Are you familiar with classic film noir The Maltese Falcon? The famous prop still remains a mystery — but 3D scanning and printing may provide a solution.
What is the Maltese Falcon? The answer from the 1941 film — “the stuff that dreams are made of” — seems about right.
The movie tells the story of a private detective, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart), tracking down this precious figurine with all the violence, double-crossing, and plot twists you would expect from a film noir masterpiece.
The falcon that everyone chases in the film remains one of the most valuable pieces of movie memorabilia in the world. Which means a lot of people dream about owning one. Here’s the fictional back-story from the film:
“In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day—”
But it turns out, the story of the falcon props used in the film are as thrilling a detective story as the original Maltese Falcon — Bryan Burroughs tries to untangle the mess in Vanity Fair.
The falcon officially recognized by Warner Brothers as the original prop is a 45 lb lead cast that sold at auction for $4.1 million dollars by Los Angeles oral surgeon Gary Milan to Las Vegas hotelier and casino billionaire Steve Wynn.
Second to the Batmobile from the Batman TV show and the Aston Martin DB5 driven by James Bond in Goldfinger, it’s the most expensive piece of movie memorabilia ever sold. This sculpture is the one that goes to tour museums around the world as an important part of film history.
But of course, there’s a twist
Down the road in Santa Cruz, investor Hank Risan claims that his two resin Maltese Falcons are also original, after confirming with a Warner Brothers prop artist that Milan’s lead bird was made for a 1975 parody, not the original Bogart film.
Over the course of his research, Risan also found the name of the artist who made his resin casts, and got in touch with his daughter, who also verified the signature on his birds.
It all sounds very convincing — on set during the movie production, a falcon prop cast from solid lead would have been far too heavy for an actors to be carrying around. Legend has it Bogart even dropped one on his toe!
And then two more show up
Another lead cast falcon was bought by the son of famous jeweler Harry Winston from William Conrad, who is famously the guy from the TV show Cannon… Could this story be any more Hollywood?
Yet another resin cast falcon was bought for $8 at a flea market in New Jersey, and the sold to a group including Leonardo Di Caprio for $300,000, after being verified as authentic.
Risan believes, of course, that because this N.J. resin bird has a serial number (which Warner Bros. introduced to their props department more than a decade after the film was made), that it couldn’t possibly be an original 1941 cast like his.
3D print your own Maltese Falcon
But here’s the thing. These questions of authenticity only really matter for insurance purposes, millionaires keeping up with the Joneses, and auction-hawks keeping an eye on the movie memorabilia market. For the rest of us, owning a Maltese Falcon is a few clicks away.
The easiest way to get your own Maltese Falcon is to make one. At least, that’s what uber-nerd Wil Wheaton did in 2013 with his Makerbot Replicator. Wheaton, you may recall, first found fame playing Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Even though this Maltese Falcon is a fan-designed bust based on stills from the movie — so it’s not been cast from any of the originals — it still looks much more convincing than most replicas on the market.
Wheaton reported that this bust took about seven hours to print, and the result looks fantastic:
Mythbusters is also on the case, kinda…
But for some, the thrill of the chase is what makes the Maltese Falcon the Maltese Falcon. In a keynote speech for the Last Hope hacker conference in 2008, Mythbuster Adam Savage describes the way that rare material objects ignite his obsession, and that making his own copies allow him to feed that passion.
So it makes sense that he would become obsessed with making a perfect replica of the Maltese Falcon, which is after all the namesake of a story about, well, obsession and rare material objects.
His own saga involves a folder on his computer titled “CREATIVE PROJECTS” with thousands of images, a lot of sculpy clay, an internet props replica forum, and bronze casting. He’s still not satisfied.
Savage has made contact with some of the major players in the prop saga, like Milan, to ask if he can 3D scan their copies. He tends to think the lead casts are original, by the way, and has modeled his own falcon off of the Conrad one.
It seems unlikely that they’ll agree with so much money on the line — even if Savage swears he’ll only 3D print a personal copy with the 3D scans. But who knows?
Until then, to paraphrase Bogart, we’ll always have Thingiverse.
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