THE WAY-BACK MACHINE IS WORKING OVERTIME AT HERITAGE AUCTIONS, WHERE COLLECTORS OF VINTAGE VIDEO GAMES, VHS TAPES, ACTION FIGURES AND TRADING CARD GAMES FLOCK FOR A PULL OF THE PAST
By Rhonda Reinhart
Last spring, New York Times writer David Streitfeld interviewed Heritage Auctions’ Jay Carlson about the popularity of collecting vintage VHS tapes. At the time, Heritage had just sold a 1982 VHS of the original Rocky for $27,500 and a 1983 VHS of Star Wars for $32,500. In Streitfeld’s piece, which the Times published in April, Carlson, a VHS Consignment Director at Heritage and a collector himself, described the nostalgia that has lured him and countless others to seek out sealed VHS cassettes of movies ranging from Superman and Blade Runner to The Goonies and Back to the Future.
“I was taking a piece of my childhood back,” Carlson told Streitfeld about the first tape he bought for his collection. Growing up in the early 1990s, Carlson loved hitting up his local video rental store for the latest releases, along with ’80s classics like Ghostbusters – the VHS of which started his assemblage. “These tapes are historical artifacts that have this ability to sweep you back in time to a place that all at once feels miles away and yet somehow like home,” he continued. “I used to think it was just me, but I talk to more and more people getting into this because of that pull.”
At Heritage, it isn’t just VHS tapes that have collectors clamoring for a piece of the past. Items like trading card games, action figures and video games rekindle similar feelings of being a kid again.
Jesus Garcia says nostalgia was “100 percent” the reason he took on the role of Consignment Director of Trading Card Games at Heritage. “Like many others, I grew up watching the adventures of Ash and Pikachu, which led me to collect cards and play Pokémon video games,” he says. “I was working at Heritage Auctions before the department existed, and at the first glimpse of it, I raised my hand and started working. Now, every time I look at a Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! card, I recall being that kid again, sitting in front of the television, eager to see what new characters I would be introduced to that day.”
Garcia says the nostalgia factor is also a big part of why his clients collect popular Pokémon cards such as the 1st Edition Base Set Charizard and sought-after Yu-Gi-Oh! cards like the 1st Edition LOB Blue Eyes White Dragon. “Many of us grew up meeting these characters, which are still relevant to the new generation,” he says. “For those who have children, collecting cards is one of the best ways to bond with them, as you’ll have fun collecting cards with characters that both of you grew up watching. I attend numerous conventions, and I love seeing so many young children collecting, trading and buying cards, but the best part is when I see someone my age next to them doing the same thing.”
Garcia’s clients are also willing to pay a pretty penny for these nostalgic treasures: Last April, a Trophy Pikachu No. 3 Trainer card, which Garcia describes as “one of the holy grails of the Pokémon trading card game,” sold for a staggering $300,000.
As Consignment Director of Action Figures & Toys at Heritage, Justin Caravoulias seeks out vintage toys from the 1960s through the 1990s that are sealed and in good condition. For the most part, collectors in his category are looking for items they had as children, as well as items they always wanted but could never get their hands on. “Children of the ’70s might collect Mego, while those from the ’80s might collect G.I. Joe and Transformers,” he says. “The children of the late ’80s and early ’90s are now collecting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the nostalgia for the original Power Rangers is building.”
Caravoulias can relate. As a kid, G.I. Joe action figures were his favorites. “I have vivid memories of playing with them and still have my original figures in my collection. I have photos of me receiving them for birthdays and Christmas,” he says. “Nostalgia is part of my collecting, but I also collect many new and interesting toys created today as it is a form of entertainment that still brings me joy through the creativity, detail and innovative design of new releases to the market.”
According to Caravoulias, sealed action figures, vehicles and playsets from the 1980s are the most popular items in the category, with lines like Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Masters of the Universe leading the pack. “A recent auction of Masters of the Universe toys had nearly 100 items that were directly from the Mattel Archives, with some rare pieces selling for over $10,000 each,” he says. “And we recently auctioned the Ultimate Batman Collection that did $1.4 million and sold the highest-priced Batman toy ever for $150,000.”
In recent years, Heritage has also set records in the world of vintage video games, garnering impressive sums for pristine copies of The Legend of Zelda ($870,000), Super Mario 64 ($1.56 million) and more. “Undoubtedly, factory-sealed, immaculately preserved, early production copies of blue-chip Nintendo Entertainment System bring the biggest premium,” says Valarie Spiegel, Heritage’s Managing Director of Video Games. “Of these, early or rare mid-production variants of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda have consistently proven to be the most desirable. The rationale is straightforward: These pioneering titles birthed two of the most recognized, universally adored and ongoing franchises from Nintendo.”
In addition to physical games, collectors are also vying for original game artwork, such as the original painting for Prince of Persia on PC that Heritage recently sold for $63,000, as well as sealed game consoles, especially those from early production runs. In November, Heritage broke the record for the highest price paid for a commercially released video game console when it sold a 1986 Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe Console for $120,000.
While Spiegel maintains that video game collecting goes beyond mere nostalgia (“It’s an homage to personal journeys within interactive storytelling, immortalizing cherished gaming experiences,” she says), for her personal collecting, the pull of the past plays a major role. “My husband and I own one of the most comprehensive collections of Tetris games across all consoles,” she says. “While I hold our Tetris collection dear, collecting my childhood favorites or those I wanted to play and missed brings me a deeper sense of fulfillment.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Heritage Auctions Journal.