Cover Story: Investing in the Force

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 3, 2017 - July 09, 2017.
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Haron Alrasyid Nawi was six years old when he first saw The Empire Strikes Back — the second instalment in the original Star Wars trilogy. That encounter with the Force triggered what would become a lifelong passion for collecting memorabilia of the epic space opera. Today, he owns hundreds of Star Wars collectibles, some of which can fetch more than three times their value.

“It felt like an out-of-body experience. I had just seen the greatest film of all time and I wanted the action figures badly so that I could re-enact the scenes and intergalactic experience,” says Haron, who is a brand adviser for an oil and gas company.  

“I would save my daily allowance and buy a Star Wars toy, which sold for RM3.90 at Cold Storage, at the end of the week. I did this until I had collected the entire set of action figures I wanted.

“I played with my toys, so they are rather weathered. I even put my Han Solo action figure in the freezer to recreate the scene in which the character was placed in a carbon-freezing chamber. In hindsight, if I had kept the toys in pristine condition, they would be worth thousands of ringgit.”

That, however, is just a conservative estimate. A rare 3¾-inch plastic action figure of bounty hunter Boba Fett, which was still in its original card packaging, was sold for a whopping £21,000 (RM114,843) at an auction held by Vectis Auctions Ltd in the UK last year.

The action figure had a pre-sale estimate of £4,000 to £5,000. It was considered unique as it was made by French toy manufacturer Meccano, instead of US manufacturer Kenner.

Last month, at a Vectis auction held in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the intergalactic saga, another rare Star Wars action figure broke the world record after selling for nearly £22,000. The vintage Jawa with vinyl cape, made by UK toy manufacturer Palitoy, had a pre-sale estimate of £8,000 to £10,000.

Kathy Taylor, a valuer for Vectis, the leading auction specialists for collectible toys, says people are willing to pay such extraordinary prices for the increasingly desirable action figures because of their love for the films’ storyline and a sense of nostalgia.

“There is a finite amount, particularly of shop-stock quality vintage toys. The packaging plays a big part as the cardboard and plastic used to encase the toys were never meant to endure the passage of time,” she says.

“Back in 1977, Star Wars was not the global phenomenon it is today. There were fewer toys and collectibles produced, and they were aimed at children. Most children opened up the toys, threw the packaging away and played with their contents. Nowadays, many of the products are aimed at adult collectors who will never open the packaging or play with the toys.”

According to Taylor, many of the 3¾-inch action figures that are selling for thousands of pounds today — if still in their mint condition — were sold for little more than a £1 on their original release.

Star Wars (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope) was made with a US$11 million budget in 1977. It was an instant box office success, grossing US$775 million worldwide. This was followed by The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi.

To date, eight Star Wars films have been released, two are in the making and two more in pre-production stages. According to Fortune magazine in 2015, the total revenue from toy licensing linked to Star Wars since 1978 was estimated at US$12 billion.

With the release of the prequel and sequel trilogies, the value of vintage Star Wars toys increased more than 30% in 2015, says UK-based The Telegraph. The prices of Star Wars memorabilia surged even higher after The Walt Disney Studios bought Lucasfilm Ltd — George Lucas’ film production company that created the Star Wars franchise — for US$4 billion in 2012, says Taylor.

“Following the Disney buyout of the Star Wars franchise and the release of a new series of Star Wars films, the prices of vintage memorabilia have soared. There are older collectors who want the vintage products — a passion for toy collectibles and associated products can be a sound investment,” she says.

“Also many younger collectors are finding Star Wars to be almost a way of life, with the interaction available on social media and many opportunities to costume play (commonly known as cosplay) at conventions.”

Taylor says Vectis’ May 25 auction turned into “a bit of a Jawa fest” as two rare action figures of the junkyard traders from the planet Tatooine sold for £9,000 and £5,280. “The Kenner Star Wars vintage vinyl-caped Jawa AFA Archival Graded C80 B85 F85 85NM+, with a pre-sale estimate of £6,000, sold for £9,000.

“The Palitoy Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Jawa vintage 3¾-inch figure, very near mint to mint, within excellent to excellent Plus (pair of creases from the manufacturing process to left and right stem bases, very slight surface rubs, pair of regular-shaped circular indents to bubble crease, probably factory formed) bubble, upon good (edge wear, surface scuffs and indents, creasing to bottom right corner) 45A punched card back, with a pre-sale estimate of £1,500, sold for £5,280.

“A prototype unpainted L-slot Rocket-Firing Boba Fett 3¾-inch vintage figure with authentic four-sided missile, Action Figure Authority authenticated and encased on Dec 12, 2003, signed by Thomas H Derby IV, Chris Georgoulias, Chris Fawcett and Brian Semling, sold for £15,000.”

Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club honorary secretary Sanjiv Indran says the toys with double telescoping lightsabers made by Kenner are also vintage pieces that are in demand. The toy manufacturer underwent a series of mergers before being taken over by Hasbro.

In many cases, the vintage items sold at auctions in the US and the UK were scored at garage sales or found in storage. “In 1977, when the first movie came out, they did not know that Star Wars would be a phenomenon. They did not even plan for a Christmas release. But many children just watched the movie and wanted action figures, but there were none made,” says Sanjiv, who is president of Engineers Without Borders Malaysia.

“So, Kenner made an Early Bird package — a cardboard carton without any action figures — and told children that if they bought the carton and waited until February 1978, they could send it back with proof of purchase and have the action figures shipped to them. The Early Bird sets sold out.

“The first 12 action figures that came out in those lines are among those that fetch the highest prices. Some of them, like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, had double telescoping lightsabers — a feature that Kenner discontinued as soon as the first line was out as the parts were so thin that they broke off easily.

“So, in the subsequent run of the characters, there was only a single telescoping lightsaber. Trying to find that double telescoping part is costly because it is that rare.”

A double telescoping lightsaber can be recognised by its much longer tip.

 

What to do with your vintage toys

What should you do if you are sitting on a treasure trove of vintage Star Wars merchandise? Vectis’ website, www.vectis.co.uk, carries details of every auction, including prices, it has held in the past two decades. This can be a useful resource for identifying products and studying market trends.

“In the past, Vectis sold a Star Wars pencil sharpener for more than £200 and a plastic carrier bag with a Palitoy Star Wars logo on it for £240.  The collector is interested in everything, from the history of the toys — which includes Palitoy factory paperwork — to the vast selection of collectibles, which encompasses toys, film props, posters, images, clothing and more. This is not just a UK phenomenon. On auction day, our telephone and live internet bidders come from all corners of the globe,” says Taylor.

As a die-hard fan, Haron hesitates to put a price on his collection, which comprises mostly of 3¾-inch action figures and spaceship playsets. He is not one to part with his collectibles, unless he has more than one of a particular item.

“The ones that I had as a child were given to my nephews after I left for the UK, but I took them back when they lost interest in the toys. I had a diorama made of a scene from The Empire Strikes Back, using pieces I salvaged from my nephew. The pieces were not in pristine condition, so I got a modeller to repaint the figures and I build the diorama with them,” says Haron.

Having realised the gains that could come from keeping toys in their best condition, he now keeps his prized collectibles in their original packaging. In the event that he has to sell them, he knows that they would fetch a fortune.

“I went to boarding school at 12 and everything was put into storage. I forgot about Star Wars until I went to university in the UK in 1997. It was also the 20th anniversary of Star Wars and George Lucas had the original saga digitally enhanced,” says Haron.

“The movies were shown in cinemas again and new versions of the merchandise were released. I had more money then and started buying the toys for the purpose of collecting. I still keep the best ones in mint condition — they are all sealed and inside their carded packaging.”

According to Haron, these toys cost more than RM20 each when they were sold in 1997. Now, they could be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of ringgit.

“Hasbro came out with characters in red carded packaging after the release of the prequel trilogy. In keeping up with the times, it also provided a voice chip, which had a pre-recorded dialogue from the films,” says Haron.

“However, fans needed to get a reader so when the chip is scanned, you can hear the dialogue. But it did not catch on because the reader was so expensive that many could not afford it.”

Taylor says keep all receipts and proof of provenance safe with the toys. She adds that it is best to store them away from sunlight in a controlled climate.

 

The value of newer toys

Haron has collected the entire series of 3¾-inch action figures for every movie released since 1997. He carefully stores them in custom-built storage units.

Although these toys are not as popular as those linked to the original trilogy, he hopes they will eventually rise in value as the result of the movies’ ever-growing cult following. This can be seen in the growing number of applications to join the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club, which was formed in December 2011. The club currently has 900 regular members and 325 junior members.

The club’s treasurer Sean Lee says while the new toys may not have that sense of nostalgia attached to them, they do appreciate a fair bit, considering the growing fan base, limited quantities made and the fact that they are more affordable for those looking to collect them for the purpose of investment.

“Essentially, most people collect Star Wars toys because they like them. I do the same … I take them on roadshows to display them, just to share my passion with other collectors. You can still find collectors who have toys that were released in 1978 and 1979,” says Lee, who runs an HR consulting firm.

“Some sell their toys after a while. But hardened and seasoned collectors do not buy to sell just yet. The value of the toys does go up and eventually, they become an inheritance and more than just action figures. For these people, the value increases as they hold on to their toys.”

Lee, who is a collector himself, owns a big Millennium Falcon manufactured by Hasbro. He bought it on the secondary market for RM800 in 2014. He says he were to sell the collectible today, it would fetch RM1,800 to RM2,000. The Millennium Falcon is among the most recognisable spaceships in the Star Wars universe.

Sanjiv says vintage toys are more expensive because they are usually bought by adults who had watched the movies when they were children and are keen relive a part of their childhood. This is something younger fans may not be able to relate to.

“For younger fans, the vintage toys would not mean as much as the Lego bricks they play with, which are already so expensive today. I can only imagine what the value of Lego will be in the future, when the children of today are in their thirties or forties,” he says.

Lego is one of the companies with the licence to produce Star Wars merchandise. According to Sanjiv, a 5,000-piece Lego Millennium Falcon that is part of the toy maker’s Ultimate Collector’s Series (UCS) was sold for US$500 at toy stores in 2007. But last December, it sold for US$5,000 on the secondary market. Fan sites suggest that Lego has plans to reissue the Millennium Falcon, priced at €699.99, in October.

Some of the most wanted Star Wars toys include the enhanced model spaceships and characters from the latest movies such as Kylo Ren, Rey and the BB-8 droid, says Sanjiv.

 

Making the right choice

When investing in collectibles, one should heed the advice of legendary Jedi Master Yoda — “Patience you must have, my young padawan.” Toy collector Shakib Abdul Hamid says, like all asset classes, the value of collectibles can rise and fall. The key is to understand the market and not be caught up in the storm.

Shakib, who was investing in stocks until 2015, turned to trading all kinds of limited edition action figures when the financial market failed to provide the desired returns. “Bursa Malaysia was not doing well. All my investments were stuck. I had to look for something else to invest in, so I invested in toys,” he says.

Shakib, who works in the renewable energy sector, has since sold more than 300 Star Wars items, including action figures and props. When it comes to buying memorabilia, he recommends two methods.

The first is to pre-order new items, which are cheaper than buying at retail price. “When you pre-order an item that costs RM500, you should order, say, five. The moment the toys are no longer available on the shelves, you can sell four of yours for RM600 each and keep one for yourself. So, you earn a profit of RM400, which covers about 75% of your initial investment,” says Shakib.

“The second is to buy specific characters, which are in demand. But you need to have an eye for this and the ability to speculate which action figures will do well on the secondary market.”

For example, Hasbro released the Star Wars Black Series in 2013 and made an action figure called Darth Maul, who had appeared in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, which sold for RM90. “I bought a few and managed to sell them to clients overseas, mostly in the US, for RM500 last year,” says Shakib.  

“Hasbro also came up with three versions of Princess Leia, but her action figures did not do well in any retail market. These are toys that we collectors call shelf warmers — you can get them really cheap at one point. But when Carrie Fisher died last year, their value shot up 300%.”

It is also wise to stick to limited edition releases, he says. Hasbro toys are less valuable than those made by Japanese toy maker Bandai, for example.

“Hasbro is a multinational corporation, so its toys are easily available. With Bandai, when it makes Star Wars toys, they are made in limited quantities. For instance, Luke Skywalker in a black suit from The Return of the Jedi, which Bandai only made a few thousand of, sold for RM180 when it was released in 2014. But now, it is selling for RM360,” says Shakib.

“Hasbro, like Lego, has production runs that last two to three years, so you can take your time to buying its toys. But companies like Bandai have production runs of about six months.”

Shakib recommends Lego’s Star Wars merchandise. He says the brick maker’s UCS series is among the most wanted toys at the moment. “Lego only comes out with three or four designs a year for its UCS series and one costs about RM800 to RM3,000. The Death Star, for example, is about RM2,500.”

Is investing in collectibles risky? That depends, says Shakib. “If you ask a person who has never invested in property, he will say it is risky. But someone who invests regularly will say it is pretty good investment.

“You just need to know where, when and how much to buy. It is the same thing with toys. The key here is to know what you want to invest in, what the right price is and when is the right time to sell.”

One thing to watch out for when investing in new collectibles, as opposed to hunting down vintage items, is reissues by the toy manufacturers as they “kill” the value of the toy, say Shakib. “Before Lego announced that it would be reissuing the Millennium Falcon, the first version of the spaceship was selling for about RM36,000 online. But with the reissue, it will go back to the price you bought it for. Just like the stock market, you have to know that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

“With vintage Star Wars toys being so unaffordable and so rare, this is a good way to go. Also the technology of making these toys has advanced a lot. The vintage toys do not have many points of articulation — they are just straight toys made for children. Nowadays, people are drawn to action poses. But with vintage, you cannot do that. Toys are now sculpted using 3D printers.”

Shakib recommends looking out for toys made by Hasbro, Bandai, Kaiyodo (which makes revoltech figures), Medicom Toys, Sideshow Collectibles and Lego. He stresses that the highest prices are for toys kept in mint condition, preferably still in their original packaging.

“In toy collecting, we have a scale of 1 to 10 to measure the condition of the merchandise. If it goes below 9, you can already negotiate the purchase price,” he says.

If a seller indicates that the toy is between 10 and 9, the toy and its packaging are usually in mint condition. For toys that are 8 and below, it could be an indicator that they had been on display or played with, says Shakib.

He advises buyers to inspect the merchandise closely to ensure that parts such as weapons are included. These toys may not fetch the highest value on the secondary market, compared with those that are kept in their original packaging. But if they are limited editions, the prices may not be too far off from the estimates for those in their original boxes.

Shakib’s advice for aspiring collectors is to buy what they love. “It is a matter of knowing what to get. For Star Wars, most people like toys associated with the first trilogy,” he says. That way, the collection will always have intrinsic value, he believes.

With the advent of e-commerce site, these toys can be purchased from just about anywhere. Most collectors get their collectibles from eBay, Amazon or Facebook groups such as Star Wars Collectibles For Sale. Some of the local platforms include a Facebook group called Nar Shaddaa — named after the large criminal underworld dominated by bounty hunters and Hutt crime lords in the Star Wars movies.