Tips for UAE action figures collectors: ‘Collect what you love and don’t worry about what the fads or trends are’
In the early 1960s, Don Levine, the creative director of toy company Hasbro, was on a mission to create a doll for boys, a game changer, of sorts, that would create the same kind of craze as Mattel’s Barbie did for girls.
The result was not a doll, but four versions of a “military figure” called GI Joe, meant to represent the armed forces of the United States. In creating this footlong figurine, Levine managed to change not only the face of the toy industry – in its first year alone, Joe made the company nearly US$17 million (Dh62.5m) – but also the world of collectible action figures.
More than 50 years after GI Joe’s much-lauded debut, action figures continue to retain their popularity. Even in our hyper-digital age, many of the original and discontinued figurines have become highly sought-after investment items, eagerly amassed by collectors around the globe.
Today’s collectibles can be broken down into two groups, explains Jordan Hembrough, former presenter of the Travel Channel’s Toy Hunter and owner of Hollywood Heroes, a New Jersey-based toy shop. So-called “modern toys” are rare promotional figures, where only a limited number exist, and can cost anything from $9 to $99 (up to Dh365). Then there are “vintage collectibles”, which are figurines that were manufactured before 1990 and can cost anything upwards of $1,000 (Dh3,673), if in good condition.
After the introduction of GI Joe, a slew of household names were immortalised in plastic, including the likes of Han Solo and Princess Leia of the Star Wars franchise, which are now exceedingly popular among the collecting community.
James Gallo, owner of The Toy Heaven in Pennsylvania, explains how collectibles referred to as “12 backs” are particularly desirable and valuable. These are figurines that came in specific packs that featured all 12 of the original Star Wars characters on the back. Although it primarily depends on condition, collectors can pay anything from $1,000 to $10,000 (up to Dh36,730) for a 12-back figure.
The popularity of Star Wars collectibles isn’t entirely surprising, given the franchise’s recent prequels and sequels. When asked whether the rise of reboots by other brands such as DC, Marvel and even Star Trek have affected collecting trends and popularity, Hembrough answers with a resounding yes.
“It is not only reintroducing collectors to these characters that were once primarily relegated to comics, but general audiences too,” says Hembrough. “Now, you have a character that can be introduced to millions of people, all over the world, whereas before, only a select number of people would know about his or her exploits in a comic or graphic novel.”
Thanks to these new cinematic releases, there is also increased demand for so-called legacy products. “Around the release of Star Trek, for example, we had customers rushing in to purchase the latest Spock figures of the legendary Leonard Nimoy. It was the same case with movies such as Star Wars, where figures of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are in great demand,” says Kishan Deepak Palija, managing director of Geekay Group MEA. The Dubai-based Geekay Group is the parent company of Geekay Games, retailer of video games, action figures and licensed merchandise; and Geek Nation, which sells comic books, movies and video games. Geekay Games has 18 outlets across the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, while Geek Nation is located in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall and Dubai’s City Walk.
But who is buying these things? Gallo says collectors tend to be men between the ages of 30 and 50. Closer to home, Palija says the standard collector in the UAE is between 14 and 50 years old, and ranges widely in nationality. The majority of buyers here is also male.
It is perhaps surprising to hear that there is still a dearth of women in the narrative, given the growing number of female comic-book collectors. Hembrough explains that although there have always been some female collectors, they have only very recently begun to play a more prominent role in the market. He attributes this, in part, to the fact that there are more women starring in leading action-hero roles.
“What’s important is the message that these new leading roles are giving to a younger generation of women. It’s giving women a powerful presence in an area once dominated by men. I know many female collectors who now attend the conventions and showcase their toys on internet groups.”
So, with upcoming movies such as Wonder Woman, and a possible Black Widow spin-off in the works, the next few years could present a change in what the average collector looks like.
Although collecting is particularly popular in the US, Europe and Japan, the UAE collectible market is also incredibly fluid, says Hembrough. “People are always looking for new ways to invest their money.” He recalls one client in the UAE who hired him to act as a “toy-buying guide” for his son. “The boy’s father would stake him money, about $100,000 [Dh367,300], to invest in toys and comics. The son eventually accumulated one of the finest collections of vintage pop culture memorabilia in the world, and currently makes a profit by buying and selling these items.”
Although rare and highly sought-after figurines can be found either in-store – Gallo recently sold a Star Wars figure for about $14,000 (Dh51,420), or floating around places like eBay, where there’s currently a Transformers action figure priced at $22,649 (Dh83,200) – auction houses have also weighed in on this niche industry. In 2003, a 1964 original Hasbro GI Joe prototype went under the hammer at Heritage Auctions and was sold to Stephen A Geppi of Baltimore for $200,000 (Dh734,600).
In December 2015, Sotheby’s held a Star Wars-themed auction, which brought in a whopping $502,202 (Dh1.8m) and was catalogued by Gallo. The 175 lots included a rare Luke Skywalker figure (only about 20 of these were made) that sold for $25,000 (Dh91,800); a 1989 figure of Boba Fett from Hungary that sold for $15,000 (Dh55,000); and a seven-multipack from The Empire Strikes Back that fetched $32,000 (Dh117,500).
Spending up to six figures on what is, essentially, a piece of plastic, might seem crazy to those not in the know. To those within the collecting community, however, it is knowing what to look for that makes it all worthwhile. “You tend to find that the more expensive stuff generally has more collector-orientated people chasing it – those who are looking specifically for that last figure they need, and they’re willing to pay up for it. This is opposed to the general collectors who are filling in holes wherever they can,” says Gallo.
“There are also a lot of people who collect the figures out of the package. These are less expensive, and typically cost up to $20 [Dh75] a figure. It’s definitely a different price point, and, sometimes, if that’s what they can afford, that’s what they buy and they enjoy that.”
Hembrough advises would-be collectors to find toys that are complete, in the box, or at least accompanied by a complete set of accessories. “These will hold the most value over time. Store them in a cool, dry environment – nothing too hot or too cold as the extreme temperatures could affect the toy and its overall composition. Remember this golden rule: your toys should live where you live.”
Yet, as serious as collecting might be, Hembrough urges those in the community to have fun. “Collect what you love and don’t worry about what the fads or trends are. And remember, collecting is a social activity, so get out there and tell others about your passion. You may be surprised to find out how many people love the same thing you do.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, October 6.
Updated: October 5, 2016 04:00 AM