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7 Bizarre Stories of Stolen Movie Props

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There was a time when movie props were worthless. When a film wrapped, the studio would often recycle props and costumes for use in other films, or sometimes simply throw them away. But that's changed over the years, and now movie collectibles are a big business, with high-profile props going for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, when you start talking that kind of money, there are bound to be a few crooked characters who will do whatever it takes to get their hands on a piece of Hollywood history.

1. Has Anyone Questioned the Flying Monkeys?

It's believed there were six or seven pairs of Dorothy's famous ruby red slippers made for the production of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Of those, the location of four pairs is currently known, including one that resides in the Smithsonian. The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, had their own pair, until the shoes were stolen one night in August 2005. The case went cold until this past April, when police received a tip that a resident in Homer Glen, Illinois, had not only bragged about paying someone to steal the slippers, but openly displayed the shoes in a glass box. Police raided the alleged thief's house, but didn't find the ruby red shoes. For now, the case remains open, and the shoes are still at-large.

2. Easy Rider Choppers Chopped

There are few motorcycles more iconic than the ones ridden by Peter Fonda and the late, great Dennis Hopper in their counterculture classic, Easy Rider. There were four custom motorcycles built for the film—two copies of each bike, including the "Captain America" chopper ridden by Fonda, featuring a star-spangled fuel tank and an extra long fork for the front wheels. One of the Captain America bikes was destroyed during filming, while the other three motorcycles were stolen from a storage garage before the film was even in the can. Obviously the bikes weren't famous yet, so they were presumably stripped and sold for parts. The thieves left the damaged Captain America bike, which was later restored, and now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.

3. The Man Without the Golden Gun

In the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun, James Bond takes on Scaramanga, an expert assassin who charges $1 million per kill. The hitman's signature is a custom-made, solid gold gun that can be cleverly disassembled and disguised as everyday items like a cigarette case, a lighter, a pen, and a cuff link. There were three prop guns made for the film—one that came apart, another that didn't come apart, and one that could fire a blank round. In October 2008, one of these props (it's unclear which one it was) was discovered missing from its display case at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England. Police still have no leads on the disappearance of the prop, worth an estimated £80,000 (~$117,000) on the collector's black market.

4. The Case of the Missing Maltese Falcon

There were a handful of falcon statues made for the 1941 noir classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett's famous private eye, Sam Spade. Over the years, nearly all original models of the bird have been lost, making the few remaining copies very valuable—including one that sold for nearly $400,000 in 1994. For promotional purposes, plaster casts of the bird were made upon the film's release, and Elisha Cook, Jr., a character actor who played a henchman in the film, got his hands on one. His copy of the bird was later acquired by John's Grill in San Francisco, a restaurant dedicated to Hammett, who often wrote and ate there in the 1930s. The replica bird was on display for years, sitting on the second floor in a display case for all to see. That is, of course, until the day it disappeared in 2007.


After the falcon went missing, John's Grill offered a no-questions-asked reward of $25,000 to the person who brought it back, but no one came forward. The owner could have easily gotten a good replacement replica off eBay for a few hundred bucks, but he took a different approach instead. He put the $25,000 towards the creation of a new, original design of the Maltese Falcon that is a more stylized interpretation than the one used in the 1941 film. The new statue is five inches taller than the original and weighs around 150lbs, three times heavier than the plaster replica that was stolen. To ensure this bird doesn't go missing, it's been bolted down and is monitored 24/7 by closed-circuit cameras. With that much security, the next time someone messes with this Maltese Falcon, it won't take Sam Spade to crack the case.

5. Big Bucks in Spandex

Apparently no one's spider-sense was tingling when crooks made off with four hand-made superhero suits from the set of the first Spider-Man film. Each Spider-Man costume, valued at around $50,000 a piece, disappeared from a locked building on the Sony Pictures lot, leading authorities to believe it was an inside job. Police received a tip from the ex-wife of a former security guard at Sony, Jeffrey Gustafson, who said he might be involved in the theft. Police searched Gustafson's home and found records indicating that one costume was at a friend's house, two were traced to a collector in New York, and the last one was in the collection of a man in Japan. Adding to Gustafson's woes, police also found in his home a mannequin dressed in a $150,000 Batman costume that went missing from the Warner Bros. lot in 1996. Not coincidentally, Gustafson worked as a security guard at Warner Bros. at the time. For stealing the Spidey suits, Gustafson got 9 months in jail, 5 years probation, and had to pay $93,000 in restitution.

6. Do Collectors Dream of Rubber Handguns?

As he's hunting android replicants in a dystopian future, Blade Runner's Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, carries a strange-looking handgun that has captivated sci-fi fans for decades. The prop was custom-made using pieces from real firearms, including a bolt action from a rifle, two triggers, various knobs and dials, and even LED lights. To prevent their very expensive, one-of-a-kind prop from breaking, the producers made two solid rubber copies that were indistinguishable from the original at a distance, and could be knocked around during stunt scenes without getting damaged. But during the shoot, one of the dummy guns went missing and was never seen again.

Oddly enough though, about a month after the film was released, highly accurate plastic replicas of Deckard's gun began appearing for sale on the collector's market. These knock-offs were so close to the ones used in the film that they must have been created using molds taken from the missing, now presumed stolen, dummy gun.

While it's certain the thief made a pretty penny by selling the dummy gun, he would have surely been better off stealing the custom-made gun instead—it sold at auction in 2009 for $270,000.

7. Well, That's One Way to Get an Oscar

In March 2000, a few guys got their hands on the ultimate movie collector's item when they stole 55 Oscars just days before the Academy Awards ceremony. Anthony Hart, a dock worker at delivery company Roadway Express, conspired with a fellow employee, truck driver Lawrence Ladent, to load 10 boxes of Oscars onto Ladent's truck. Ladent then took the statues to the home of accomplice John Harris for safekeeping until they could line up black market buyers. However, the men got spooked by the publicity surrounding the missing statues and dumped the boxes in an alleyway instead. Shortly after, Harris' half-brother, Willie Fulgear, found 52 of the Oscars while rummaging through the trash, looking for packing boxes to use during a move.


After reporting his find to police, Fulgear collected a $50,000 reward from Roadway Express, but the other men didn't make out quite so well. Anthony Hart received the lightest sentence with three years probation. John Harris was sentenced to six months in jail, three years probation, and had to pay $921 to the Academy in restitution for the three missing statues. Lawrence Ledent was given six months in prison, five years probation, had to pay the Academy $1,050, and pay Roadway Express the full amount of the reward they offered to Fulgear.

As for the three missing Oscars, one was found in 2003 during a Miami drug raid, but the other two are still out there somewhere.
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What piece of movie memorabilia would you like to get your hands on? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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