Get in touch with your inner child—then put him or her to work generating an investment income by buying and selling rare toys, suggests George Hopkin
Get in touch with your inner child— then put him or her to work generating an investment income by buying and selling rare toys
The most successful punt for a single investor in the history of collectible toys is going to be very hard to beat. Following his breakout success with the film American Graffiti in 1973, fledgling director George Lucas approached 20th Century Fox and sold the studio on the idea of his next visionary project, “a western set in outer space.”
It was a bold and somewhat confusing pitch for the studio; Fox allowed Lucas to keep the licensing and merchandising rights for himself, saving itself an additional US$500,000 fee. At that point in the mid1970s, serious money simply hadn’t been made through lines of licensed toys tied to movies, so Fox executives thought they were giving away 100 per cent of next to nothing.
The Force was strong with Lucas the day he made that agreement. US$12 billion worth of toy sales later—out of a total of US$27 billion in Star Wars franchise revenue, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute—it’s hard to imagine any investor getting anywhere near this figure in terms of a return. Lucas is simply light years ahead.
Of course, few people on the planet have a generation-spanning film franchise to leverage. But even those without such a celluloid asset can make money on toys with the right choices, though it’s far from child’s play, say experts. Making a play with toys can be surprisingly hard work when sorting through the vast swathes of potential investments.
“Die-cast models of cars, trains, dolls and teddy bears dominate the toy market, along with older tinplate and clockwork toys and collectibles, such as robots and figurines inspired by TV or cinema,” says Ivan Macquisten, an arts market analyst, pundit
and director at specialist consultancy Imacq who also served as the editor of the Antiques Trade Gazette for 15 years. While box-fresh, unopened examples of pure perfection will always fetch a premium, some of the most sought-after collectibles today can actually be the result of factory errors or marketing mistakes, says Macquisten. It’s in this area that the Star Wars franchise can claim another key role in the rare toys investment market.
“It’s not Han Solo or Luke Skywalker that comes with the highest ticket price among Star Wars figurines,” says Macquisten. “Instead, it’s the real rarities.
“In 2013, for instance, toy auction specialist Vectis took £8,500 for a Jawa Star Wars figure with a vinyl cape that was packaged and mounted on an unpunched card. Its value, apart from its condition, lay in the fact that the vinyl cape had proved unpopular when first released and was soon replaced with a cloth cape, making the original release much rarer.”
When it comes to diecast toys, the devil is in the detail, says Macquisten. Rare colour schemes and slight differences in the casting process add value in the same way printing errors can turn a simple stamp into a philatelist’s dream. “Toys where the design means certain original parts—such as detachable components— are commonly missing are understandably more desirable the more complete they are.”
While Star Wars is without doubt the force to be reckoned with in modern-day professional toy collecting, there are older examples and opportunities for those with more traditional tastes.
“Some of the highest prices can be found among rare late-19th- and early-20th-century survivors of tinplate toys, such as clockwork figures, model trains, cars and other forms of transport,” says Macquisten. “Collectors will often look for specific makes, such as those by the German firms of Märklin and Bing. Attention to detail, craftsmanship and the sheer beauty of rare items—like the circa-1905 spirit-fired, steam-powered battleship made by Märklin that took £57,000 at Special Auction Services in 2013—are just the sort of thing [collectors] will fight over. They had sold another the previous April for £76,000.”
For those who like their investments softer and cuddlier—but still capable of making a killing in the auction room—the humble teddy bear has been central to toy-based portfolios for decades. Spearheading the push for plush for 135 years is Margarete Steiff, a German company renowned the world over for its high-quality products and the famed button in the ear of its plush toys, specially designed to help buyers spot a fake from across a crowded playground.
Some of the company’s most valuable bears started out as much-loved friends and sleeping aids, says Steiff managing director Daniel Barth. “At some point, when childhood ends, the plush companions with the sweet button eyes are often disregarded. They end up in boxes, in the attic or in the basement, where they stay for decades. However, when the forgotten companions are rediscovered, many of them get a second chance in the showcase of a collector. A lot of old stuffed animals are rare and have garnered a cult following.”
Particularly rare pieces can be worth thousands of euros. In 2002, a Happy Teddy Bear made by Steiff in 1962 set a new record, selling for a whopping ¤156,240 at auction.
So what should today’s teddy bear hunters look out for? “The Steiff animals that date back to before 1970 are the most profitable,” explains Barth. “A good and well-kept condition leads to an increase in value. The older and more intact the teddy bear is, the greater the chance of a high return. Other valuable attributes are if the animal was available for only a limited number of pieces—and the Steiff animals’ famous button in the ear should still be intact, too.”
However blissfully surrounded by fluffy bears, tinplate trains and Princess Leia, collectors need to remember to steer clear of the dark side and keep their obsessions in check, warn experts.
Professor Cathy Carey of Western Kentucky University—an economist, academic, writer and action-figure collector herself—told specialist website Doctorwhotoys.net: “It becomes problematic if individuals begin sacrificing other values in life for the sake of the collection. These problems will vary in intensity with different collectors. Some collectors may be viewed as eccentric based on their collections—and they will often view this as a badge of honour.”
“WHEN CHILDHOOD ENDS, THE PLUSH COMPANIONS WITH THE SWEET BUTTON EYES ARE OFTEN DISREGARDED. THEY END UP IN BOXES IN THE ATTIC... WHERE THEY STAY FOR DECADES”