If you’ve found yourself craving some reminders of childhood during the pandemic, you’re in good company: The demand for Hot Wheels cars, vintage lunch boxes and other valuable collectibles is increasing.
“Anytime you have issues with the economy, people go to the things that bring them comfort and happiness,” said Joel Magee, an appraisal expert from the History Channel show Pawn Stars. “I go into my collection room and my blood pressure goes down. I enjoy looking at all my things.”
Blake Kennedy, auctioneer, appraiser and co-owner of Kennedy Brothers Auctions in St. Petersburg, Florida, agreed.
“Some people will collect and say it’s an investment. But most people like to collect what they remember,” he said. The memory span of collectors greatly influences what’s in demand, he added, and changes the game of collecting every 10 years or so.
Mid-century furniture is very hot right now, for example, because that’s what people remember from growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or even from their grandparents’ house in the ‘80s. Victorian furniture, on the other hand, is no longer popular.
Kennedy advises trying eBay to sell a single item. But if you have a collection, an online or in-person auction run by an auction company will usually bring in more money.
After holding online auctions during the quarantine, Kennedy Brothers Auctions started live-selling again in their warehouse at half capacity with online parties bidding as well.
“Things can bring more in person when you see people bidding on it in real time,” he said. “It creates more excitement and there’s more incentive when they get to walk out with what they buy right then and there.”
Magee’s personal collection of nostalgia has brought him extra happiness since February. That’s when Magee, known as America’s Toy Scout, came across a Hot Wheels car he owned with an estimated value of $100,000. The enamel white prototype Custom Camaro Hot Wheels car is one of just 16 produced by Mattel in 1968.
Here are some other collectibles that are in demand, and insights from Magee and Kennedy about what helps or hurts their value.
Some Spiderman comics can be worth $2,000 to $4,000 even in bad condition, according to Magee.
They are worth more if graded and authenticated, but that can cost $30 to $35 per comic. “Unless you think it’s worth $200 or more, it’s not worth getting graded,” he said.
But how do you know the worth to decide if it should be graded? Magee said these factors make comics more valuable.
- The comic is from the 1960s so-called Silver Age or earlier.
- It’s a superhero story.
- It’s a horror story.
- The better the condition, but even if there are rips, a comic can still be worth $50 or more if it meets other criteria.
And because comics are still very popular to read, not just collect, books released after the 1960s are still in demand. Depending on the age, type and condition, a batch of 50 from any decade could be worth $100 or $200.
Hot Wheels cars
Magee’s find is extremely rare, but there is a vibrant community of Hot Wheels collectors, he said. Cars with red lines on the tires are worth more than those without because they are the older models.
Kennedy just sold an original Hot Wheels case with 48 cars without the red lines from the ‘60s or ‘70s for $85 in an online auction. He’s seen a single car with red lines sell for $250.
Metal advertising signs are growing in popularity as home improvement shows put vintage decor in the spotlight.
“Old advertising signs, the more colorful they are, are treated like artwork,” Magee said, adding they can be worth $50 to several hundred dollars. A Goodyear sign at a Kennedy Brothers auction brought $750 a few years back.
- Enamel paint increases value.
- Double-sided signs bring more money.
- The fewer the nicks and rust spots, the better.
“Lladros still do okay — better than Hummels,” Kennedy said.
Figurines tend to bring more when sold as a group.
Pez candy dispensers
“The more iconic the character the more valuable they are,” Magee said. “Green Hornet and Superman are worth more than Betty Boop.”
For his part, Kennedy will pass. “I don’t even want to see them,” he said.
“We sold a little metal Mickey Mouse from the 1950s and it brought over $400,” Kennedy said. “Mickey Mouse tends to do the best.”
- Anything from the 1960s or older because by the 1970s there was mass production.
- Memorabilia from Disney World or Disney Land from the 1950s and ‘60s has value. A locator map given to guests, for example, could be worth $30, while a uniform could be worth several hundred dollars.
Metal lunch boxes
“Metal lunch boxes are still doing well, especially if they have the original thermos in them,” Kennedy said. “I sold a Planet of the Apes one for $85.” There’s also a market for thermoses on their own to go with a lunch box sold without one, he added.
- Lunch boxes from the 1970s and older are worth the most.
- Those based on TV shows such as The Munsters or the Addams Family have added value.
Name brands such as Ideal Toy Company or Madam Alexander are worth more than a vintage doll with an unrecognized manufacturer. Dolls after the 1960s aren’t in demand.
Magee reeled off categories of collectibles that he believes have little to no value because the supply is higher than the demand.
- Commemorative plates, or anything “limited edition.”
- Cabbage Patch dolls
- McDonald’s Happy Meal toys (“Everybody has them, but nobody wants them,” Magee said.”)
- Dolls mass produced by mainline manufacturers
- Cowboy and western memorabilia
As collectors of various items die off, the demand for certain items fades too.
“Values depend on what younger generations are picking up,” Magee said. “Hot Wheels, Star Wars, comics, they are all staying relevant.”
He predicts in a few decades there will be great demand for early memorabilia from another phenomenon: Harry Potter.
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance editor and writer in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of the book Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned.