I was sitting in my Florida hotel room last week preparing for the onslaught that would be Star Wars Celebration VI when an ad came on for a new Travel Channel series called Toy Hunter. The show follows host Jordan Hembrough, founder and owner of Hollywood Heroes, as he checks out fan collections in a never-ending hunt for the rare, the obscure, and he one-of-a-kind.
In a random twist, I received an email pitch just hours later offering me the opportunity to chat with Hembrough at his Hollywood Heroes booth on the show floor at Celebration. Intrigued by the idea of this sort of toy-focused take on Antiques Roadshow, I immediately said yes and set a time to chat.
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There on the crowded floor of the Orange County Convention Center, surrounded by hundreds of people dressed in outfits that mirror our favorite Star Wars action figures, Hembrough laid out for me exactly where his passion comes from.
"I'm really enthusiastic about everything I find," he said. "I truly have a love for the toys, but more importantly I have a love for the people who collect this stuff. We've all got this common bond about these toys that we grew up with."
"Everyone has a favorite toy. I don't care how old you are, or what job you're in right now, or how much you're making... we were all kids, we all had toys, chances are we all had a favorite toy to play with. That's really what the show is about, getting back that nice, happy memory."
For Hembrough this is a professional journey that started right after he got out of college, when he got a job working for Starlog, the now-defunct magazine and retail chain that specialized in the science fiction film scene. Hembrough started there along with two others as a buyer for the company, but it wasn't long before his position evolved to suit more of a niche category.
"As my career progressed with that company, I became the collectibles buyer. So all I did was buy and sell these collectible toys," he said. "When the company folded, I bought all the inventory in an auction, 10 cents on the dollar, and started my own company, Hollywood Heroes, and I've been going non-stop ever since."
For Hembrough, Toy Hunter is an opportunity to take fans all over on what he likes to call the Great American Toy Hunt. "We're going to be meeting collectors, we're going to be meeting fanpeople just like me, we're going to be looking through their toy stashes, garages, attics, basements, and uncovering all of these old toys. We're going to be talking about them and hopefully we're going to be making a few deals as well," he said. "I think people are going to be amazed at how much this stuff is worth today."
Assigning value is always a tricky proposition when it comes to collectibles. Who's to say what the relative worth of a single rare action figure is? It's more art than science, Hembrough explains, and it involves a lot of interfacing within the sort of community that seeks out these types of rare items.
"Conventions like [Star Wars Celebration] are extremely important to what I do, because not only do I get a chance to meet the public and talk to people, I get to meet the other dealers and all my other colleagues. We can talk about what things have sold for, and did I overpay or did you overpay. I can find out about new stuff coming onto the market," he explained.
"Talking to everybody is extremely, extremely important. Always talking about pricing and always talking about what we found. That's really what makes up the basis of my guide and what I price things at."
Constant communication is also important because of the unpredictable market. Something that was worth $300 yesterday could fall to $50 today. "Especially in this day of Internet and auction sites and trading behind the scenes in emails," Hembrough explains. "Prices can drop and rise quicker than the stock market. It's very, very volatile."
Browsing around the Hollywood Heroes booth, I find a fair assortment of plastic-encased and graded Star Wars figures. A sandperson with an Empire Strrikes Back cardback is valued at $500. A slip of paper with a photo of an early Boba Fett model pins the value of the action figure at $750. And these numbers are low in the bigger picture!
"The rarest [Star Wars] toy I've sold [was purchased by someone in] Paris about nine years ago," Hembrough said. "It was a prototype Boba Fett action figure from the original Kenner line, but it was the wax sculpting. The only one in the world. From this wax sculpting they made all of the other toys. So it was a work of art."
"That toy sold for $65,000, and I just found out that the guy who bought it is actually opening up a science fiction archive for everyone to enjoy. I'm so happy that it went to a good home."
Action figures and related vehicles/playsets tend to make up the bulk of collectible purchases, at least among 20/30-something geeks, but they're far from the only collectible items that could appropriately be labeled as "toys." Toy Hunter will cast a wide net in its debut season, looking at a variety of retro items including more than a few in the realm of video games.
"We're going to start delving into that on the show," Hembrough said. "Nintendo NES cartridges that are really going for a lot of money. Intellivision, believe it or not, I've seen Intellivision getting really hot too now. So we're going to start really going into that. Handheld games. All the stuff from the 1970s. Handheld electronic football, Tiger electronics, Coleco, Atari, all the retro stuff. That's really going to be covered as well."
Tune in and check out Toy Hunter on the Travel Channel on Wednesday nights at 9pm.