Why Does Hollywood Have a Habit of Selling Off its History?

Signature props and costumes are fetching record prices at auction. Here’s why they need to stay in L.A.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally brings Los Angeles the movie museum it deserves, many of the signature props and costumes that would fill it are fetching record prices at auction and leaving the city. The latest example could prove to be the piano from Casablanca, which is expected to sell for more than $1 million when Bonhams puts it on the block in New York City this month.

Beverly Hills dentist Gary Milan spent decades reassembling much of the original Rick’s Café Américain from the 1942 classic, including chairs, screens, and lamps from the set (all of which will join Sam’s piano at auction). Should the loot depart from L.A., it will follow the lead of the Maltese falcon (which last year sold for more than $4 million at Bonhams), Judy Garland’s blue pinafore from The Wizard of Oz (which went for $910,000 in 2011), and Marilyn Monroe’s pleated white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch (acquired for $5.6 million by a collector in the Middle East).

The ambitious Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is scheduled to open three years from now in the former May Company building on Wilshire Boulevard, is accumulating its own collection—slowly. A major “transformative acquisition,” as Disney CEO Bob Iger phrased it, was a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from Oz, which the academy purchased in 2012. The amount was undisclosed, but it took the combined efforts of Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg to help fund the deal.

Beth Werling oversees the Natural History Museum’s collection of film memorabilia, which includes the “Little Tramp” outfit Charlie Chaplin made famous in City Lights (he donated the costume soon after filming was over). Werling attended the sale of Debbie Reynolds’s vast costume collection in 2011, where she met buyers from around the world. The European museum curators, she recounts, were stunned. “They asked me, ‘How could America let this happen?’ ”she says. “In Europe, if something is deemed a cultural treasure, the state can raise funds to meet the auction price.” L.A.’s cultural treasures should be just as prized.