Up to 90% of all silent films are lost and now you’ve found one that looks like it might be a one-of-a-kind copy! Does that mean you can retire to a lush island with the money you’ll make? Hold your horses because there are a few things you need to know.
(A huge thanks to Chris Bird for helping out with this piece!)
Never Play Poker with the Library of Congress
Film pioneer George Kleine passed away in 1931. As a major importer and producer of films, he left behind papers and a rather large collection of nitrate, some of them the only surviving copies of films. The holders of the Kleine collection approached the Library of Congress with an offer: hundreds of reels of films, over 450 titles to be exact, and business papers to add to their collection in exchange for a cool million.
The Library of Congress said no.
The heirs cooled their heels and then asked again. A hundred thousand? Fifty thousand? No and no. The staff at the Library of Congress knew that hundreds of reels of nitrate, no matter how rare, would not have customers lining up around the block. It was a buyer’s market because they were quite literally the only potential buyer of a priceless, flammable white elephant.
After a few years and a lot of correspondence, the heirs settled for ten thousand dollars in 1947 and the George Kleine collection became one of the biggest early film acquisitions of the Library of Congress.
Many things have changed since then but the harmful myth of rare silents being instantly worth a million has not.
I am not personally a film collector, nor am I qualified to set a value for vintage silent films. I mention this because before I placed a disclaimer on my contact page, I was swamped with emails from people asking me to help them appraise everything from 16mm Mickey Mouse cartoons to old films posters. I can talk about very general pricing of silent films but attaching a dollar amount to specific films is well beyond my expertise.
Who Is This For?
This article is not for experienced film collectors, although you are welcome to read. You will already know most of this and you will know how to properly deal with nitrate.
Rather, this article is intended for someone who knows little about silent films, has somehow come into possession of something rare on 35mm nitrate and wants to know what kind of money they are looking at. (Smaller film gauges are almost certainly safety film and do not require the caution that nitrate does. Here’s a handy guide to telling the difference.)
There is a sad myth that anything to do with the movies is automatically worth a million dollars and there isn’t an ounce of truth in it. Yes, even obscure rarities and lost films. It’s kind of like the myth that a male calico cat is worth as much as $2000 when he’s worth… exactly as much as any other cat in his litter.
Silent films don’t have that big a following and the collectors and archives who would be the market for rarities have budgets. Most collectors are not eccentric millionaires, they’re just normal people with normal jobs who love film. And archives have to pay staff, pay for restorations, pay for preservation; they can’t blow a significant chunk of their annual budget on just one film.
So, let go of any dreams of a film find being the same as winning the lottery. It isn’t. These films are culturally priceless but when it comes to real money, it’s not as much as most people think. It’s like that male calico cat: his owner wouldn’t sell him for a million dollars but he was obtained from the shelter for an $80 adoption fee. Pricelessness does not always mean cold hard cash.
How Much Are We Talking About?
Hard facts? A great many silent films, even rare and one-of-a-kind ones, even original negatives, go for tens or hundreds of dollars. While that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, it’s not going to buy a new living room suite or pay for a semester of university tuition. Some films go for more but they are the exception. Everyone wants to believe they’ve found the exception. They probably haven’t. Sorry.
“What are the exceptions?” they ask, with stars in their eyes. Yes, there are a few films that go for thousands but for very, very particular titles, formats and conditions. Again, you probably don’t have one of these. Sorry.
So, adjust your expectations. There is a market for rare silent films but we’re not talking that much money, generally.
Asking or Getting?
I am not an enormous fan of the show Pawn Stars but one thing I do like about the show is that the host differentiates between the eBay asking price and what an item actually sells for. The difference is often enormous. You will see old prints of rarities listed online for thousands and tens of thousands. And sometimes not even complete prints, just single reels in an advanced state of decay.
(Because this has been an issue, let me make clear that many physical films are multi-reel affairs and finding one reel out of six or seven is not a jackpot nor should it be sold as a complete picture.)
A few years back, a rare, once-lost Charlie Chaplin picture called Zepped was discovered and was immediately prepared for sale. The auction house handling the transaction expected Zepped to fetch over $100,000. That’s asking.
But what about getting? Do these pricey items sell? For the most part, no. Zepped certainly didn’t. In fact, it didn’t sell at all.
To clarify, Zepped was not technically a real Chaplin short and it’s possible that he had no idea that footage of him would be used for the purpose. However, the hoopla surrounding the discovery and subsequent auction did result in a second copy of Zepped surfacing. It’s also worth noting that the owner of the second print had more realistic financial expectations.
I mention this because news of big auction sales and internet pricing do weird things to people; I also ran into this during my bookstore days. Someone would have an old copy of a classic, not a first edition or anything, and since they saw some uniquely collectible copies priced at $500 online, they assumed that an independent bookstore would shower them with cash. This leads to another issue…
Old Does Not Equal Valuable
I collect vintage cookbooks and I can afford to indulge myself because decent reading copies of century-old volumes sell for less than $10 in some cases. Of course, there are certain titles in certain condition that will fetch enormous sums but these are the outliers. Most old books are just old books and are priced accordingly if the sellers intend to move them.
Price changes based on the fame of the work, the fame of the author or subject, the condition, the rarity and whether it is a first edition. The same is true of silent films. And like vintage books, just because a print is old does not make it particularly valuable. Being the only copy of something may make it more attractive and priced accordingly but by “accordingly” I mean tens and hundreds of dollars, not the price of a decent used car.
Rare Does Not Equal Valuable
Any basic economics class will tell you that scarcity drives up the value of an item but there are many other factors at play. First and foremost, the market for silent films is pretty tiny. The market for nitrate films is even smaller given the challenge of safely storing them. So, the films are rare but the buyers are possibly even rarer.
Also, your film may not be as rare as you think. It was very common for silent films to be retitled multiple times, so you may have a common surviving silent film under a different name. And for heaven’s sake, Google to see if the title is on DVD before making any proclamations.
Gold in Them Thar Reels?
But can’t the person purchasing the rare film earn back their money by releasing it on home media?
Here are some hard truths about silent films on home media: there is very little money in releasing them. The people who do it are generally engaged of a labor of love and could make more of a profit doing literally anything else. 500-1000 copies mean a runaway bestseller for a more obscure silent without name recognition.
Obviously, something like the restoration of Napoleon is in a whole other category and both fills theaters and sells out on Bluray (and congratulations!) but I’m talking about the kinds of rarities that end up rotting in garages because the collector is sure he hit the jackpot.
Anyone purchasing a silent film for distribution is likely an idealist but they also have to factor money into the decision. It’s a shame but these are the facts. They simply cannot afford to pay $5,000 per film if they hope to sell maybe 500-1000 copies at, say, a few dollars per copy profit margin. You do the math. And that’s not including the cost of scoring, transfers and any restoration that is required.
Why This Matters
The Daughter of Dawn is one of the most important silent film discoveries of recent decades. With a cast entirely made up on Comanche and Kiowa people, it is a rare chance to see Native American leads in a film that doesn’t revolve around saving white settlers. And it was almost lost again.
On the featurette accompanying the film, the historians responsible for the film’s restoration and release stated that the owner of the only print was storing it in his garage and holding out for a sum of money that was simply not feasible. They were finally able to work out a deal involving a tax deduction but their great fear was that the fragile nitrate print would decay or catch fire before the owner relented.
If we were dealing with something more permanent—marble statues, quality books, gemstones—it wouldn’t matter as much but nitrate needs proper care for safe storage and the older and more decayed it becomes, the more unstable it is. Further, old nitrate film often needs professional care before it can even be scanned. The sprocket holes, for example, often need patching and that’s not a job for beginners.
Greed and trying to play chicken with the archives can result in losing the entire film to fire or decay. And the archives are not going to blink. This isn’t their first rodeo and they’ve been dealing with the “movies mean millions” myth since they opened their doors but in the meantime, these precious films are at risk.
I Found Nitrate Film, Am I Going to Die?
Nitrate film should be treated with caution and is actually illegal to ship through many regular postal and parcel services. In many areas, you actually need special permission or permits to even screen the stuff.
Finding a reel of nitrate is best compared with finding a can of gasoline. Will it instantly kill you? No. But would you send it through the regular mail? Of course not. Would you smoke a cigarette near it? Obviously not. Would you store it in a hot, sunny room? Goodness, no.
The best advice I can give regarding nitrate is to reach out to professional archivists and ask for assistance with storing and/or shipping safely. They know their stuff. Which leads us to…
So, What Should I Do with My Silent Discoveries?
If you’re not connected with any collectors who can guide you, I encourage you, in fact I beg you to get in touch with a reputable archive. They can let you know if they are interested in your films, they will advise you on the best way to ship them if the collection includes nitrate and they may even be able to give you paperwork for a tax deduction. You are not in this alone and “from the collection of (Your Name)” has a pretty nice ring to it.
The Association of Moving Image Archivists has put together a handy resource page that discusses safe handling of nitrate, tips on what to do with it and more. Take advantage of this information!
Finding a lost silent film is a cause for joy but mainly due to its historical importance and not because the finder will finally be able to buy that private island. Reaching out for assistance will ensure that this treasure will be available for the next generation of film historians and that is truly priceless.
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