Monday, 23 December 2013

Star Wars original action figures – and how the box is worth more than the toys

The first dozen Star Wars action figures from Kenner

Thirty-six years ago this week, thousands of American children received an empty box for Christmas. 

It wasn't that they had displeased Santa. It was just that the year's hottest toys – Star Wars action figures – hadn't been manufactured yet.

Before the film's release, George Lucas and his marketing man Charles Lippincott had persuaded Kenner to buy the licence to produce Star Wars toys   but action figures had not originally formed part of Kenner's plan. That May, the company had unexpectedly found itself holding just about the most lucrative toy licensing deal in history.  But producing action figures was a lengthy process and Kenner could not get them into the shops in time for Christmas, seven months after the film's release.  Instead, it hit on the idea of selling an "early bird collector's pack", which contained nothing but a display stand and a certificate guaranteeing that the figures would be sent out by mail a couple of months later.  Such was the power of Star Wars that plenty of people were still happy to hand over their money.  And for anyone who has held onto it for the intervening 36 years, it must be the most valuable empty box ever.

The most valuable empty box in the world?
The Star Wars early bird collector's pack from 1977
Despite being a madly enthusiastic first generation Star Wars fan, I have to admit that I never owned a Star Wars figure.  And I didn't feel bad about it at the time.

Why didn't I own any?  Well, for one thing, they were expensive, retailing at 99 pence when released on the UK by Palitoy. It would have taken me forty weeks' pocket money to just to collect the principal good guys, and I wouldn't have been able to get much of a space battle going before a year was out.

The Palitoy Princess Leia figure from
the valuable collection of that
anonymous grandmother
in Flintshire, Wales
What's more, I just wasn't impressed by them.  For one thing, they were not exactly dead ringers for the characters we had seen on screen.  Artoo didn't have a middle leg, Princess Leia wore some sort of trouser suit, Obi-Wan Kenobi had a stiff cape, and they all looked sort of arthritic.

I also thought they were too small.  I was used to 12-inch figures like Action Man, the 1970s Lone Ranger toys or the Six Million Dollar Man. But the Star Wars figures were only four inches tall.  As it turned out, their smallness was a key factor in their subsequent success, because they were easy to take to school and swap, and the accompanying spaceships and vehicles could be kept to manageable dimensions. Not for the first time, I had failed to spot a runaway success when I saw one.

Those of us who of us who didn’t buy the action figures were, of course, unaware that we were passing up a great investment opportunity.  The value of Star Wars collectibles has long since parted company with sanity.   

As an example of how vastly the prices of Star Wars figures were to inflate, consider the stories published in 2003 about a grandmother from Flintshire, Wales.  She had bought all the figures for her grandson in 1978 but kept a complete spare set.  Those perfectly preserved boxed figures sold at auction for just over £10,000.  Luke and Chewbacca fetched £1,162 each.

Of course, it was the fact that they were still in the packaging that made all the difference.  The key point about toys is that, apparently, you're not supposed to take them out and play with them.   A shop near me has been selling a 1978 Chewbacca, without the packaging, for £8 – which suggests that while the toy is worth £8, the box is worth £1,154.


John White said...

Happy Christmas Darren.
This is one of a couple of sites that I regularly check for new content ;) Seriously.

I got my first 3 figures form Santa on Xmas 1978 - I think. After nearly a year of dreamily gazing at the funny looking illustration in Star Wars Weekly 2 or 3 for the competition in which they were a prize!

I got R2, the Tusken Raider and best of all: the Stormtrooper! All Xmas I kept them by the bed so they were the first magical thing from another Universe that I saw when I opened my eyes. The bedspread doubled for the Tattooine dunes and rocks.

You're right, they were expensive - for something so small [more profit I suppose]. I was so deperate for Star Wars fifures that my German helmeted Action Man became Darth Vader and my Maskatron became Han Solo. I adjusted the custumes with permanent markers. I also made a landspeeder, TIE fighter and X-Wing from cardboard - necessity o sthe mother of invention and creativity!

Oh, happy times indeed.

steve said...

I got the empty box for Christmas that year. I can remember the day when that figures actually showed up in the mail. Not sure exactly what the date was but it had to be April or so of 1978. I certainly understand not buying the figures because of cost. But hard to imagine any young kid who was a fan back then not owning any figures. Hell, I even got caught stealing them in a JC Penney department store in 1979. Me and my friend went on like a stealing spree. We hit about 4 stores that day. The final one (only final cause we got caught) was the JC Penney. We brought the figures into the bathroom to remove them from packaging and then hide them in our pants. When we left the bathroom the store security was there to grab us. Not kidding, we were put in separate rooms and the two security guards played essentially good cop/bad cop with us each. We were let go when my mom arrived and told we were banned from JC Penney. I think we were 9 years-old. My friend got in so much trouble when we got home he started giving his figures away. I didn't get in as much trouble. My parents kind of felt I had learned my lesson after some yelling at me (I did.) But it's fun to reminisce about it now....