The Maltese Falcon Mystery

“The stuff that dreams are made of.” That’s how the Maltese Falcon was described in the 1941 film, and just like the mystery surrounding it in the movie, the prop itself presents a mystery.

Dashiell Hammett’s famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, was published in 1930, and Warner Brothers first adapted the tale in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez playing the main character detective. For this version of the film, the “falcon” looked more like a peacock, and after filming ending, the prop was reused in Haunted Gold, a John Wayne Western, before it was lost.

In 1941, John Huston adapted the story yet again, and this version would become the definitive film with Humphrey Bogart leaving his mark in the role. For the bird’s design, Huston hired his friend and artist Fred Sexton for $75 who first sketched it out on a manila envelope. Warner’s Art Department then created two new statues which were approximately 11 inches tall and made out of lead. This 47-pound bird was a hefty animal, and when it fell on Bogart’s foot while filming, he required first aid.

It’s unknown exactly how many prop birds were created in total (some believe a plaster version was also created from the mold), but the entire cost for the birds’ production was approximately $600 thousand.

While movie fans place sentimental value on film props, studios don’t. In fact, in the studio’s mind, a prop has more value if it can be re-used in other films. For instance, a bedframe used in Deception also appears in other Bette Davis’ films The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and All This, and Heaven Too.

After The Maltese Falcon, the black bird appeared in Illegal as set dressing in Edward G. Robinson’s office, as well as in Frankenstein 1970 and Cheyenne Autumn.

But what happened to the first Maltese Falcons?

Well, Jack Warner gave one to William Conrad as a joke, and it sold for $398,500 years after his death (it was also used to create a 10 million dollar bird out of gold and Burma-ruby cabochons).

The other original bird – which injured Bogart – disappeared… until it reappeared for an auction and sold for over four million dollars, making it one of the highest prices that someone has paid for a prop (for reference, the ruby slippers sold for $2 million and Sean Connery’s Bond Aston Martin sold for $2.6 million).

To make matters more interesting, the market was also flooded with fake birds when Columbia spoofed The Maltese Falcon in 1975 with The Black Bird. Warner Brothers created two hundred and fifty plaster birds – some of which are confused with (or falsely represented to be) the genuine thing…

So how many falcons are the true artifact? Well, that’s a mystery that may never be solved.