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Robby the Robot of “Forbidden Planet” breaks auction records after selling for $5.3 million

Goran Blazeski
Getty Images

The British entrepreneur Richard Branson once said, “Records are made to be broken. It is in man’s nature to continue to strive to do just that.” It appears that this also counts for robots after the beloved Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet set a new record price for a movie prop sold at auction.

Last week, a Leonardo da Vinci painting was sold for an incredible sum of $450 million, smashing all records for any work of art previously sold at auction. This week, Robby the Robot hit the headlines, after being sold in New York for a world record price of $5.38 million.

According to Bonhams auction house, the seven-foot-tall robot, which featured in the 1956 sci-fi classic, is the most valuable film prop sold at auction, “This is an out-of-this-world result for one of the most loved items in movie history,” stated Dr. Catherine Williamson, the director of entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams. “Robby the Robot is one of those symbols of American culture that is embedded in our DNA. We are thrilled for the consignor, William Malone, who has cared for Robby for so many years and we are delighted that so many of Robby’s fans took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see him at Bonhams.”

The record set by Robby the Robot beat that of the bird statuette featured in John Huston’s iconic 1941 detective thriller The Maltese Falcon. The statue went at auction for more than $4 million back in 2013, thus becoming one of the most expensive movie memorabilia ever sold at auction.

Robby the Robot at 2006 San Diego Comic Con Author Pattymooney CC BY-SA 3.0

Robby the Robot at 2006 San Diego Comic Con Author Pattymooney CC BY-SA 3.0

Robby the Robot also beat the prices paid for other iconic Hollywood memorabilia auctioned in the past decade, including the $4.6 million paid for Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch, the $4.1 million paid by businessman Harry Yeaggy for the vintage Aston Martin DB5 driven by legendary actor Sean Connery in Goldfinger and Thunderball, and the $4.6 million paid for the Batmobile used in the 1960s Batman TV series.

In an era in which science fiction moviemakers were preoccupied with Cold War paranoia thematics, Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, offered something new and revolutionary, a film that would go on to set the standards of the sci-fi genre.

Unlike the uncertain present portrayed in other sci-fi movies of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet, which is set entirely in outer space, is about the challenges of the future. The opening minutes of the movie are just enough for one to conclude that this masterpiece was far ahead of its time, and its place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” is more than well-deserved. Apart from becoming a cult classic, Forbidden Planet clearly served as an inspiration for Gene Roddenberry’s iconic Star Trek and influenced the towering giant of the late 20th century, Star Wars.

Starring Leslie Nielsen in his pre-comedy days, Forbidden Planet is about a space crew led by Commander John J. Adams (Nielsen) that investigate why Earth lost contact with a planet inhabited by scientists.

Once they arrive on Altair 4, they find out that a mysterious monster killed all the scientists except for Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his beautiful daughter, played by Anne Francis. Robby the Robot, Morbius’s servant, is arguably the most memorable character of the movie.

A replica of Robby the Robot that was featured in the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet”, at the Robot Hall of Fame, inaugural class of 2004, in Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

A replica of Robby the Robot that was featured in the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet”, at the Robot Hall of Fame, inaugural class of 2004, in Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

Robby the Robot was built by Dr. Morbius and is programmed to obey Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, which include:

  • A robot may not injure a human being.
  • A robot must obey human orders.
  • A robot must protect its own existence.

It is one of the most complex robots ever made for a film production and it cost studio MGM around $100,000 to build it. Apart from its unforgettable appearance in Forbidden Planet, the famous mechanical character also appeared in The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mork and Mindy.

A robot that looked identical to Robby was in Lost in Space, the hit series about a family of the future. In it, the Robot became a good friend to Will Robinson, played by Billy Mummy, and children of the 1960s loved hearing the Robot shout, “Danger Will Robinson!” as it waved its arms. Robert Kinoshita, head draftsman of the studio art department, is credited with designing both Robby and the Lost in Space robot.

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“I’m astounded by the result, but also sad to part with him,” filmmaker and collector William Malone, the man who previously owned Robby the Robot, said in a statement, “However, it’s time Robby finds a place where he can be displayed, and with someone who can look after him. Of course” he added, “he will leave an empty spot in my house—and in my heart”.