RealTime IT News

Boldly, Into a Real-Time 'Star Trek' Auction

NEW YORK -– The auctioneer stood on the podium before the assembled bidders. She waved a Klingon war glove that swallowed half her arm -- a prop from one of the original Star Trek television episodes.

"Now we can begin. The Klingons have said so," pronounced Cathy Elkies, director of special collections at Christie's auction house, as the glove came off.

With that, she opened the bidding on one of the most anticipated auctions to hit the Star Trek universe: Christie's "40 Years of Star Trek," a sale of never-before-seen memorabilia from the original, as well as subsequent, Star Trek television shows and movies.

auctioneer
Cathy Elkies handles bids from beyond the room. (Click to enlarge)

This time, the 240-year-old auction house boldly went where no international auction house had gone before: taking bids online and in real-time, along with the usual phone bidders and over 400 attendees who signed up to bid throughout the three-day auction. And they all wanted Star Trek memorabilia.

If the auction house that helped sell Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet for a record $82.5 million was looking for ways to entice a new generation of bidders to the range of items it sells, it couldn't have been disappointed.

After the first day of bidding, Christie's had sold $1.65 million worth of items.

With an estimate of $2.3 million expected over all three days, interest had far outsold expectations, even for pre-sale estimates, which are historically on the low side.

Items ranged from $1,000 for scripts from television shows, to $120,000 for a replica of the starship Enterprise used in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series.

Memorabilia
Candy store for Trek fans. (Click to enlarge)

Another top price getter was a "borg cube" from later versions of the Star Trek shows. Most items, even the round balls of fur called Tribbles, which bred like rabbits on steroids in the original series, were blowing away expectations.

Auctioneers said the online bidding brought a new dynamic to the process.

"I hear $1,000 in the room, now $1,200 to the Internet," Elkies said, pointing to a monitor to the right of her podium where online bidders flashed across the screen in different colors.

Phone bidders, helped by Christie's staffers, raised hands to keep the auctioneer tallying the price. "Back to the Internet at $1,500," Elkies said.

"Don't let them scare you -– we've got a $2,000 bid back in the room," she bellowed amid audience laughter. The paddle-holder prevailed for the item, a collection of call sheets, costumer's notes and shooting schedules from Star Trek Generations.

"I was surprised at how low some of the estimates were in the catalog," said David Danzig of Manhattan.

The founder of charge.com (later sold to Pipeline Data), stayed coy about what drew him out to the auction (the lot had yet to come up for bid).

Although bid estimates are always on the low side, he said he was surprised to see "only" an estimate of $7,000 to $9,000 for Captain Picard's chair from the second Star Trek.

It sold for $62,400 to a private bidder. Some speculated the buyer was Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who has amassed what is believed to be the largest science fiction collection. Allen is also the founder of the Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame in Seattle.

A spokesman for Allen's foundation did not respond to a query for comment.

spock
A writer from the Conan O'Brian show in a "frustrated bidder" bit

CBS/Paramount, which owns the franchise, said none of the items had been available before the auction (hint: not found on eBay).

In all, some 3,000 pieces will be sold off when all is done, from drawings of the first Enterprise model, to a full-scale replica of the bridge from the original show's Enterprise starship. (The original is actually at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., as is Captain James T. Kirk's chair.)

Getting a piece of the action is just as painstaking a process online as it is offline. Bidders need to go through a registration process in order to vet their seriousness about bidding on the items.

And they're not just U.S. bidders. Bids are flying in from Asia, Europe and other parts of the globe, Christie's said.

"I'd say the Internet was bidding-proportionate to the room," Elkies told Internetnews.com during Thursday's sale. "They're definitely in there bidding. That monitor was flashing constantly. I hope they feel as much a part of the room as everyone else does."

If you can't get a bidding number, online or off, you can also check out the live Webcast of the auction on The History Channel's Web site.

More Than Geeks

Star Trek's impact on the tech industry barely needs an introduction.

Trekkies like to point to the company logo of Motorola and explain that it was inspired in part by the Star Fleet logo that the Enterprise crew wore on their uniforms.

Cell phones, tricorders, and even medical scanning devices, all had early previews on the original series. Allen and Bill Gates are said to have named the microcomputer that helped give rise to Microsoft, the Alltair, from an episode of Star Trek.

But there was more than geekdom at this event.

Barbara (Bobby) Cramer of New York said her four children grew up watching Star Trek alongside her. She was also one of the first attendees at the Star Trek conventions.

the star trek uniform
Rember this? (Click to enlarge)(Source: Christie's)

She and her daughter, Lauren Cramer, now an attorney and with children of her own, were part of letter-writing campaigns to NBC protesting its decision to cancel the original series.

"It blended science fiction, which I love, with humanism, which I require," the elder Cramer told Internetnews.com.

Her daughter added: "I used to kiss the TV, I had such a crush on Captain Kirk."

Unbeknown to each other, mother and daughter ended up bidding against each other on a fencing mask used on one of the shows.

Even Elkies said that, prior to the auction, no one was quite sure how to profile who would be turning out online and in the gallery.

But she said there was no question that the online aspect, in which bidders watched the events in real-time, added a new dynamic to the room as well as the bids.

"It's a balance, but it's been terrific. Prices have been very strong," Elkies said. "We had a great opportunity to select the best we could."

As for Christie's bold new move into online auctions, it's a step-by-step process.

"We only launched this in July," Elkies added. "But clearly, the bidders are loving it."

Photos by Gene Hirschel