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'Star Wars' Red Leader X-wing model heads a cargo bay's worth of props at auction

This 1:24 scale miniature was used to film pivotal scenes from the first Star Wars film. It's now at the center of a auction of items collected over decades by Greg Jein, a master model-builder for film and TV.
Heritage Auctions
This 1:24 scale miniature was used to film pivotal scenes from the first Star Wars film. It's now at the center of a auction of items collected over decades by Greg Jein, a master model-builder for film and TV.

The intricately made starfighter brought millions of people along for the ride as a group of plucky Rebel pilots assaulted the Death Star. Now the Star Wars scale model is being sold at auction, with bids starting at $400,000.

The "Red Leader" (Red One) X-wing Starfighter from 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope is "the pinnacle of Star Wars artifacts to ever reach the market," says Heritage Auctions, which is handling the sale as part of a trove of science fiction props, miniatures and memorabilia.

The X-wing tops the auction list, but it's far, far from alone: It was found in the expansive collection of Greg Jein, an expert craftsman who was as skilled at bringing futuristic stories to life as he was devoted to preserving the models and props used to bring strange new worlds to TV and film.

The sale includes a tricorder built for <em>Star Trek</em> by Hawaiian-born designer and artist Wah Chang, who worked on many of the original TV series' most famous components, from communicators to tribbles.
/ Heritage Auctions
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Heritage Auctions
The sale includes a tricorder built for Star Trek by Hawaiian-born designer and artist Wah Chang, who worked on many of the original TV series' most famous components, from communicators to tribbles.

Jein, who died last year at 76, worked for decades on the Star Trek franchise. He also garnered Oscar nominations for his painstaking work on Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1941. Along the way, he kept collecting memorabilia.

More than 550 items from Jein's collection are now heading to auction, from Nichelle Nichols' iconic knee-high boots and red tunic as Lt. Uhura to Leonard Nimoy's pointy ears as Spock. A hairpiece for William Shatner's Captain Kirk and Lt. Sulu's golden tunic are also up for sale.

Bidders can soon vie for a tunic worn by George Takei as Lt. Sulu on the original <em>Star Trek</em> series. He's seen here at left with Walter Koenig As Lt. Chekov.
/ Getty Images
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Getty Images
Bidders can soon vie for a tunic worn by George Takei as Lt. Sulu on the original Star Trek series. He's seen here at left with Walter Koenig As Lt. Chekov.

Starting in the late 1970s, Jein built versions of USS Enterprise and other iconic ships for the Star Trek franchise — work that came after years of analyzing props and gear used in the original TV episodes.

"We watched these things a million times, and we would study each frame," his friend and colleague Lou Zutavern said, in a news release about the auction. "We'd find a weird thing, and we'd work it out. It went from something we loved to watch to something we loved working on."

The sale also includes Charlton Heston's flight suit in Planet of the Apes, and a trove of props and costumes from early science fiction TV series, and films such as Forbidden Planet.

In addition to what he made himself, Jein traded, bought or outright salvaged some of the items, such as the all-terrain chariot from the 1960s TV show Lost in Space. Another rare item is a complete Imperial Stormtrooper costume from Star Wars.

Also included are a space suit from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and enough tricorders, phasers and communicators to equip a Starfleet away team. There's even a miniature "Galieo" type shuttlecraft.

This miniature of the world-exploring chariot from the 1960s TV show <em>Lost in Space</em> is up for auction. The show based its full-size version of the vehicle on a 1965 Snow Cat.
/ Heritage Auctions
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Heritage Auctions
This miniature of the world-exploring chariot from the 1960s TV show Lost in Space is up for auction. The show based its full-size version of the vehicle on a 1965 Snow Cat.

Amid these treasures, the rare X-wing model is distinct. Because of ILM's pioneering work in combining different shots, it stood in for several fighters, including Red Five, piloted by Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, according to the auction house.

It's one of only four "hero" filming miniatures — such models get the hero label if their level of detail is ready for a closeup shot — that were made. At 1:24 scale, a helmeted figure sits in the X-wing's cockpit, ahead of an R2 droid. Its engines and weapons have electric lights; its wings spread for battle via a servo mechanism. The special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic even used heat sinks and cooling ducts to keep the model from overheating.

Aside from the model's significance in film history, its high level of detail, such as the fuselage's weathering and blast marks, reflects the combination of imagination and meticulous construction that artisans like Jein used to bring audiences to new heights of suspended disbelief.

Greg Jein's name appears on this ruined spacecraft from the First Bug War in the 1997 film <em>Starship Troopers</em>. The model miniature is nearly three feet long, made to look as if an intense battle has left its hull shredded.
/ Heritage Auctions
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Heritage Auctions
Greg Jein's name appears on this ruined spacecraft from the First Bug War in the 1997 film Starship Troopers. The model miniature is nearly three feet long, made to look as if an intense battle has left its hull shredded.

In some cases, Jein was alone in recognizing the objects' inherent value, after filming was complete.

"None of the materials in The Greg Jein Auction have ever been available to the public," the auction house says. "Most weren't even made to survive the passage of time, and some would not have lasted were it not for Jein, who friends and colleagues say rescued much of this material from history's dustbin and studio's dumpsters."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.