This vintage action figure set a record at auction. But your childhood toys may not be worth as much as you think

An action figure from 1979 that was never officially released in stores has become the most valuable vintage toy ever sold at auction, fetching a final bid that could buy a three-bedroom, two-bath home in many parts of the United States.

The Rocket-Firing Boba Fett action figure, modeled after the “Star Wars” bounty hunter, was purchased in Dallas by an anonymous buyer for $525,000, Heritage Auctions announced last Monday. It dethroned Barbie from the No. 1 spot she had held since 2010, when a version of the iconic doll with a necklace of real diamonds sold at a Christie’s auction for $302,500.

Pricey efforts by collectors to get their hands on specific toys are par for the course in this niche field, one that can be lucrative but also one where pricing is opaque and volatile and many of the most expensive deals are brokered privately among hobbyists.

Part of what makes almost any memorabilia market so speculative and unstable, especially one based on entertainment, is that it’s governed by sentiment and nostalgia. Those who grew up playing with the earliest action figures in the 1970s and 1980s now have the money to spend on some of the toys they had (or couldn’t have) as kids, and many hobbyists are willing to pour a lot of money into rare vintage toys.

“I have a lot more disposable income now than I did when I was collecting toys as a kid,” said Justin Caravoulias, the Action Figures & Toys consignment director at Heritage Auctions, whose own collection includes a range of G.I. Joe action figures from the 1960s to present day. “People my age have the disposable income to say, ‘I want that $100 Rambo figure, I want that $400 Hot Toys Star Wars figure or, hey, I want the $525,000 Boba Fett figure.’ So the people who have grown up with it have matured to the point where they can spend some real money on these things.”

And while that old toy box in the back of that closet full of beat-up He-Man, Batman and Barbie dolls almost certainly won’t be worth as much as the jackpot Boba Fett, adults today are increasingly gravitating toward buying toys for themselves — perhaps invigorating new collectible markets down the road.

The “Rocket Fett,” as it is sometimes called, was part of a mail-away promotion from American toy maker Kenner, which had sold popular toys from properties like “Star Wars” and “Batman.” Under the promotion, anyone who provided proof of purchasing four “Star Wars” action figures would be mailed a Boba Fett figure that had a rocket launcher on its back.

But Kenner ultimately decided to attach the plastic rocket onto the toy because it posed a choking hazard to children. The figures came with a “Note to Customers” from the company explaining the change.

While no rocket-firing toys were mailed out, a number of them were saved by Kenner employees before the company destroyed its stock. Toy dealer Brian Rachfal, who represented the seller in the Heritage auction, estimates there are about 100 rocket-firing models of various types in circulation among vintage toy collectors and hobbyists. Some have even gone as far as tracking down former Kenner employees to purchase the models they saved, a dogged determination that’s typical in many collectible markets where interpersonal deals still reign supreme.

Unlike fine art or sports memorabilia, the collectible action figure market is only a handful of decades old because action figures have only been around since the mid-1960s.

“The first action figure was G.I. Joe in 1964,” said Caravoulias. He recounted how Hasbro executive Don Levine coined the term “action figure” as a marketing tool, because “we can’t call these dolls. Boys do not want to play with ‘dolls.’”

Even today, toy experts tell CNN that action figure collectors tend to overwhelmingly be men, many in high-powered professions like finance and the entertainment industry.

The market took off in the 1970s and 1980s with properties like “Star Wars,” “Masters of the Universe” and “Transformers.” At the time, these action figures were simply that: toys meant to be played with and stored in a toy bin or the family playroom.

“Nobody saved them in the box, because why would you? You you can’t play with it while it’s in the box,” said Caravoulias. “There were very few people who are actually collecting them in this sense that we know today, as something that would be worth anything in the future.”

By the 1990s, adults driven by nostalgia began seeking out the toys they grew up with. Increased demand — coupled with the fact that it was rare to find these toys in original packaging — pushed prices for pristine-condition action figures even higher, a trend that continues today.

According to Caravoulias, the value of a piece is driven by its popularity among collectors, its condition and how common it is to find it in its original packaging. Action figures lose their collectability if they’re all saved in pristine condition.

Price is typically subject to the buyers and sellers in any given transaction. With public auctions, the bidders set the ultimate dollar value, while experts can give a range of how much a product might be worth. But even that can change depending on demand among other factors. In 2012, a similar Rocket Fett would have sold for $15,000, said Caravoulias.

Other experts note that the items with the highest price tags typically change hands in private sales.

Tom Derby, a strategic analyst at Collectible Investment Brokerage who authenticates high-end collectibles, told CNN he facilitates about $10 million in transactions per year. The largest private sale he has ever brokered was for the original wax sculpture model of the first Darth Vader action figure for just under $1.2 million.

“The problem with the private sales is you don’t know really what’s going on,” said Rachfal. “Sometimes they’re cash, sometimes they’re cash and trade. Sometimes the yields can drag out. So it’s really kind of hard to compare. It’s not necessarily apples to apples.”

Many vintage toy collectors enter the hobby out of passion and nostalgia, experts say. Caravoulias recalls laying in bed as a kid in 1985 and wishing he could buy a $5 Rambo II action figure.

As with anything collectible, at times people find it hard to put a dollar amount on a piece they’re attached to and are reluctant to part with it regardless of the potential monetary value attached. Rachfal says the showcase of his collection — which at one time included 11 Rocket-Firing Boba Fett figures — has several pieces he can’t imagine parting with.

“I don’t know what type of money a person could offer me that would not make me cringe for the rest of my life as I walked by that showcase and the pieces aren’t there,” he said. “Money doesn’t always talk in the hobby. What makes some of these pieces so desirable is because you just can’t get them.”

Those who acquire the most valuable pieces are protective of their privacy over fears of theft and to avoid being harangued by other overeager toy buyers. According to Derby, over the past four years, one buyer is a “household name” who bought the majority of the best pieces.

Caravoulias recommends people collect whatever sparks their interest, as they’re more likely to be better informed about the market if they’re invested emotionally, not just financially, in their collection. When it comes to toys, he says the safest investment are properties that have maintained their relevance for multiple generations and continue reinventing themselves, like “Star Wars” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“I think that ‘Power Rangers’ will be the next one that comes up,” Caravoulias added. “Kids played with them and adults really didn’t think to save them. There are packaged examples out there, but they’re not in collector-grade condition. And I think a lot of people will come back and want to collect what they had when they were a kid, probably in the original packaging.”

On the other hand, he cited “Beanie Babies” as “a study in what not to do,” referring to the 1990s craze over the plush toys that spurred hysteria among collectors. “Beanie Babies” were manufactured to be collectible, with a limited number of toys released for each series and some pieces that were discontinued seemingly at random. Interest plummeted after a few years, and the value of the stuffed animals likewise crashed.

“The hugest missing component of ‘Beanie Babies’ is they were collectible right from the beginning,” Caravoulias said. “They were collected because there was scarcity. And they were fun to collect. But they had no nostalgia because they were collected right off the bat.”

Even beyond rare and collectible pieces, adults are now the most lucrative cohort for the toy industry, beating out preschoolers for the first time ever. In the first quarter of 2024, those 18 and older spent more than $1.5 billion on toys for themselves, according to a report published Thursday by market research firm Circana. Nearly half of adults who bought a toy for themselves in the past 12 months cited “socialization, enjoyment, and collecting” as their motivation.

According to Circana, last year’s highest selling toy properties included “Pokémon,” “Barbie,” “Star Wars” and “Hot Wheels.” All of these properties have extensive vintage catalogues, and their enduring relevance and legacy have only propelled prices for older items in the more niche vintage toy market.

Some experts say the pandemic was a catalyst for adults’ mainstream interest in toys.

“During the pandemic, when people were flush with cash and had time to spend at home whether with their families or alone, they wanted to reconnect with the toys that made them happy as kids,” James Zahn, editor-in-chief of industry trade publication The Toy Book, told CNN.

But toy collectors by that point had already ramped up their interest. “We’re talking everything — dolls, action figures and die-cast vehicles,” he said. “Outside of collectibles, there are boardgames, Lego building sets, and trading cards, (which are extraordinarily hot again) that are also firing up adult interest.”

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