Living Fanboy: The Great Star Wars Haul
My apologies to Chris Woods for paraphrasing the title of his column but this week’s article seems like a logical extension of his theme.
I have been a collector for the majority of my adult life. It is a passion that wanes and reinvents itself from time to time but never leaves me completely. Toys, specifically action figures, were one of the first items I ever really collected and one of the first lines I got into was the original Star Wars. I was ten years old when the film that jump started a worldwide phenomenon first flickered across the movie screens and I was hooked from the moment I saw it. It was several months later before the first action figures arrived on store shelves and they didn’t sit there for long. I had the majority of the toys from the first film, as well as books, trading cards, magazines, T-shirts, and anything else I could get my hands on. By the time the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, arrived, I was almost in high school and rapidly becoming too mature for toys. About half way through the merchandising for that film, I decided it was time to put aside these childish things and the large AT-AT, received as a Christmas gift from parents who had not yet recognized my new found maturity, was one of the last pieces I added to my original Star Wars collection. The release of Return of the Jedi was almost a book end to my high school years and I could barely remember the joy of buying action figures in toy stores by that point in my life.
Fortunately, I came to my senses as an adult and embraced the collecting hobby again. Like most adult collectors, this gave me an excuse to dust off my childhood toys (at least the ones that had not made a detour to firecracker city) and fill in the gaps for things I always wanted and didn’t get or never even knew existed. This lead to a common side effect of having to sell off excess items from lot purchases made to obtain rarer pieces or more favorable prices. Being a dealer is never as much fun as collecting but it does have its own set of rewards, including bringing you into contact with other collectors to share information and opinions.
A few decades ago, collecting was like the Wild West. You never knew what was going to turn up but if it wasn’t good, it was at least interesting. As more and more people became involved in the various areas of the hobby, finding vintage items became increasingly more difficult. These days, finding a true collection of anything vintage, pre-1985 in my book and the earlier the better, is a rarity on the verge of extinction. A lot of things being passed off as “collections” today are really nothing more than an ill combined conglomeration of pieces, often not even all vintage, that were clearly compiled from disparate sources after the fact. On that all too rare occasion when you discover a genuine vintage collection infused with the personality of its owner and forged over years of personally gratifying labor, it is an honor and a privilege to be appreciated.
When I first discovered that the Star Wars collection of Jacksonville resident Mike Graf was for sale, I could tell just from looking at some of the pictures that it was the real deal. Mike had grown up at a similar time as me but had a better focus on collecting science fiction items than I did. He also kept his childhood toys in a lot better condition than I did. My suspicions were confirmed on a Saturday afternoon visit to his house when he led me into a ten by fourteen foot room dedicated almost entirely to his collection. It was instantaneous information overload. I had come expecting to see a lot of vintage Star Wars pieces but I had no idea there would be choice items from other toy series as well. Shelves were lined from floor to ceiling with merchandise from the original Lucas film trilogy plus the first Star Trek film and the Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica television shows. Having been a child on a budget back in the 70’s, many of these other toys had to be passed over in favor of the more popular Star Wars ones, so it was really a treat to see these up close again. An eight foot folding table had been added in one corner just to hold all the boxes for most of the things being displayed loose and assembled. Mike even had a DVD of Star Wars playing in the background for ambiance.
Like most of the Star Wars fanatics I grew up with, Mike’s main area of purchase was the first two films. His collection included just about every piece released during these years. By Return of the Jedi, his interest was cooling off but he was still more connected than me and did buy some of the more distinct playsets like Jabba the Hut’s palace. He missed the first Sears exclusive action figure playset that included one of the rarest of all figures, a full sized blue Snaggletooth, but he wised up quickly and bought the Bespin Cloud City and Rebel Command Center playsets that followed. He also had the Sears exclusive Imperial Troop Transport that a lot of kids, like myself, intentionally avoided because it had nothing to do with the movie. While there were many treasures to be admired, the stand out piece in my mind was a radio controlled Jawa sandcrawler vehicle that not only still worked but had the original box. This was a tough toy to get back in the day and Mike told me that it took him forever to get one. He finally had to purchase it mail order because he could not find it in the stores. Unlike the land speeder that had been released a year earlier, this toy used a real radio frequency control unit and not a crappy sonic one. It is still impressive to watch this well detailed vehicle expertly traverse the kitchen floor in search of renegade droids!
The toys Mike collected from lines outside of Star Wars were nowhere near as in depth but he made some interesting choices. He had both the Draconian Marauder and Star Fighter space ships from the Mego Buck Rogers line; the latter was even still boxed. For Battlestar Galctica, he bought the first versions of the Cylon Raider and Colonial Viper ships that fired the missiles. They each had their badly detailed pilot figures and even the extra missiles, which I narrowly avoided shooting down my throat. I remember hating Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or Star Trek: The Motion Sickness as my friends and I dubbed it) when it was released and, as a result, I missed out on some pretty cool toys. Mike had the patience to assemble an impressive model of the revamped Enterprise with lights and sounds and also bought an early phaser target set similar to the Laser Tag ones that would come out a few years later. I was so impressed by the quality of these toys that I may actually try to watch the movie again some day!
Once I got a clear look at this impressive collection, all thoughts of purchasing it were forgotten and I turned twelve years old again. Mike and I spent the next couple of hours swapping stories of having grown up with the Star Wars franchise and the treasures we had discovered along the way. He told me that this room represented the end result of thirty-two years of collecting and appreciating science fiction. His love of the genre extended beyond toys and he also collected magazines, books, music and just about anything else related to it. He had reached a point in his life where he felt he had enjoyed it enough and it was time to move on to other things. I certainly respected his decision, difficult as I am sure it was to come to. When I left that day, I told him it would take me some time to digest everything I had seen and get back to him with an offer. We communicated on the phone and through E-mails a couple of times after that until I could do enough research to place a concise value on this incredible find.
Mike rejected my initial offer although he did agree with the calculations I had used to reach it. The current economic situation makes collectibles of any kind a slippery market and, as a dealer, precautions have to be taken to avoid a major financial disaster. We concluded the negotiations with Mike considering selling the collection off piece by piece and my offering to help him with it any way I could. During this process, I had also contacted my friend Byron, who is both a bigger Star Wars fan then I am (though not by much) and more knowledgeable about the collectibles. I discussed my evaluation and appraisal of the collection with him and offered him half of the purchase if it did come to pass.
A few months went by before I heard from Mike again, when he had returned to trying to sell the collection and had augmented his advertisements with some of the pricing information I had calculated for him. I was able to set up another meeting at his place and brought Byron along with me so that he could appreciate the collection first hand this time, rather than relying on my reconnaissance. He spent about an hour just quietly walking around the room, only occasionally breaking his silence to ask a question here or there. I used this time to get caught up with Mike and find out about his quest to sell the collection in the ensuing months that had ended by bringing us back together. Byron finally finished his perusal and summed it up in one statement to us, “this is a lot more stuff than I expected”!
Once I had Byron’s approval on my appraisal, we made short work of the renewed negotiations and finalized a deal that had been in the works for over four months. As a memento, Mike insisted on taking a photograph of us with the collection and we grinned liked tomb raiders and flashed the cash for the occasion. Byron and I had already agreed to make every effort to remove the collection that night, since I was leaving town for a brief vacation the following day. I left Byron as collateral and made a quick trip home to grab some boxes, my wife Cindy, and an additional truck. By the time I got back, Mike and Byron were already hard at work dissembling and boxing all the items that had been out on display for years.
Between the four of us, we finished packaging everything we could and loading it in the trucks by 11PM. It was a work night for all of us and we were rapidly running out of energy but it was still extremely hard not to go off on a tangent as we pilfered through so much of Mike’s history. By the time were done, we had cleaned him out to the bare walls; even carting away several framed posters and lithographs. Mike waved a tearful goodbye to thirty-two years of enjoyment as we mounted up our vehicles and roared out of his driveway. His part in this adventure was over but we still had another hour ahead of us just getting the stuff unloaded and safely stored away.
As you can imagine, the rushed nature of that night precluded any detailed analysis of all the incredible items in this collection. I wasn’t even present for some of the packing so I am still discovering things I had never seen as I go through the boxes. Regardless of the monetary value, finding items like the first forty issues of Starlog magazine mint in library binders is a humbling experience. The problem is resisting the temptation to spend the next three days reading them nonstop. Byron and I have poured several hours into inventorying everything and we know we have more ahead of us before we can adequately undertake any thoughts of resale but it’s not like every moment of this task hasn’t been enjoyable. It’s times like these that you have to take a moment to appreciate what it really feels like to be living Fanboy!