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IMAGE: 20th Century Props
Philip Scott Andrews  /  AP
A worker tags the inventory of 20th Century Props in North Hollywood, California. The prop house is auctioning off its inventory and plans to close.
updated 7/30/2009 1:12:45 PM ET 2009-07-30T17:12:45

When Harvey Schwartz left his job as an aerospace engineer and opened an antique shop, he ignited a passion that led to a 40-year career.

Harvey's Antiques spawned Harvey's Props, which eventually became 20th Century Props, described by Schwartz as "the biggest prop house in the world under one roof."

But no more. Schwartz's inventory of more than 93,000 pieces — including foam aliens, vintage furniture and appliances, carousel horses, Roman sculptures and other assorted props from film and TV — is being liquidated. A slowdown in the economy and Hollywood productions is forcing him to close his doors. He expects his 200,000-square-foot warehouse in North Hollywood to be "broom clean" by Aug. 15.

"It's the end of an era," he said. "I have to just walk away and say goodbye."

The Great American Group is selling the pieces at auction through Saturday.

Schwartz is letting go of thousands of chairs, dozens of desks, scores of old typewriters, an Egyptian sarcophagus, a giant genie lamp and a life-size mummy. He's also saying goodbye to a 6-foot-tall purple sea horse, a set of metal morgue cases and a half-dozen torch-bearing gargoyles.

There are cases of test tubes and Bunsen burners; beauty salon chairs with old-fashioned hairdryers; stacks of church pews; cases and cases of books; antique Coke machines; stoves and refrigerators from every era; a 5-foot-tall catfish dressed as a chef; and, of course, the kitchen sink.

Schwartz picked out each item. "I just bought my own taste and went everywhere in the world to purchase it," he said.

Many of his props appeared in ‘Blade Runner’
Schwartz's antique shop specialized in art-deco furniture. ("I kind of liked it because it was straight lines, circles and squares — I was an engineer so I understood straight lines, circles and squares.") The crew behind "Blade Runner" bought many of his pieces and rented others. So he became a prop man.

More studio gigs followed, and Schwartz's business grew. He began buying entire collections from films and TV shows that had wrapped production. In the 1990s, he snapped up lots of lighting fixtures from department stores that went out of business.

"For 40 years I've been gathering all the treasures from all points of the Earth to be here for the decorators and art directors to produce a movie in just the way they wanted to," he said. "I gathered all the goodies and it just breaks my heart to watch it all go away."

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Schwartz said he was able to hang on during the 100-day writers' strike in 2007. But the Screen Actors Guild's prolonged contract negotiations hurt his business, as did "runaway productions" that moved to states that offered hefty incentives. He was still surviving by renting his wares for parties and events. Then the economy tanked.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings "That was the last straw," he said. "We're broke. We couldn't hold on any longer so I had to put it up for auction so I could dig up the money to pay the debts."

The auction is being held on site and online. Schwartz can hardly bear to watch.

"This antique roulette table that's been in Hollywood for 80 years, with a beautiful hand-carved base, just a magnificent piece. I paid, at auction — I got a really great bargain, I thought — a few years ago, I paid $6,000," he said. "And it just went up on the auction block for 350 bucks. It's like a piece of trash. So it's very painful to see these things go."

Some of the buyers are collectors. Some own prop shops. Others are just looking for unusual items.

Paul Columbus, who describes himself as "middle-aged and eccentric," drove more than 50 miles from his Irvine home to "find something really unique for the office, really. Something to start the conversation off that you wouldn't find anywhere else."

The computer hardware salesman bought a chair made of golf clubs but was outbid on an authentic Chinese gong.

Schwartz fears the auction won't generate enough income for him to retire. Said the 66-year-old: "I'm going to go be an actor."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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