvas, and it's really rare to find something like this. We have had some matte paintings, but the problem is that they're on glass so they're inherently very fragile. I know one of the paintings from the original Star Wars was privately owned—and the owner was traveling to a show with it not that long ago, and it shattered. Gone. Anything glass is really hard work to look after."
Stephen Lane: "The restoration done on this was phenomenal. It had changed hands a couple of times and was finally dumped in the brush. It ended up on some guy's driveway, in horrendous condition, and he put it up on Craigslist. He was bombarded by people wanting to buy it, but we had done a huge restoration job on the Nostromo and told him we weren't just going to buy it — we were going to bring it back to life. That really appealed to him. It took months and months to get it looking great again, but now it looks fantastic."
Stephen Lane: "Spacesuits are something that's dear to me. One of the things I love about science-fiction material is that everything is bespoke for it. Everything is created. I got to hear about the John Hurt spacesuit from a guy I knew in Scotland. I'd bought a few before then, because I thought it would be cool to have a bunch of spacesuits together. After years of me pestering him, he called me one day and said, 'Okay, let's do something.' So the John Hurt spacesuit is a key thing I have here. It's so emotive. As soon as you look at it, you're absorbed by it. "What does this do? Why is this here?" John Mollo's construction of that suit is just awesome."
Brandon Alinger: "Pulse rifles are pretty great. It's based on a real Thompson submachine gun. There are a few of them around, but it's a big deal. It's just one of those classic props."
Brandon Alinger: "The late ‘60s is about as far back as we go. I wish we had Hitchcock material but that stuff is just sort of gone. Same thing with early Kubrick stuff. But we just got this really cool purple snakeskin jacket that Malcolm McDowell wears in A Clockwork Orange. It’s very rare for us to get stuff from that era."
Stephen Lane: "A six-wheeled behemoth: 22 foot by nine foot. It's an awesome thing. We've also got Kurt Russell's car from Death Proof sitting in the warehouse; that just came in from a collector in Germany. And then we've got the Rush F1 cars, Judge Dredd motorbikes, James Bond's motorboat from The World Is Not Enough... Vehicles do come along, but they'll bulky, you've got to have the room for them and they need maintenance."
Tim Lawes: "This is not a movie prop: it was designed by H.R. Giger as one of a limited-edition set. He was meant to do five but only got up to three before his death this year. It's actually the most expensive item going in our upcoming auction."