Films, TV Up Value for Collectible Toys

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Toy franchises that had their heyday years ago are enjoying renewed interest from buyers young and old thanks to popular movies and television shows.

And while some toy lines still have new products on store shelves at big-box retailers, specialty shops that sell the vintage lines from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s are seeing more collectors looking for the originals. The first-generation Transformers that ran from 1984 to 1993 have been especially popular since the start of the film series in 2007 and TV shows like “The Toys That Made Us” on Netflix.

“Those are the hottest items on the market,” says Brian Orfin, owner of Nowhere Toys in Niles. “I can’t even keep them in.”

Values of other toys featured on the Netflix series, such as the original Masters of the Universe line that ran throughout most of the 1980s, are increasing to where they aren’t always the most affordable, says Rick Fusselman, co-owner of Time Capsule Toys in Girard. Values reach $1,000 or more for an item that’s in mint condition in its original packaging, or “on the card.” But that hasn’t stopped new collectors from entering the market.

“We have a 13-year-old kid who comes in buying Masters of the Universe toys,” he says. “Now people are jumping on board with the ’90s stuff because it isn’t crazy-priced yet.”

But with “The Toys That Made Us” announcing future episodes on the Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy lines, “the vintage stuff from the ’90s is already slowly starting to climb,” Fusselman notes.

Since moving Time Capsule Toys in March to 1 North Market St., Girard, sales are up 40% over this time last year. The store opened on Small Business Saturday in 2017, and Fusselman says business is starting to pick up with the holiday shopping season approaching. This year, he’s offering discounts during the week leading up to Small Business Saturday on Nov. 24.

Toy and hobby e-commerce retail sales in the United States have increased steadily since 2013, with sales estimated around $19.6 billion this year, Statista reports.

Determining demand typically requires vintage toy retailers like Fusselman and Orfin to attend toy shows, research auction websites and maintain a customer base of reliable buyers. Demand, rareness and condition determine the value of a toy and whether a shop owner will stock it.

Since opening Nowhere Toys in 1998, Orfin has developed a list of customers that he contacts directly for items that they have expressed interest in, he says. Almost all of his customers are collectors, so Orfin has to be particular about what he stocks in his store and online, he says. Items cannot be heavily played with or broken.

“When the stuff’s in poor condition, collectors don’t want it,” he says. “They want stuff that looks like it came right off the store shelf.”

Items still in a box may get passed over or will fetch a lower price if they are smoke-damaged. “It’s got to be clean or collectors shy away from it and they’ll hold off and wait until they can find that particular item in mint condition,” he says.

Even a loose toy – one without original packaging – can still command a high price if demand is high enough. A loose Millennium Falcon from the 1979 Star Wars line can be worth up to $285, depending on its condition, according to ToyWorth.com. Not bad for a toy that originally retailed at $24.77.

So why do collectors pay so much more for a toy? Ultimately, to recapture their childhood, Orfin says, whether that means owning an item they never had when they were younger or one that was lost but still retains sentimental value, he says.

“They want to go back to somewhere that was pure and fun. So they’ll surround themselves with things that they remember,” he says.

As much a collector as he is a business owner, Orfin keeps one of his prized possessions locked in a glass case – a ride-on, pedal Star Wars “speeder bike” from the 1983 film “Return of the Jedi.” It was awarded as a grand prize for a contest hosted by the former Lionel Kiddie City toy store. After years of research, Orfin found an owner in Allentown, Pa. He declines to say what he paid.

“This is one of the rarest items I’ve ever owned Star Wars-related,” he says. “This is one of 12 known to exist.”

Along with toys, Orfin collects Mahoning Valley Scrappers memorabilia for his in-store Scrappers museum. His collection includes game-worn jerseys from Victor Martinez and Francisco Lindor – current Cleveland Indians shortstop – as well as showcases stocked with autographed baseballs and bats.

Time Capsule’s Fusselman had one of his rarest finds in a shoebox full of loose G.I. Joe action figures – the so-called “Wonder Bread He-Man.” The toy was considered a hoax when one surfaced in the 1990s because Mattel, the toy’s manufacturer, had no knowledge of the action figure or of any mail-in promotion with Wonder Bread. The figure Fusselman found was loose and played with, but the find increased the buyer’s haul by a few hundred dollars, he says.

“We’ve had some crazy stuff walk through the door,” he says. “We constantly post online what we get in. And that’s what drives people to come here.”

Both Fusselman and Orfin agree that building inventory is the hardest part of the job. Vintage toy retailers rely solely on people looking to sell what they own. It’s why much of their advertising focuses on buying toys rather than selling, they say.

Fusselman advertises on social media and in newspapers, and attends toys shows as often as possible, he says. Time Capsule will host its own toy show, Toyhio, Feb. 9 at the Metroplex Expo Center in Girard.

“You just have to keep chugging along,” he says. “You can’t be lazy with it. You have to be the best option for these people.”

In addition, more people try to sell things on their own through eBay and Amazon rather than sell their collection to an established retailer, Orfin says. The latter is best, he notes, because long-standing sellers have better online reputations and can list items at higher prices, which ensures sellers get more money for their collections. Orfin started his business in 1998.

“For guys like us that have a good reputation, [collectors] are going to come to me first,” he says.

A stronger economy means fewer people are parting with their collections as well, he says. Whereas people sold their collections to help pay bills during the Great Recession, now would-be sellers are hanging onto their collections and are even looking to buy.

“When the economy’s good, people don’t need to sell,” he says. “It’s just really difficult to maintain and keep new items coming in. I’m literally at this seven days a week, 364 days a year. I don’t work on Christmas.”

Surprisingly, one toy brand not in demand is Barbie. Although the 59-year-old Mattel Inc. doll is among the best-selling toys in history, few of the vintage dolls command high prices. In mint condition, the original 1959 doll still has an estimated value of $8,000, although one sold at auction for more than $27,000.

Other Barbies typically listed as “most expensive” are special one-off dolls produced in partnership with jewelry and fashion designers and sold at auction. The Stefano Canturi Barbie featured a Cubism-style necklace made by the jewelry designer that has a rare emerald-cut, one-carat Australian pink diamond surrounded by several three-carat white diamonds. Originally valued at about $632,000, it sold at auction in 2010 for $302,500 to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

The 1996 Pink Splendor Barbie depreciated in value from its original retail price of $900. In 2016, Good Housekeeping reported the doll can be found on Amazon for $339.

Some parents who saw how valuable the original Barbie was purchased specialty Barbies, such as the annual Happy Holidays Barbie, and kept the dolls in the box hoping for a big payday, Fusselman says. This saturated the market, driving down demand and the doll’s value, he says. While the first Happy Holidays Barbie from 1988 is available for purchase at Amazon for $279, current eBay auctions for the doll range up to $89.

So-called “girls toys” aren’t as desirable as the ones boys played with because, ironically, girls kept their toys in better condition, Fusselman says. So, while girls’ toys are just as old, they aren’t as rare, he says.

“Girls took care of their stuff and boys destroyed theirs,” he says. “That’s why boys’ stuff is much harder to get.”

The one girl toy worth something is the original Polly Pocket line by England’s Bluebird Toys from 1989 until 1998, before it was purchased by Mattel, he says. He has seen mint condition Jewel Secrets playsets from 1997 valued anywhere from $1,500 to $2,100. The popular palm-sized Polly Pocket sets still sealed can sell for up to $200, he says.

“It’s hard to find. If you do find it, most times it’s missing pieces,” Fusselman says. “The pieces are so small that they got sucked up in the vacuum cleaners. If you have those sealed, they’re making crazy money.”

While sales are strong today, there is growing concern that there might not be a vintage toy industry in 10 to 15 years, Orfin says. As sales of video games and digital toys continue to increase, it has created a change in the very nature of applying value to old toys, he says.

“It used to be that the older a toy is, the more valuable it is,” Orfin says. “Not anymore.”

Toys from the 1940s and ’50s that used to be considered collector’s items are now decreasing in value as the adults who collected them get older. The same will eventually happen to toys from the ’80s and ’90s, he says.

“You’ve got to have young blood in this or it dies,” he says, adding that vintage video games will become the “next big thing.”

Pictured: At Nowhere Toys, Brian Orfin stocks a wide assortment of Funko Pop! figurines to bring new customers into his vintage toy shop.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.