The Empire Strikes Gold: Star Wars And The Art Of Popular Culture

Starwars.com Art Awakens. Art by DKNG.

Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars? The first time you heard John Williams’ stirring score and read that famous opening scroll? That franchise has spawned one of the largest and most loyal groups of fans ever. It has helped to draw “nerd culture” into the mainstream, making spaceships and aliens and lightsabers cool. Even its flaws are iconic–you probably wouldn’t know what a parsec is without Han Solo’s nonsensical boast.

Star Wars ignited a merchandise frenzy, with posters and apparel and action figures and toys and Legos and plates and mugs and everything else you could slap a logo or an image on. You could live in an entire Darth Vader-themed house if you were dedicated to the cause (not that we’ve looked into it or anything). Some of those items were rare and have now become extremely valuable. At the end of 2015, for example, a lot of Star Wars memorabilia sold for a cool $500,000 at Sotheby’s.

How To Spend Half A Million Dollars On Toys

An action figure costs less than $20, many less than $10. At that retail price, Sotheby’s would have had to sell tens of thousands of figures to come out at half a million dollars. However, this sale (called “Return Of The NIGO”) involved just a few figurines. One set of 7 figures from “The Empire Strikes Back” sold for more than $30,000. A single Luke Skywalker figure with a defective lightsaber sold for $25,000–only 20 were made before the defect was discovered and the manufacturer stopped production. What makes these toys so valuable?

It’s obviously not a casual purchase. It seems like people buy collectibles for one of two reasons: as an investment (like Beanie Babies) or out of love. Buying a collectible in the hopes that you’ll turn a profit is risky, just like buying a painting in the hopes that the artist will one day become famous and you’ll be able to sell it for a huge gain. It’s like any other speculative investment and people will continue to do it with every fad that passes through.

Warhol Stormtrooper by Tom Mclean. Oct 1, 2015.
Warhol Stormtrooper
by Tom Mclean. Oct 1, 2015.

Things get more interesting, however, if you think about these pop culture purchases as acts of love and dedication. People will wait in line for hours to be the first to see a new movie or buy a new Star Wars game. People have Star Wars logos and characters tattooed onto their bodies. People have Star Wars-themed weddings. Of course, Star Wars isn’t alone–talk to the Doctor Who or Star Trek or Harry Potter fans.

At least some of the value of those toys Sotheby’s sold comes from the fact that Star Wars has so deeply impacted so many people. We love the characters, we love the story, and we love the place that it holds in our lives. We are the ones who assign those values to the merchandise and memorabilia.

Pop Culture Pervasion

Newsweek_StarWars_Art
Newsweek Magazine April 1966. Cover Art by Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein

Whatever it is that happens when a given bit of pop culture blows up into a new axis of the cultural gestalt, it increases the value of action figures and other memorabilia by orders of magnitude. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to determine when that’s going to happen–if you’ve figured out a magic formula to pick the next Star Wars, please let us know. So, what does that mean for your collection? Simply that you should collect what you love. Maybe what you love will hit it big. Maybe it won’t, but you’ll still have pieces that you care about rather than a bunch of speculative failures (looking at you, Beanie Babies). It may make it harder to strike it rich betting on pop culture, but we think it’s a good thing overall. The value comes from the love, not the other way around.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that there’s a new Star Wars movie out. If you haven’t seen it, do that. There are no spoilers here, you should just see it because it’s a delight and because there’s no way you’re going to avoid spoilers forever. And if you love Star Wars, now might be a good time to stock up on some merch. Maybe one day your collection will be setting records at Sotheby’s, but in the meantime you can always just enjoy your toys.

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