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Want to know something about the world of nerdy collectibles? You ask Brian Volk-Weiss, the prolific producer and creator of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us and A Toy Story Near You, two must-watch documentary series that track the stories of the coolest, rarest, and most valuable toys and collectibles ever made and where to find them.
Volk-Weiss isn’t just a documentarian, though. He’s spent years chasing collector’s items for his own personal collection, and he’s learned a few secrets and heard quite a few stories about the high-stakes world of collectibles along the way.
Star Wars collectibles are of particular interest to Volk-Weiss, who has previously written about the rarest, most expensive Star Wars action figure for Den of Geek. But did you know about the secret Facebook group that deals almost exclusively in precious Star Wars collectibles that sell for six figures? What about the warehouse where sellers who don’t own their own stores keep and sell their prized collectibles?
On a recent Zoom call, Volk-Weiss took us on a trip through the lesser known corners of Star Wars collecting, and even shared his sacred rules when it comes to curating his own collection. Yes, that includes a collectible contingency plan were his house to burn down.
You can check out the interview below. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
DEN OF GEEK: How did you spend your May the 4th this year?
Brian Volk-Weiss: I am looking at what I already have, praying that some cool stuff gets announced. I mean, that’s usually what I do on the fourth. Well, I mean, before COVID, I’d go to Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and Target and grab whatever gets put out. This year, I ordered an Ahsoka Tano statue, I think about five or six months ago, maybe even more, that I think is supposed to come tomorrow. So if it does, that is exactly how I’ll be spending the fourth, opening that statue that’s long overdue.
You’re not just some creator and producer who works on the idea, but is not invested. You’re in the trenches. In The Toys That Made Us and A Toy Store Near You, you were actually hitting the aisles. You were going to the stores, finding the collectibles.
I try to sell shows that are hobbies of mine, so that a) I’m getting paid to do my hobby, but b) that passion that you need to make your show, because it takes a long time and a lot of work, you really need to be excited about the show to try and do a good job. So yeah, I buy toys. Quite a few.
Is Ahsoka a new favorite character of yours?
Oh, absolutely not. Since the end of [The Clone Wars] season five … I mean, technically, it would have been the end of season four, but really, there’s a moment in the last episode of season five when she resigns from the Jedi Order. I’ve been obsessed with her ever since that moment.
And I have to give myself credit. I knew for over a year before it was announced that Ahsoka was going to be on TV, and I kept my mouth shut. So I’ve known that was coming for a long time. And I kept my mouth shut, Lucasfilm. You should be very proud of me.
Yeah, but by saying that, that now makes me want to try to pull other stuff out of you, because now I’m sure you know about things that are coming down the road.
No, I really don’t. And it’s because of COVID. The reason that I knew about the Ahsoka of it all was I was at Disney or Lucasfilm all the time, and every now and then, you’d hear something. But I kept my mouth shut. Because of COVID, I didn’t have as much access.
So we spoke back in the spring of, well, I guess almost a year ago, for A Toy Store Near You, and if I recall correctly, you said that the Millennium Falcon was your Holy Grail of Star Wars toys?
That’s right. I used to bite my fingernails and my mom told me if I didn’t bite them for a year, she would get it for me. And I stopped. Very hard. Other than quitting smoking, that’s the second hardest thing I’ve ever quit. I’m not even trying to be funny. And I got my Millennium Falcon and proceeded to obliterate it over the next 10 years.
It lasted 10 years? That’s actually pretty good. But that certainly was not your first Star Wars toy?
No, my first. I still have my original R2-D2 and one of my original stormtroopers. I still have those. And in my collection that is absurdly big now, I do believe those are the two old…I have two mini figs from Lego. Those four toys are tied for the oldest toys in my 2000 plus toy collection.
And what is the current status of that stormtrooper and R2?
It’s funny you asked that, because this is crazy. The R2-D2 and one of those mini figs is in my home collection. The stormtrooper and the other mini fig is at a friend of mine’s house in the insane off chance, this will show you how crazy I am, that…I’ve had to evacuate my house twice in the last two years because of fires. If God forbid anything happens to my home here in LA, my two oldest pieces, I have a backup. That’s how crazy I am.
It’s sort of like, whenever the Congress and president gather in Washington, there has to be the designated survivor, right?
These are my toy designated survivors. I’m going to steal that from you. I love that.
We’re pretty close in age. The R2 unit I had, it’s still around, but man, it’s not in great shape. The dome is loose, the sticker is off. And then my stormtrooper, totally yellowed. Is yours the same thing? Or does it actually look good?
My R2’s dome is great. It still makes that super duper weird noise that, we all know how it was made, but it was still kind of weird. But the stickers are very faded. And my stormtrooper, you can tell it’s 40 years old, but it’s not yellow or anything.
What are the figures that you think people are kind of getting into now? Because obviously, we’re legacy collectors and nerds, we grew up with the first generation of it, but what are the things that people are attaching themselves to now? Anecdotally. As much as you can say.
Ahsoka Tano, all of her stuff, especially because it was made in limited numbers when it came out in the early aughts, as they say, maybe not early aughts, but like 2008 to 2012, there’s an Ahsoka Tano that’s $2000-3000 now. Not a prototype, not a sample, not a paint test. Literally an Ahsoka Tano that was still in the package. That’s two to three grand now. That’s because a lot of the people that are 10 to 20 years behind us, they’re starting to have money. And the same way you and I wanted to start collecting when we got a little money, now they are too.
Is part of that because of the multi-generational component? I guess maybe the question is, what makes Star Wars collectors different than others? I always kind of wonder if it is this sort of multi-generational element to it that’s maybe not present with other franchises or IP.
The main thing about Star Wars collecting that is different than almost any other kind of toy collecting there is, is the amount of people doing it and the amount of data that exists. There are, and I’m making this up, so please, anyone who sees this that’s offended, I am making these numbers up, I don’t know the real numbers, but there are like 10 types of Luke Skywalker New Hope figures with…You need a scanning electron microscope to see the difference in the hair color changes. There is so much data. Oh, that light hair with a freckle on the cheek? Oh, that came from the Taiwan factory. Brownish hair with no freckle? That came from the British factory.
There’s a private Facebook group called Deal or No Deal. It covers all toys. There’s only 3000 members. I mean, I’ve seen stuff sell in the six figures. Very, very high end general toy group. It’s 85% Star Wars. So that’s what makes Star Wars collecting unique compared to any other toy.
You’re saying that the accumulated data continues to unveil other collectibles that we did not know about?
I’ll be honest with you, I’m not trying to be funny or humble, I don’t consider myself a toy expert. I know more about toys than most people, but most people are toy collectors. But I mean, there’s like 10 to 20 Star Wars collectors who have been doing it almost as a full-time job for 20, 25 years. So those 10 to 20 guys, and I think they’re all guys, I mean, they’re probably embarrassed by me talking about Star Wars. So I learned from them…I mean, I could learn one to five new things a week just from knowing those people.
What’s the craziest Star Wars collectible quest you’ve ever heard of? The epic lengths that someone has gone to to pursue an item? Does anything come to mind?
I think Gus Lopez going to Tunisia with a storage container. That’s probably my favorite. I mean, he literally went all around Tunisia to the sets and was buying stuff off the people that own the land. The sets are still there. I went there for my bachelor party and I was there, I think, 10 years after Gus. So what was still there when I was there in 2012, and I think he was there in 2002, approximately…And I’ve seen a lot of his collection. Almost any question you would ask. Like, “What’s the best story?” The answer is Gus Lopez.
And you can get really crazy with the collecting, and sometimes you have to establish rules. I mean, I know I’m fortunate to work a lot of comic-cons, and I’m out there, and I’ve established rules for collecting so I don’t spend too much money or go too crazy. Do you have any rules that you apply to yourself?
Well, number one rule? It must go on display. So I will not buy anything to just go into storage, because if I did that, it theoretically violates my whole reason for toy collecting, which is the objects give me some joy. So if I’m putting it in the garage or a storage shed, it doesn’t give me any joy.
This is getting harder and harder for two reasons. One, I now have a lot of “insider knowledge.” So I’m not buying things that I know will depreciate in value. So that’s tough. And then the other thing is, it’s kind of a bad theory because it ends up costing me more money in the long run, because I guarantee you, I will have to buy a new house next year because my collection room is already getting too small. But that’s the first rule. Nothing goes to storage.
My second rule. Have you ever heard of this place called Frank & Son? It’s two full-size warehouses where I think they tore the wall down in between them. And I think Monday to Friday, it’s where toy sellers who don’t own a store keep their stuff, and then they sell it online. On Saturdays, it’s open to the public.
So before COVID, my rule was I would go there only once a year for my birthday. So that’s already a rule, because if I went there more than once a year, we’d be bankrupt and living on the streets. And two, I bring a thousand dollars cash and I leave all my credit cards at home. And by the way, dude, I’ve gone in there and spent it in the first 12 minutes I’ve been in there and basically had to walk around like a jackass for two hours and not buy anything else.
The Star Wars Topps cards have very much been part of the collecting within the Star Wars fandom, and you can display those. Did you have them as a kid? Have you ever collected them as an adult?
I had them as a kid. If I had to guess, I had all of them. Right now in my collection, I have one Star Wars pack. My second favorite character is the aforementioned Ahsoka Tano. My favorite character in all of Star Wars is Return of the Jedi Luke, specifically that. And the only Star Wars cards I have is an unopened pack, it’s probably worth five bucks, and it’s him in Jedi Luke attire.
You are working on so many things. I know you’ll have a new season of Toys That Made Us at some point, I know you’re working on this Gates McFadden Star Trek podcast your company is producing. What else is on the way that you can talk about, man?
There’s a lot of stuff I can’t talk about yet, but two things I can talk about. We’re partnered with Dwayne Johnson and his company, Seven Bucks, and we have a show coming out called Behind the Attraction that’s all about the attractions at the various Disney parks. I can’t say when, but that’s coming out this year.
And then we have another show, which I literally cannot even believe is real, called The Center Seat: 55 Years of Star Trek. We’re making that for History Channel, and to the best of my knowledge, it is the deepest dive documentary about all of Star Trek. I think we’re doing the first documentary ever about the animated series. The first one out ever about Voyager.
And then A Toy Store Near You, which is coming out in June, season three. So I’m pretty excited about 2021.