Vintage Star Wars toys on display

In his early days as a collector of Star Wars toys, Mr Derek Ho was shocked when a friend spent $150 on a Revenge Of The Jedi proof card – a piece of draft packaging with the original title of the 1983 film later known as Return Of The Jedi.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? You spent more than $100 on a piece of cardboard.’ I was laughing at him.”

But Mr Ho soon became a more informed collector (such proof cards are moderately rare) and, a year later, persuaded his friend to sell it to him.

“You come to realise it’s not just a piece of cardboard, that there’s a place in toy history for it,” says the 47-year-old, who works in the petrochemicals industry and has spent a six-figure sum on products related to Star Wars since the 1990s.

Mr Ho and four of his friends have put together a million-dollar showcase of 200 items from their collections. These will be on display at the Culture Cartel fair in the F1 Pit Building till tomorrow.

He estimates there are around 20 “hardcore” Star Wars vintage collectors in Singapore, part of a small but strong collecting community.

He himself has amassed thousands of products related to the Star Wars films and also collects other toys such as Care Bears, Centurions and Strawberry Shortcake. The self-described “hoarder”, who dreams of opening a toy shop one day, has had to move in with his parents temporarily as his apartment is filled with toys. These are now being transferred to a storage site.

Star Wars action figures were best-selling toys in the 1970s and 1980s and are now sought-after collectibles – often by people who grew up watching the films.

In April , a prototype model of Return Of The Jedi character Bib Fortuna went under the hammer at Britain-based Vectis Auctions for £36,000 (S$64,460).

  • Highlights to gaze at

  • Silicone mould for toy prototype 

    Now-defunct toy company Kenner launched a Micro Collection line in the early 1980s featuring 1.25-inch-tall, non-movable Star Wars characters. Before these toys were mass-produced, the creators came up with prototypes – known as “4-up hard copies” (see picture) – which were four times the size of the final toys and sometimes painted. This rare silicone mould was used to produce a resin prototype of Luke Skywalker in a Hoth outfit.

    Japanese box packaging 

    One of the most common ways of packaging Star Wars toy figures was to display a 3.75-inch toy in a blister bubble backed against a piece of cardboard. Less common are the styles created for markets outside the United States – such as this figure of protagonist Luke Skywalker in a Bespin outfit from The Empire Strikes Back (1980), presented in a compact box by Popy, a subsidiary of Japanese toy company Bandai.

    Revenge Of The Jedi proof card 

    The third instalment in the original Star Wars trilogy was originally titled Revenge Of The Jedi. Creator George Lucas is said to have changed the name of the 1983 film to Return Of The Jedi because Jedi – guardians of peace – are not supposed to seek revenge. Revenge Of The Jedi proof cards – draft versions of toy packaging with the original title – are “entry-level” collectors’ items. Some 2,500 copies (with about 50 characters) exist today.

    Toys with Singapore stickers 

    These unopened packages of Star Wars toy figures are testaments to their production and sales history: They were manufactured in Hong Kong for the now-defunct American toy company Kenner and sold in Singapore (evidenced by the $3.55 department store Metro price labels and red stickers saying: “Join the official Star Wars fan club… mail to 18 Pasir Panjang”).

    The one with bounty hunter Zuckuss was first put up for sale in Singapore and then sold in Thailand after the toys were less popular. It has a price label from Imperial, a Thai shopping mall chain.

While the value of various vintage Star Wars toys has been on the rise, the new products do not seem to be in such great demand any more.

In February and August this year, Disney reported decreases in revenue from products based on the Star Wars franchise.

Over at toy collectibles shop The Falcon’s Hangar, demand for Star Wars toys slowed in the mid-2000s. While the Waterloo Street shop focused on Star Wars toys when it was founded in 1995, it now devotes only about 20 per cent of its business to such merchandise, co-owner Calvin Koh says, adding that Marvel toys are the latest craze.

Yet the Force is still strong with the Star Wars franchise, if public response to the upcoming Star Wars movie is anything to go by. As early as Wednesday, Singapore fans were already queuing up for advance Imax tickets to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, the grand finale of the saga, which opens on Dec 19.

Mr Ho’s collector friend Gregory Fong, 46, who works in the legal industry, owns more than 1,000 toys and displays many of them in his basement “man-cave” at home. Star Wars isn’t just any old hobby, he says. “It’s a religion.”

Both men are fans of the packaging of vintage Star Wars toys.

“The modern ones have somehow lost that feel,” says Mr Ho.

He became more fascinated with pre-production materials around the early 2000s, and learnt more about them when he attended his first Star Wars Celebration convention in the United States.

He has gathered a set of materials related to a Star Wars biker scout laser pistol toy he owns, including orthographic sketches of the toy pistol and photo art that was used for the packaging design.

“I had to piece this together from four or five different sources,” he says. “That’s part of the thrill: the hunt. Putting it all together gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

Asked what advice he has for aspiring collectors, he says: “Don’t be intimidated. A lot of people have the misconception that vintage toys are expensive – but there will always be those which meet your comfort level.”

Collectors The Straits Times spoke to were reluctant to dwell on how much they had spent or the number of toys they had collected.

“You can’t really put a dollar value on memories,” says Mr Fong, who says he collects vintage toys “to revisit (my) childhood, have fun and meet like-minded people”.

A similar view was expressed by Mr Jaafar Abdul Hamid, 45, whose collection includes hundreds of 3.75-inch toy figures still in their original packaging, loose toy figures from his childhood, a test-shot prototype, as well as 12-inch figurines.

Mr Jaafar, who works in the aviation industry and is taking part in Singapore Comic Con at Marina Bay Sands this weekend, has spent a five-figure sum on his toys. But he adds: “It’s not about how many toys you have. It’s about what you like.”

Back in the 1990s, Mr Ho and Mr Fong ordered toys from American dealers over the telephone or by faxing their orders over. They also bought them from sellers in Chinatown, the Substation, a Clarke Quay flea market, as well as online sites such as eBay.

They find it harder to get the vintage items they want these days. “They are all in the hands of a few collectors,” says Mr Ho, who relies more on networking now to source for the toys.

Vintage toys that have not been removed from their packaging are worth a lot more than loose ones. According to the BBC’s Fake Britain documentary, scammers have paired original card backs and bubbles with second-hand repainted figures – resealing them and selling them as mint figures. Mr Ho and Mr Fong have been duped before.

Collector Jeffrey Koh, 46, has more than 120 vintage carded Star Wars figures, among other things.

“Everyone needs to collect something in his life,” says Mr Koh, a father of three and owner of Flabslab, a firm that produces toys.

“I like to collect toys. My wife collects shoes and bags. The ultra-rich collect cars and houses. At the end of the day, it’s about your passion.”