Star Wars is a money-making machine, plain and simple. It’s what enticed the executives at the pop culture factory called Disney to pony up a whopping $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm and all the properties therein — Star Wars included — in 2012. Today that astronomical amount looks like couch-cushion change, especially considering the House of Mouse is already seeing a return on their investment. When the toys for The Force Awakens were unloaded into stores on a day affectionately labelled Force Friday, the estimated merchandising gross for Disney and Lucasfilm was $5 billion in the first year alone. It should come as no surprise, as there’s always been a fervent market for Star Wars ephemera, especially on popular auction site eBay.
To untangle the booms and busts of Star Wars collectibles we spoke to collector specialist Randy Garcia, who has been buying and selling memorabilia from the galaxy far, far away for more than a decade. “I was into toys and figures as a kid and as I got older I saw a lot of them that I never kept were worth a lot of money,” he tells me. His Man of Action Figures is primarily an eBay page that touts everything from $6 Star Wars socks to $650 stormtrooper figures. It also has a storefront in Miami, Florida.
The best way to judge the value of particular Star Wars merch is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to use eBay itself. “People will come to me with things to trade or sell and we have some idea of what they’re worth,” he told me, “but we also use eBay as a resource to see what people are selling them for.”
And on eBay, there’s never a shortage of Star Wars stuff ready to be shipped off to the highest bidder. Garcia attributes the enthusiasm for memorabilia to the marketing geniuses behind the franchise always making sure it’s in the public eye. “Even though there hasn’t been a movie out in a while, there’s always some type of video game, some type of comic book, some type of TV show out, and they’ve just done a good job of keeping it going to remind you that Star Wars is still out there,” he says.
The ubiquity of Star Wars is one of its strengths, but Garcia explained to me it’s also because of its unique tendency for there to be toys of every possible character. “If someone walked in the background for two seconds, that guy’s got a name and a backstory. He’s got a figure,” he says. “They really capitalize on that.”
And he capitalizes on it too. But just because every single insignificant character has their own figure doesn’t mean collectors want it, mostly because they aren’t worth selling. “There’s no way that I’m going to compete with Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, or Walmart on that, but they’re not going to have a highly-detailed figure or a $300 statue,” he says. “That’s when the collectors will come to a store like mine because they’re not going to find it there.”
Despite the recent Force Awakens Black Series figures being the hottest selling toy coming out of Force Friday, more serious collectors still prefer to go for more unique pieces that aren’t as of-the-moment. “We got ahold of a life-size Yoda statue from a customer who I guess didn’t have a place to put it,” he says. “We put it up on eBay and we sold it recently for $1,200. It was a really nice, detailed Yoda.”
But that isn’t even typical of the most valuable items out there. Garcia says the most lucrative are the even more highly detailed pieces from Sideshow Collectibles, a manufacturer that specializes in pop culture franchises. “They do highly-detailed sixth-scale figures, quarter-scale statues, half-scale statues, and full-sized statues or busts,” he says. “We sold a half-scale Darth Maul statue with real fabric and a light-up lightsaber. If I remember correctly it was $2,000 retail.”
But sellers are quick to point out that the marketplace runs the gamut. That Darth Maul statue ain’t exactly for the rookie collector. And even if the big chains like Walmart cut into the value of what’s being bought and sold, Garcia says it’s still essential in a semi-symbiotic sort of way. “Anybody can spend $10 or $25 and build a nice collection,” he says. Those are the gateway purchases to the high-end items that places like Man of Action sells.
Through all this, Garcia accepts what many see as blatant commercialization, that the movies are somehow secondary to the deluge of items to buy. “My favorite thing as a kid was G.I. Joe, and basically if you watch a G.I. Joe episode it was a 30-minute commercial to sell the toys,” Garcia says. “I guess we’ve got to criticize ourselves because we’re the ones buying it, right? Nobody is forcing us to buy all this stuff. A lot of people are buying it because they think it’ll be worth money.”
It’s a truth at the heart of any collector’s item. “Some people are buying it for their kid, but if there wasn’t a market for it we wouldn’t be doing it,” Garcia told me. And with something as massively popular and self-perpetuating as Star Wars, the reason for buying and selling is simple. “There’s a lot of movies out there and a lot of merchandise,” he says, “but nobody does those kinds of numbers.”