A buddy of mine once called me and told me his story. He was going through a really hard time. He kept asking me, “What do I do?” for half an hour because he was in pain. I said to him that there’s always somebody out there that’s suffering more than you and if you can go out and help somebody who is worse off than you, it puts life in perspective and it helps you move along. So my advice is, instead of wallowing in your suffering, go out and find somebody who’s suffering more and help them. Actually, that’s how we can move society forward.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Maddalena, Founder & CEO of the famed Hollywood Auction House ‘Profiles In History’ and star of the popular reality TV show ‘Hollywood Treasure’ which aired on the SyFy Channel.
Joe Maddalena is an expert called upon whenever a Hollywood artifact mystery arises. When one of four known pairs of Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz was stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, MN, Joe led the search and was integral in their ultimate recovery and authentication. Born into a family of antique dealers in Rhode Island, at 14-years old, Joe organized his first baseball card collectors convention. You can even find Joe in the Guinness Book of World Records for paying the world record price of $748,000.00 at public auction for a handwritten letter by Abraham Lincoln. Today, Profiles in History is the world’s largest auctioneer & dealer of original Hollywood memorabilia, historical autographs, letters, documents, vintage signed photographs and rare manuscripts.
Major sales from the past couple of years include selling Star Wars’ “R2-D2” for nearly $3,000,000.00 the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever for nearly $2,000,000.00 and The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous for 2.4 million dollars. Joe Maddalena even arranged the sale of a pair of Judy Garland’s screen-used Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences In 2017. Joe has also enjoyed a long history with Debbie Reynolds and her family and held the history-making Debbie Reynolds Auction in June 2011, which saw the Marilyn Monroe “Subway” Dress from The Seven Year Itch sell for $5.52M and the Audrey Hepburn “Ascot Dress” from My Fair Lady for $4.44M. Joe was also honored to present the Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher Personal Property Auction after the passing of the iconic mother and daughter.
Yitzi: Joe, it is a delight to meet you. We would love to learn a little about your background, and how you grew up. Can you tell a story about your childhood, how you grew up and eventually what led you to this career path?
Joe Maddalena: I grew up on the East Coast of Rhode Island with my parents who were antique dealers. I would go with them hunting antiques all over Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania. As a kid, you can imagine that was kind of boring.
So, I would look out for things that a kid would be interested in such as baseball cards, comic books, coins, stamps, and World War II artifacts. I was kind of lost in that world because it was all accessible. This was pre-internet, pre-eBay — the good old days. I got hooked. I could not get enough of everything! Lunchboxes, pop culture, history, and documented letters written by Thomas Jefferson. It was fascinating to me that all of these things existed. It occupied a lot of my time sort of living in this fantasy world. So, I started actively collecting it. Next, I observed how other collectors were looking for these things. I started building up my business, one collector, two collectors at a time. When I got out of college, I went to Pepperdine and UCLA graduate school and collectors would constantly call me, looking for items. And that was how I started.
Yitzi: That’s fascinating. So you’re a TV producer, was that an outgrowth of your collecting or was that a separate track?
Joe Maddalena: I was a television production broadcasting major at Pepperdine. I always wanted to be in broadcasting. But at the time when I went to school, there was no money in that field. I always had an interest in broadcasting. In 2000, Fox Television studio approached me, and I produced the show called The Ultimate Auction. That was my first TV show and then I did a show called The Incurable Collector. After many TV and guest appearances, one of the producers of The Incurable Collector for A & E and created a series for my team and in 2010 we started Hollywood Treasure. I did three seasons, 30 episodes on the series. It’s been an interesting journey.
Yitzi: I can imagine that selling probably puts you in touch with really interesting characters and personalities. Do you have a really interesting story that occurred in the course of either selling or retrieving an artifact?
Joe Maddalena: I would say one of the most amazing experiences was in 1999 when Matt Jeffery approached me. He was the art director and set builder for the Star Trek original series. He designed the Enterprise physical set. He built all the spaceships and the Enterprise and Klingon sets. Matt was a legend. He approached us because he wanted to sell his collection. It was my first entry into the world of Star Trek. I didn’t realize how fanatical the fans were. Through Matt Jeffery I was fortunate to meet Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig. I became good friends with George Takei and many people who worked on the show. There was a massive network of Star Trek actors or producers. So I became immersed in the Star Trek world.
We had the auction for Matt and his brother. We learned they used to fly these little private planes and when they broke the enterprise set down, the bridge of the enterprise was cheap carpet, which was like a dollar a yard — the cheapest carpet in the world! So they ripped it up and used it to insulate the inside of their planes. I asked, “Are you decorating your plane with the carpet from the Star Trek bridge?” And he replied, ”Yeah.” I said, “Rip it out.” So we tore out the chunk of his carpeting, maybe 3 feet by 3 feet worth. We put it in the auction for $200 to $300. It sold for $14,000! So, that cheap carpet became the most expensive piece of carpeting in the world. That’s something I’ll never forget.
Yitzi: So here’s a question that I often ask leaders. Do you have a story about a mistake, funny or not so funny, that you made when you first started and what lessons did you learn from it?
Joe Maddalena: I think when you first start, you make a lot of mistakes due to misattributions. For instance, people say they have an original copy of the Gettysburg Address and it turns out to be a copy. The learning curve is an uphill climb of patience instead of speed. You’ll constantly make mistakes, that’s the only way to learn. Over the years, you will learn and sharpen your skills.
Yitzi: Are you working on any exciting, interesting projects today and how do you think they might help people?
Joe Maddalena: I am always working on getting new TV shows on the air. We recently shot a pilot for TV Guide and AMC. We try to continue moving forward in life like continuing to do our auctions. In fact, we have one auction coming up at the end of October, which will be amazing. It’s always the combination of bringing either the object to the people or bringing some type of broadcast media to the clients we have.
Yitzi: Was there an artifact that you feel most connected to or the most passionate about? And is there a story behind that artifact?
Joe Maddalena: I would say the thing that I’m most known for is in my office. There was a very famous robot on the Buck Rogers TV show called “Twiki.” The actor who played Twiki came to one of my auctions. I remember the day he came because he had a Twiki costume, and he wanted to see the one I was selling. My son was there. He was probably five or six years old. They were the same size and height. My son was fascinated by the Twiki costume. He just couldn’t believe it he could fit in it. So Felix sold his personal costume to my son, which was 20 years later. That’s probably my favorite personal collectible because of the story behind it. The memory. It’s something I will never sell. Most people know Twiki is one of the things I have and people always want to see him.
Yitzi: Are you personally a sci-fi fan?
Joe Maddalena: Yes, I am a huge fan.
Yitzi: Me too. Which sci-fi property are you most connected to or do you feel most passionate about?
Joe Maddalena: I like Star Wars, but it’s not like a religion to me. I really like Star Trek: The Original Series and the original Lost In Space series. I like Dark Shadows, but it’s not science fiction — more fantasy. I would say Blade Runner is my all time favorite sci-fi film.
Yitzi: Are you excited for the upcoming Dune film?
Joe Maddalena: Yes — I am always attracted to these remakes but you just never know what they could turn out to be. I love the new Lost In Space. It took me a while to get into Season 1. I also love Season 2. That’s a show where they did a really good job. I like when they go in different directions with old properties. I like that the robot that was kind of evil and the way they changed the cast up with a female “Dr. Smith”.It’skind of like when they take liberties in making the show different. I just hope Dune is not just a remake and they kind of ruin it.
Yitzi: Very smart. So let’s get back to the core of our interview. Are there things you wish somebody told you when you first started and why?
- Buy the most expensive home you can afford, and whatever that is, pay 25% more. So, that would definitely be rule number 1: always buy whatever you can afford plus 25% more, because someday you’ll be really happy that you did. You’re better off owning a couple of good quality things and not just a bunch of stuff. And that’s something I learned later on because when people go to sell, they’re kind of disappointed they have a collection of stuff that isn’t really anything great. So that’s one thing I learned a little early on. Even if you’re overpaying, it will make up for itself because something that was priced at $25,000 twenty years ago could be worth $250,000 today.
- Also, never stop learning. Nobody knows everything — no matter what your education is or whatever you are doing in life. You can benefit from that, whether financially or in business or career. I think that is super important.
- Also, you need to look for a mentor. Follow successful people, talk to them, learn about the mistakes they’ve made and find out why they’re successful. We all make the same journey and a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to search those people out. A lot of them want to help, a lot of them want to share their stories, their mistakes, the things they would have done differently.
- I think the other thing is, do what you love. Many people are getting jobs and careers that they hate, and they are miserable. I mean, pursue your passion. When I went into business, some people called me a foolish. I had an amazing education, so many thought I should be an accountant, I should be a lawyer. I didn’t want to do that. I was harshly discouraged from pursuing this career. Now I look back and I’m glad I did it, even if it was not a popular choice. I always urge people to follow their passion because you will make money one way or the other. However, the road to happiness isn’t always financial. You can do something that you enjoy.
Yitzi: It’s really wise and profound. We’re getting towards the end. You’re a person of great influence because of your position. If you could inspire a movement to bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Joe Maddalena: A buddy of mine once called me and told me his story. He was going through a really hard time. He kept asking me, “What do I do?” for half an hour because he was in pain. I said to him that there’s always somebody out there that’s suffering more than you and if you can go out and help somebody who is worse off than you, it puts life in perspective and it helps you move along. So my advice is, instead of wallowing in your suffering, go out and find somebody who’s suffering more and help them. Actually, that’s how we can move society forward.
Yitzi: You know, none of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person that you’re grateful to that helped you to achieve your success? Can you share a story about that?
Joe Maddalena: There are so many people who helped me. I’ve been very fortunate. Malcolm Forbes Sr. was a client of mine. His sons, Bob, Kip and Steve Forbes were huge supporters of my early career when I was in my 20s. So, I owe a lot to their friendship. It was an amazing experience to work with them. I was very fortunate in that regard. So, over the years, I’ve interacted and worked with many people such as Ross Perot, Bill Simon, who is secretary of treasure, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and many more. They were all amazing people.
Yitzi: Can you share a good story about any of those prominent figures?
Joe Maddalena: Yes. Every year, Malcolm Forbes would take off from New York to West Point on his boat for the Army-Navy football game. They would always invite me to their events. I didn’t know you needed to wear a tuxedo, so I had to rent one. I showed up at the dock and got on the boat. My tuxedo was miserably uncomfortable. It was too small and my tie was also was choking me. Malcolm looked at me and said, “You look miserable.” I looked at him and replied, “Why is it that the highest form of dress in our society is what our waiters wear?” He could not stop laughing.
It was a different world back then. It was a different society.
They were monumental collectors of history — philanthropists and great movers who changed society and influenced the world. It was remarkable to be around them.
Yitzi: Do you have a favorite life lesson quote that resonates with you and was there an incident that showed how that’s relevant in your life?
Joe Maddalena: Mark Twain’s quote, “Let us live so that when we come to pass even the undertaker will feel sorry for us.” I think that’s a good way to live your life. No regrets. Live your life to the fullest and never look back. Twain had a lot of great quotes like, “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.” But my favorite one is “Let us live so that when we come to pass even the undertaker will feel sorry for us.” I live by that and think it’s something that always stays with me.
Yitzi: That’s profound. Okay. Here’s our last question. We’re very blessed that prominent people read this column and pretty much here’s your opportunity to reach out to anyone. Is there anyone in the world or in the U.S you would like to have lunch with? He or she might see this if we tag them.
Joe Maddalena: That’s a great question. I guess that would be Peter Jackson.
Yitzi: Can you explain to our readers why he resonates with you the most?
Joe Maddalena: I think he’s just a genius. When you talk about Star Wars and Indiana Jones and all those film franchises, I think the Lord of the Rings, that trilogy, are the three most perfect movies ever made. They are just perfect. Jackson is such an amazing storyteller and an amazing person. Also, he drives the car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I want anyone whose car is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to be my friend.
Yitzi: That’s a great story. Well, Joe, thank you so much for your time. It’s been really fantastic. These are really great stories.
Joe Maddalena: Thank you very much.