While you wait out the coronavirus from the relative safety of your home, your amplified boredom may motivate you to rummage through some long-forgotten spaces. In the process, you could end up stumbling upon some of your ancient childhood collectibles: Beanie Babies, Furbies, baseball cards, comic books, American Girl dolls, or in my case, a gargantuan binder of Pokémon cards.
Whatever you unearth, it can feel like striking gold — or at least, it may lead to you asking yourself, are my old toys worth anything? Stories abound on the internet about people making thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, by selling off their old, allegedly rare toys, especially if they were able to resist the urge to actually play with them (and muck them up) as a child. The reality, however, tends to be a lot less exciting.
“The short answer is, no, your 1980s toys aren’t worth millions,” says appraisal expert Jaime Corbacho. “I often feel bad for people who have toys still in boxes from their childhood. They were likely warned by some Scrooge McDuck of an adult that they shouldn’t play with them because they’d be valuable one day — all those Ruxpinian conversations and Jedi adventures lost forever.”
My colleague Brian VanHooker, an avid collector of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles memorabilia, agrees that most of our childhood collectibles, especially those buried at the bottom of our closets, are likely worth less than what we initially paid for them. He recalls coming to this conclusion while working one of his early jobs at a comic book and collectibles store: “I remember my boss saying, ‘Most comic books aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,’ which is 100 percent true and goes for pretty much all of this. If you have broken, leftover and even okay-condition stuff from when you were a kid, probably next to nothing will be valuable.”
There is a collector’s market out there, VanHooker says, “but to make a lot of money off of it — like thousands — is absurd. You might have something rare, or weird, or whatever, but the chances of you having any of that is slim. The most valuable Turtles toy I know about is a couple hundred bucks. The chances of somebody having that are low, and the chances of you having more than one thing like that, unless you’ve been actively collecting and keeping up with this shit, are really tiny. So don’t think you’re going to get rich off of it. Think of it as a yard sale.”
Now, none of this is to say that all those articles are lies (although, they can certainly be sensational at times): There are rare and expensive collectibles out there. There are also a lot of collectibles that, if you put in the time and find the right buyer, could at least be worth selling, rather than trashing. “There are a lot of pieces from childhood that are valuable,” says Lori Verderame, appraisal authority and star appraiser on Auction Kings. But she clarifies that “valuable” can mean different things to different people, saying, “If you’re a billionaire like Oprah, finding a $20,000 Beanie Baby doesn’t really do much for you.” Nonetheless, she adds, “It’s not rare for someone to be surprised by the value [of their item].”
The real trouble is figuring out the actual worth of what you have. Verderame says an old collectible needs to meet several basic criteria in order to be worth much of anything: It needs to be of good quality, made of good materials, historically impactful, and perhaps most importantly, relevant to the current market. “The market likes certain things at different times,” she explains. “The market likes Santa Claus from November 1st to January 1st. The market doesn’t care about Santa Claus in June. That’s when they like baseball.”
And the market can change suddenly, quickly thrusting a certain collectible in or out of the spotlight. As Verderame explains, “I did a TV interview about collectibles of this coronavirus era, and I said, ‘Well, there are lots of things that are going to be valuable.’ You’d be surprised that everybody’s bringing out their sewing machines, because now we’re starting to sew masks. Sewing machines weren’t valuable three months ago. Now, guess what? People are looking at vintage sewing machines.”
Some more obvious qualifications for collectibles being expensive are simply how many exist and in what condition. “There are a lot of early Barbies and action figures worth more, because they were made in smaller quantities as toy companies ascertained what sold best in the then-burgeoning market,” Corbacho explains. “An example of rarity where few have survived would be toys from the 19th century and earlier, and European toys manufactured before or during World War I and World War II. The World Wars were devastating, and not a lot of buildings, let alone toys, survived. While toys were made in significant numbers in the early 20th century, their materials (specifically in doll construction) were delicate, flimsy and simply didn’t withstand the wars and generations of owners who treated their toys like toys. A good case of this kind of rarity would be trains and toys produced by the German toy manufacturer Marklin, which was forced to discontinue models and create limited edition, export-appealing toys during wartime. Some Marklin examples sell in the six figures.” (Holy shit!)
Collectibles with a rare defect can also be worth quite a bit. “You can have a mass-produced toy that, because of its popularity, is beloved by many, and when a difference occurs in the manufacturing or packaging of this item, creating a rarity, there’s a larger market willing to compete to own this anomaly,” Corbacho says. “There’s an early Luke Skywalker action figure that commands high prices because its packaging and lightsaber construction differs from later models. Also, European or Japanese editions of famous American action figures fetch better prices. I’m actually named after the Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers. I own the Kenner doll, Jaime, which is worth about half as much as the same Jaime doll in the French Meccano packaging.”
For anyone digging random crap out of their closets, the only real way to know if you have anything of value is to run it by an appraiser, like Verderame or Corbacho, who can point you where you should sell and for how much. Verderame warns that some appraisers can be sketchy, though, especially if they also buy and sell collectibles, but she says people who get an appraisal of their old collectibles usually “end up getting their money back and then some.” So doing your research before selling or trashing is of the utmost importance if you care enough.
That said, the market for old collectibles is finicky, and you never really know what could happen. Verderame says collectors often make false claims about the worth of their items, which can add to the confusion of it all and result in people paying either more or less than the real values. “It’s not worth these big numbers until somebody pays that,” she says. “You have to look out for fraud in the market, and there’s some of that.”
On the flip side, there are also rich dudes out there who will gladly overpay to recapture their youth. “I’ve seen instances where a fairly common collectible smashes its auction estimates because multiple bidders in that auction happened to have the same nostalgia for the object,” Corbacho says. “I believe it was the great Don Draper that said, ‘It’s delicate, but potent.’ Most of us experienced childhood as a precious period of our lives. The trappings of our childhood have the power to bring us back to those halcyon days. I think it’s natural human psychology to think of these items as valuable because of the time they represent.”
As Verderame says, “Every item is a unique case,” and if you want to try to make big bucks off of your epic Pokémon card collection, you either need to find (and pay for) a trustworthy appraiser to point you in the right direction, or you can throw it up on eBay and test your luck.
Just don’t get your hopes up.