When an original 1980 Palitoy "Empire Strikes Back" medical droid action figure sold at a UK auction last week for more than $11,000, "Star Wars" fans and collectors were in a state of shock. It's not every day childhood dreams translate to big dollars, after all.
"I was gobsmacked by the price!" Steve Sansweet, author of the book "Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection," told Crave. "When you add the buyer's premium and the value added tax, it comes to over $14,400 -- for a nearly 34-year-old 4-inch piece of plastic sealed on a card. But as in any auction, it only takes two slightly crazed, somewhat wealthy folks to drive a price up to incredible heights. It may have been the last piece someone needed to complete a run, it looks like it was as in near-mint condition as these things get, and the heart-beating competition of an auction can lead to a lot of adrenaline pumping."
Sansweet knows a thing or two about collecting action figures -- and everything else under two suns. His own gigantic "Star Wars" collection is housed at Rancho Obi-Wan -- a nonprofit museum dedicated to serving "the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of [the films'] memorabilia and artifacts."
His impressive collection of "Star Wars" memorabilia even earned a spot in the Guinness World Records. And yes, he also owns the same 1980 Palitoy "Empire Strikes Back" medical droid action figure that went up for auction.
"It's in very nice condition, so if you'd like to send the under-bidder my way, I'd try my best to relieve his or her pain of losing," Sansweet said. "And my database tells me I have eight other FX-7 figures sealed on different cards. Who knew?"
While scarcity, desirability, and condition are the key factors in determining the value of any "Star Wars" collectible, Sansweet admits collectors have a few holy grail items they're constantly on the lookout for.
"There are a handful of carded pre-production Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi action figures on which the lightsaber has two pieces that extend, and these 'double telescoping' figures are among the Holy Grails," Sansweet said. "Then there was a very strange figure produced in Brazil by Glasslite --Vlix, a bad guy from the 'Droids 'animated series in 1985, which ran only one season. There were 14 unproduced figures that Kenner Products in the US didn't release in 1986, but this one came closest to production and some were made for sale later in Brazil. A carded one in decent condition was said to have sold in a private sale 20 years ago for close to $15,000. And then there are rare prototypes like two main version of missile-firing Boba Fett."
With this kind of money being spent on "Star Wars" action figures, one has to wonder if makes more sense to invest in toys over stocks and mutual bonds. But Sansweet advises against having unrealistic financial expectations around the Force.
"The next sale of a carded FX-7 on a Palitoy card from 'The Empire Strikes Back' will be nowhere near this price, and lots of folks will be looking to sell theirs and try to cash in on the publicity," Sansweet said. "I have always said that 'Star Wars' collecting is a terrible investment. Most of the items I've acquired over the last 37 years I couldn't sell for even what I paid for them. I buy things because I love them, not because I expect to fund my retirement."
"Remember, the high prices you see on vintage 'Star Wars' collectibles exist because few people saved them," Sansweet added. "When people start to hoard in order to make a short-term profit, the bubbles explode as they did on comics and baseball cards."
If fans are still interested in collecting action figures, Sansweet does give some encouragement to those who find themselves with the "collector gene."
"Buy what you like," Sansweet advised. "No one can have it all. And even though we have probably 400,000 items here [at Rancho Obi-Wan], there are many things I don't own. The items fascinate me either because they look amazing, or because they're incredibly tacky. Although in the last few years I've really been concentrating on one-of-a-kind fan-made pieces and art that show true creativity, skill, and passion for the saga."
For fans wanting to see Sansweet's epic "Star Wars" collection in person, Rancho Obi-Wan offers tours to the public.