This weekend, toy collectors will swarm to the Convention Center in San Diego, in search of rare and limited edition toys. Because we all know toys are a fantastic investment! Right? Not always. Here are 15 toys and action figures that have gotten more and more worthless.
First, a disclaimer: Toy valuations are completely subjective. These things are worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them. “Fifty eBay auctions for Kenner Terminator 2 figures end unsold or averaging $5 each—and the next day, someone pays $14.99 plus shipping for one figure,” says John Kent, co-owner of Toyfinity.com, a “mostly defunct archive of toy information.” He adds, “My buddies who live out in the midwest are collecting things which my local shop can’t give away. It’s nonsensical, but part of the entire hobby.”
These are the poster-babies for once-hot collectibles that have become more and more worthless over time, says Matt, the editor of DinosaurDracula. A couple of them are still valuable, but not most of them. Adds Matt, “The thing with these dolls was that they were partially pitched towards collectors who really hadn’t seen the ups and downs with other collectibles, so they bought the hype at face value. People would invest in doubles and even triples, believing the dolls to be some sort of low-cost, low-risk stock certificates. This wasn’t even true when they were popular, and it certainly wasn’t true when the fad died: Many of those dolls barely sell for the original retail prices today — that’s IF you can find a buyer — and many of them sell for way less.”
This is a notorious example of a toy that was “orphaned by time,” says Kent (who’s also the owner of Toyfinity Toys, which is trying to bring back some classic toy lines from Ideal Toys, including Zeroids and Robo Force.)
Kent explains, “People were excited to have a Lara Croft—any Lara Croft. What they got from Toy Biz was a quick cash grab using a previous X-Men Jubilee figure as a sculpting guide (an easy old-school way to cut down development time also used by Kenner for their Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves line). Collectors put that figure away hoping it would increase in value, but superior efforts from Playmates and NECA have reduced this once-hot figure to the five dollar bin at shows.”
“Join Barbie and Ken for a special mission aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise,” read the promotional spiel for this anniversary doll set in 1996. Yep, it was Barbie’s dream starship. But even though people try to charge up to $70 for this duo on eBay, you can still find it for $10 or less. As toy expert Mike Mozart with Jeepers Media explains, “Barbie dolls usually lose lots of value.” Plus, who actually wants to own a Ken doll in a Captain Kirk uniform? On a related note, there were Elvis dolls that were basically Ken dolls dressed as Elvis, which have also plummeted in value over the years.
Back in the 80s and 90s, manufacturers saw weapons packs as “a cheap way to get another product out on the shelf in the 80s and 90s,” says Kent with Toyfinity. “As the weapons for most lines were in their own unique steel molds, they could be run and packaged without incurring the high cost of paint associated with the action figure itself.” But once the action figure line ended, you’d have a bunch of these packs just sitting on the shelves, and they’d end up getting marked down again and again, until someone finally bought them. These days, these packs go for less than the cost of shipping.
As Kent explains, toy companies learned from the surprising success of Star Wars toys that you couldn’t predict which movies would be successful at moving toys. So manufacturers started hedging their bets, licensing a huge number of movies, just in case one of them was a huge toy-selling success. And Stargate was a bad bet. These were “the first figures I saw clearanced for under a dollar” at local Toys ‘R’ Us stores, says Kent. And they still go for way less than original retail prices. This could also apply to toys based on other 1990s movies, such as Congo, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and Congo. Basically, if you want to own a million tiny Kevin Costners, you can make that happen. Also: Wild Wild West starring Will Smith! Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla! And so many other 1990s movies.
Lots of Star Wars fans had to pay through the nose to get copies of the 1980s toys they’d missed out on the first time—so lots of people believed that lightning might strike twice, says Matt with DinosaurDracula. No such luck—only some of these toys even sell for their original retail prices, and many of them sell for less.
Worse yet, some fans decided that certain Star Wars toys, which had minor “mistakes” in production, would become ultra-valuable, says Douglas Goldstein, co-creator of Robot Chicken. This list at ToplessRobot covers a couple of them: the “tan vest” Luke Skywalker toy, featuring a vest that was slightly the wrong shade of brown, and a set of Luke and Obi-Wan toys that had shorter lightsabers than the allotted space in the box. Neither of these things was really an “error,” says Goldstein. And after a brief time when you could charge up to $50 for a short-lightsaber Obi-Wan, “eventually people realized how dumb it was to care about such a snafu.” Image via Jedi Business.
Remember UltraForce? Back in the 1990s, everybody was publishing their own superhero comics, and times were good. Malibu Comics had a whole Ultraverse, featuring Prime, Hardcase, the Night Man and other characters. They even had their own cartoon—until Marvel bought the company, purely to get hold of their printing processes. Galoob put out UltraForce action figures, with each figure being a “limited edition,” meaning there was a number on the package. Each case would also contain one “rare” figure with a black card, and no other differences. Collectors, “hoping for the next Star Wars,” bought cases of these figures—but the line was discontinued before all of the characters could be released, and “they are lucky to sell for close to original retail,” Kent says.
No, not the movie with Emilio Estevez coaching a kids’ hockey team. This was Disney/Mattel’s attempt at creating a whole new franchise—featuring “crime-fighting space ducks who also played hockey,” explains Kent. Just let those words sink in. Ducks from space. Who fought crime. And played ice hockey. For a time, these figures were popular—enough that three whole series were released. But now, they “sell for basically nothing.”
The early Cabbage Patch Kids sparked a huge feeding frenzy, and briefly sold for hundreds of dollars each, says Mozart. But then they came crashing back into the dirt, and you can easily find tons of them for cheap online. Ditto Furby toys — once “scalped” for a small fortune, now dirt cheap.
This 1994 animated series featured the Universal Monsters (Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster) fighting a team of teenagers in the present day. Playmates put out a series of action figures featuring “their usual level of detail,” says Kent, “but sales were so poor that the second series needed to finish the main characters was not produced.” Nowadays, the monster figures still sell pretty well—but absolutely nobody wants to buy the action figures of the main human characters.
This line of toys was hugely popular in the 1990s, says Kent. Eventually, there were a few hundred characters available in this line, and Playmates added to the feeding frenzy by borrowing a technique from collectible commemorative plates—each character was an “edition.” And the character would have a number on his or her foot, to tell you when they were made. In the 1990s, figures with lower numbers on their feet would sell for hundreds of dollars. But then Playmates got too clever, and released three figures that were limited to just 1,701 pieces each (1701 being the serial number of the U.S.S. Enterprise.) Soon, collectors “realized they could never get those figures due to massive amounts of resellers cherry picking the figures before they could even get to the store, [and so] they were done with ‘collect em all.’ Collections were dumped and broken up, and Playmates was only in the Trek business for another few years after.” Nowadays, these figures litter the $5 bins at toy shows.
Back in the day, G.I. Joe figures were ginormous—until they were relaunched in the 1980s with smaller proportions. Those eventually wound down, after Kenner and Hasbro merged. Post-merger, the company decided to try and recharge G.I. Joe toy sales, the same way they had with the Transformers Beast Wars figures. But, says Kent, “the last thing that GI Joe fans wanted was this new direction - five inch less poseable figures with action features and [Rob] Liefeld proportions. A high quality cartoon and strong marketing program could not make it work.”
Speaking of UltraForce, the Ultraverse wasn’t the only 1990s indie comics phenomenon to spark toy lines—after Spawn became a hot property, every indie comics publisher had to have its own toys. And that included a lot of “bad girl” comics, such as Warrior Nun Areala, Double Impact, Gwynne, Hellina, and others, says Kent. Comic book stores are jam-packed with unsold boxes of these toys, waiting for a resurgence in interest in bad girl comics that may never arrive.
This James Cameron movie was one of the biggest box office smashes of all time, and it spawned a worldwide cultural phenomenon. And collectors rushed to buy the four-inch figures. But, says Kent, “the movie has slipped from the popular discussions of social media and fans,” and demand for the toys has basically collapsed. An army of Na’vi figures sits inside storage crates and basements, waiting for Cameron to release his long-awaited sequels and recharge interest in these characters. For now, only the vehicles still go for good prices, because they’re compatible with other four-inch action figures from unrelated toy lines.
Bottom line: The same bitter lessons that comic-book collectors learned in the 1990s, and trading-card game collectors learned in the late 1990s and early 2000s apply to some “hot” toys, says Matt, with DinosaurDracula. And that lesson is, “if everyone has the same idea, nobody’s gonna like the results.”