At the intersection between a passion for history, one for anthropology, and another for the theatre stands the time-honoured pastime of collecting stage props. This guide aims to introduce all those new to the scene (pun intended) to the basics of amassing a reputable collection of set, costume, and prop items.
Types of collectable stage props
Tea set made by Ridgway Potteries Ltd. in Staffordshire, England, in the 1950s. They were mass produced at the time and are now among the more popular collectables for the stage. Image source: Yay Retro.
When it comes to categorising collectables, it all depends on you—your goals, your budget, your ultimate reason for becoming a collector. By and large, these are the two main ways of categorising collectables:
- Historically (by era): You may be interested in collecting Victorian, Georgian, or Depression Era stage artefacts. Given their age, which predates mass production, these will come at a steep price. Conversely, the advent of film and television have also made contemporary items very valuable, since you’re not just paying for any old chair, but for one that was used in Hot Fuzz or featured on Coronation Street.
- Functionally (by purpose): Stage sets widely vary in purpose, which makes it entirely safe to say that they can include any regular household item. Other day-to-day items used on-stage include specialised professional inventory (think medical instruments and other expert tools), as well as dedicated theatrical items like costumes, make-up tools, stage weapons, lighting, etc.
Building your own stage props collection
We’ll leave the reasons for which you might want to start a stage props collection for later. For now, let’s take a cursory look at the main types of collectables that are currently very popular, according to some of England’s biggest names in the business:
- Glassware. Aside from having been used as stage vintage glass stage props are also intrinsically valuable. Some of the older and more precious items include Studio pieces, and various types of Crystal, among which Murano, Rhiimaakii, Edinburgh, Stuart, Holmegaard and more. The problem with such items is that they usually run on the expensive side—especially if you go thrifting at vintage fairs. As such, the trick is to find a place that usually stocks your favourite manufacturers and visit them often.
- China. Tea and coffee China sets have also become increasingly popular of late, especially as 18th/21st birthday presents. Vintage experts note that they’re seeing many such items being upcycled as candle holders, pin cushions, and lampshades. In any case, it’s important to bear in mind that brand names are very important and add value to your purchase. Some names you should know and watch out for: Ridgway Homemaker, Royal Worcester, Royal Albert, Shelley, and Johnsons.
- Other Household Items: decanters, candlesticks, various decorative figurines, cutlery, picnic items, etc.
- Advertising signs. enamel signs, luminous signs, fluorescent and neon signs, etc.
- Taxidermy: believe it or not, stuffed animals are always in demand, especially mounted animal heads (foxes, deer, boars, etc.).
- Stage Costumes Vintage fashion has always sold well, but it’s all the more valuable when it’s been worn on-stage. In terms of male fashion, anything tweed is all the rage (it never really stopped being in fashion, actually).
- British chaps should also keep an eye on uniforms, dinner jackets, tailcoats, cravats, bow ties.
- For the Ladies, although stage costumes per se are increasingly rare; however, there’s a wide range of furs still available on the market. Valuable pieces include mink, fox, ermine, sable, coney, and much more.
- Finally, certain designer names come with a high value (and respective price tag). Aside from hugely popular brands like Chanel and Dior, look for Biba, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Muir, Diane Freis, and their ilk.
- Military Artefacts: for the stage: Aside from uniforms, these can include armour pieces, rifles, pistols, swords, bows, shields, etc.
Popular Stage Prop Collections
Collecting is serious business—it takes a lot of money, commitment, and energy. So, before you set out, it’s worth asking yourself a couple of questions:
- What are your goals with the collection? Fancy building your very own Victorian era stage setting? You will need to research the era carefully and make sure your collection recreates a set to the tiniest of details—including the fabrics and materials used at the time. You can also choose to specialise in lighting fixtures, theatre curtains, furniture, or decorative items to use as set pieces for a bar.
- What’s the budget you’re willing to invest into collecting? While collecting can be intrinsically very rewarding, it’s also an expensive hobby to maintain. Make sure you don’t let it turn into an addiction, eating away at the family budget.
- Are you willing to travel for your collection? The advent and increased accessibility of the Internet has both democratised and globalised collecting. That being said, it is now more than ever that you might find a very valuable piece for your collection located as far away as Japan. Would you be up for flying there, to negotiate a sale or attend an auction?
The collectors’ edition: Buying, Bidding & Beyond
Genuine 19th century Punch and Judy show in wood. The collectors, Mel and Eunice Birnkrant, hunted down original Victorian era fabrics for years, just so they could recreate the 20 tiny characters’ costumes. Image source: Mel Birnkrant
The most important thing when building a collection, no matter its focus or scope, is to amass expertise in your niche. Only when you’re sure on your feet about what you’re buying can you expertly negotiate a purchase. Here are some of our practical tips and tricks for stage prop collectors:
- Fake one out? Knowing how to tell a replica from a genuine item is, of course, far easier said than done—but with the right mix of knowledge in the fields of history, anthropology, art, and science it’s feasible. Here’s what to look for:
- Manufacturing techniques. Rule of thumb: the older the item, the more imperfect you can expect it to be. Also, come equipped with a solid working knowledge of artistic styles and aesthetic trends influencing the era you’re interested in.
- Market value. Nowadays, Victorian stage costumes have become increasingly rare, as textile fabrics naturally deteriorate and restoring them is an expensive expert skill.
- Materials. Plastic hasn’t been around forever and this is especially true when it comes to furniture. Metal and glass come with a waxing and waning track record of popularity and mass use. Know what materials were in use in which era. If you find them for sale at four-figure prices in most places, don't expect that £200 bodice dress worn by Sarah Bernhardt to be genuine.
- Know thine niche. Everyone does everything online these days. However, since collecting deals with the past, it might just end up surviving as the last pastime best enjoyed offline. The trick is not to go to the most popular venues (see below), but to scour the lesser-known gems of whatever city you should happen to live in. Bear in mind that some of the best sellers of collectables are also collectors themselves, so they should know how to direct you to what you’re looking for, irrespective of niche.
A costume designed by Wilhelm in New York, for La Danse—a stage play recreating the history of dance. The costume painstakingly tries to recreate 17th century stage costume fashions and was based on a print of Marie de Subligny, a 1680s popular dancer. The heavy costume attempts to replicate 17th-18th century styles, where dresses were boned so that their weight would restrict the female dancers’ freedom of movement. Image source: VAM
Insider Tips on Starting Your Collection
Greenwich Market, established in 1737, is the only London market that has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. For the seasoned collector, it’s somewhat too mainstream to still be relevant. However, tourists and beginner collectors can find an interesting range of vintage and antique items here on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
- Polish your bidding netiquette. If you do decide to bid online, it’s important to know when to hold, fold, and be bold. The following tips refer mainly to trading on eBay, but the underlying principles behind them can easily be translated to auctions held live or over the telephone. Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that bidding is a lesser form of warfare—it’s not a matter of who plays nicest, but of who acts the swiftest.
- Bid low, hope for slow. One way to go about it, especially if it’s not an item you had been vying for, is to start out with a very low bid, then withdraw early on in the game. In most cases, your puny bid will be topped. However, there’s also the chance you get lucky and bidding goes slow. That’s when you can call your purchase a steal.
- The hasta la vista, baby! This is a bidding strategy in which you start out with a fairly reasonable early bid, then get out of the game, only to come in at the end and nab the goods in one fell swoop with a high ending bid. This way, you avoid outbidding yourself in the process.
- Auto-bid. These days, most of the big online auction platforms come with a ‘proxy’/’automatic’ feature. This mechanism will allow you to raise your bid by the smallest allowed increment, each time someone tries to outbid you. You also get to set a threshold, which, once exceeded, lets you decide if you want to carry on bidding or not. This method allows you to avoid wasting too much time on the auction itself, as well as to steer clear of bidding wars gone haywire.