Twenty years ago, two Omaha friends stumbled across the Holy Grail of movie advertising: 60,000 metal plates used to make movie ads for newspapers across the country and throughout the 20th century.
The plates (wooden blocks with zinc or magnesium surfaces) included ads for pretty much every movie you could think of from the 1930s through the 1980s — “Star Wars,” “2001,” “The Wizard of Oz,” to name a few — and hundreds of movies you’ve probably never heard of, too. Altogether, 12,000 different titles.
In 1998, Marilyn Wagner and DJ Ginsberg paid less than $10,000 for the collection, which had been sitting in storage at Omaha’s Franx Antiques for 20 years.
“We didn’t know (its true worth),” Ginsberg said now. “We found that out later.”
The collection is now expected to fetch about $15 million at auction this month.
Wagner and Ginsberg are selling their collection through Guernsey’s auction house in New York, which is accepting sealed bids until June 27.
The Omaha friends first realized the rarity and value of their collection in 1999, after they reached out to Rudy Franchi, film historian and “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser. At the time, Franchi said the collection was worth more than $1 million.
Franchi has kept up with the collection ever since. In his most recent appraisal, in January of this year, he estimated that the collection’s fair market value is between $18 million and $20 million.
Franchi wrote in his appraisal that the collection’s value has increased nearly 20-fold in the past two decades because it’s now believed to be the only collection of its kind left in existence and because of the inflated value of movie memorabilia.
“Close to 20 years has produced a ten-times increase in value,” he wrote. The movie memorabilia explosion has been fueled, he said, by the increase in the number of collectors, especially collectors with high profiles and deep pockets, such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In his appraisal, Franchi said that in his 45 years of experience he’s never seen anything like the KB Typesetting collection. Previously, he’d only run across small quantities of these blocks.
Hence the collection’s value.
But auctions are unpredictable, said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s, and the collection could fall on either side of the house’s $15 million estimate.
But whatever it goes for, he said, there’s no question that it is, figuratively at least, priceless.
It is, he said, “a unique and compelling collection like no other.”
Ettinger came to Omaha to see the collection firsthand before Guernsey’s decided to help sell it.
“As a movie buff myself,” he said, “I did my best to guess titles that would not be included in the collection. And I don’t know that I succeeded. It’s a very, very comprehensive collection. Not just the big movies that we all know — ‘Jaws,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Gone With the Wind’ — but some of the fun titles given to obscure B-grade movies. It has those, too.”
In addition to the movie ad plates, the collection includes master ads for legendary concerts by the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and many more.
A bit about the origins of the collection:
The movie ad plates were manufactured by KB Typesetting, an Omaha letterpress. The platemaker was at one point at the epicenter of movie ads in American newspapers. The majority of the major studios all used KB Typesetting to get their plates made.
It worked like this:
Hollywood art departments would design artwork and ship the images to Omaha, where KB Typesetting would then reverse the images and engrave them into zinc or magnesium surfaces through an acid-etched process.
From the plates, KB would make pressed paper mats to be sent out in the thousands to theaters and newspapers coast to coast. From the late ’20s to the mid-’80s, this was the way newspaper movie ads were made.
“There certainly weren’t many outfits doing this,” Ettinger said.
KB Typesetting kept the masters until they went out of business, eventually selling the collection to Franx Antiques, which later sold them to Wagner and Ginsberg.
It is the only known remaining collection that chronicles this era of Hollywood advertising.