Forty-five years after the original Star Wars premiered in 1977, a model of an X-wing Starfighter used in the film’s climactic battle was found stored away in a garage. Soon, the famous fictional spacecraft will go up for auction, with Heritage Auctions billing it as the “pinnacle of Star Wars artifacts to ever reach the market.”
The model belonged to Greg Jein, a renowned visual effects artist who died last year. Throughout his lifetime, Jein amassed an impressive collection of media memorabilia, which he stored rather haphazardly across several garages and storage units.
Sorting through the collection “was like a treasure hunt because Greg knew where things were, but it was not organized,” his cousin, Jerry Chang, tells the New York Times’ Michael Levenson. “As you moved a stack of books away, you’d go, ‘Oh my God, I recognize that!’”
Nobody knew about the X-wing until one day last fall, when four friends arrived to help wade through one of Jein’s garages. They opened several boxes that contained only packing materials. But one box felt heavier.
“I knew something was probably in the box, so I started to carefully scoop out the packaging peanuts when the nose of the X-wing showed itself,” Gene Kozicki, a visual effects historian who worked with Jein, tells the Hollywood Reporter’s Carolyn Giardina. “The four of us knew immediately that it was the actual filming model, and then the magnitude of the discovery started to set in.”
Chang, however, was not as well versed in Star Wars lore.
“I saw four guys in their 50s jumping up and down, and they had their phones out and they were taking pictures from every angle,” he tells the Times. “They said, ‘Do you know where this came from?’ And I said, ‘No idea.’”
Nobody knows how Jein, who never kept records of his vast collection, got his hands on the X-wing. The models were built by Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas. When the studio moved from California’s San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area in 1978, rumors started circulating about models that went missing, Kozicki tells the Hollywood Reporter.
“We never could confirm anything,” he says. “It became something of a mythical ‘white whale’—the missing Star Wars X-wing.”
The 20-inch model is one of only four “hero” filming miniatures made to appear in close-up shots. Other “pyro” models were made in greater numbers but were far simpler creations, as they were designed to be blown up.
The hero models had motorized wings, detailed paint jobs, electrical lighting and even “blast marks and heat-scorching,” notes the lot listing. They appeared “in scenes where the wings would be seen closed (the Rebel fleet approaching the Death Star), the iconic shot of the wings opening (‘Lock S-foils to attack position’), as well as the majority of the space battle shots and the shots during the trench run.”
While the first X-wings debuted in Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, the fictional spacecraft has evolved with the franchise. A full-size X-wing used in the 2019 film Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker currently hangs inside the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; its wingspan is 37 feet. Coincidentally, Jein led the team that built another fictional spacecraft in the museum’s collections: the mothership from the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Due to advances in digital effects, films don’t rely on miniatures as heavily as they did in the past. But as Kozicki tells the Times, “[Jein] realized this stuff was an art form, and the people who made them were artists.”