The '90s were an interesting time to be a collector. The internet was gaining steam and suddenly, it was easier than ever for buyers and sellers to connect. Price guides like Wizard and Beckett were becoming staples of their industry, and people were starting to realize that some of the junk they accumulated in the preceding decades had become rare, desirable, and valuable. No longer was the speculation game confined to the niche convention circuit. Baby boomers tore into their belongings to unearth hidden gems.
In 1991, hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky made a high profile purchase of the world's most prominent baseball card. Collectibles became seen as investments. Speculation markets grew quickly, but the sudden upswing in popularity had three major consequences.
1. While demand may have exploded, supply went supernova in response. The producers capitalized on their sudden popularity by flooding the market with an obscene glut of product.
2. People stopped discarding anything with the slightest potential for appreciation. As a result, less items became scarce.
3. When the internet became commonplace and the seller pool expanded to be international instead of local, values plummeted.
Decades have passed, nostalgia has set in, but values haven't soared the way investors had hoped. To make matters worse, a lot of the things that attracted speculators were crappy products to begin with. Nothing was as rare as it was perceived to be, and some us were left with attics, basements, and our very childhoods stuffed with the worst collectibles of the '90s.
Oh, and that baseball card Wayne Gretzky bought that started all this? It was a fraud.
The Things You Didn't Hold Onto
The worst collectibles of all might be the ones you didn’t hold onto. Here’s a list of things you might wish you hadn’t thrown out in the 90s.
Video Games - There is a weird niche market for unpopular games.
Video Game Consoles - How cool would it be to still have an NES? They sell for more than Playstations and Xboxes.
Hot Wheels and Micromachines - Hot Wheels have been around since the 1960s, but it was in the 90s that the hobby of collecting them really began to blossom.
Furbys - See Tamagotchis, then turn all the negatives into positives.
Anything from this list that is actually rare - There are rare examples from every one of these collectible categories (with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade paintings) that command a pretty penny. They’re just not the ones that most people have.
Non-Sports Cards - This is just a guess, but these cards were produced by the same companies that were pumping out sports cards, were made in smaller numbers, and were generally less well-cared for. Don't toss them just yet.
The term "action figures" can cover a wide range of products and some from the 90s have managed to appreciate nicely. If you have some early Power Rangers or Jurassic Park branded toys, you might have something, but most 90s toys are crap.
And the crap that people went the craziest for were Star Wars prequel action figures. It must have been an easy mistake to make, since the action figures that accompanied the original films are outrageously valuable. A $2.50 investment in the right Darth Vader action figure could yield several thousand today, but a few things went wrong with the toys for the prequels starting with 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
It wasn’t a cult hit, it was a blockbuster with decades of anticipation. The toys were over-produced and cheap looking, and Star Wars fanatics had had years to build up collections of better stuff. Lastly, the prequels didn’t resonate with young 90s audiences the way the originals had with the kids of the 70s and 80s. That didn’t stop speculators from crashing department stores on shipping days. Much like Jar-Jar Binks, these toys are best left in storage, because nobody wants to buy them.
The 90s were a weird time in comics for both content and collecting. While older issues with popular characters were being unearthed and sold for record prices, speculators tried loading up on what was popular in the moment.
Unfortunately, the books that were popular in the early kind of sucked. The early 90s saw a triumph of sizzle over steak, as young hotshot artists like Todd MacFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld took the reins of the industry from the masters of the Silver Age and re-imagined superheroes with a confused 90s aesthetic. Liefeld was especially notorious for drawing heroes with grossly exaggerated physiques and a baffling abundance of pouches on their costumes.
These rising stars wanted to own their work, so a group of younger creators left Marvel and DC to form Image comics. MacFarlane's Spawn #1 had speculators frothing at the mouth. As men in suits scooped up handfuls at a time, the company just printed more. 1.75 million copies are out there, mostly in superb condition and fairly worthless.
DC and Marvel embraced the speculative fury as well by rolling out the inescapable evil now known as "variant covers." They would create multiple versions of the same book with different cover art. Not only could they bilk speculators to sell millions of copies of each book, they could sell millions of copies of multiple versions of the same book to completionists. That's how X-Men #1 and its four variant covers were able to move 8 million copies in 1992.
Variant covers became increasingly garish and gimmicky in the 90s culminating in tacky faux-metal trim and holograms (the 90s loved holograms).
The feverish speculation on baseball cards had gathered a seemingly unstoppable amount of momentum during the 1980s. Rookie cards of 1950s All-Stars like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle (heroes of baby boomers who were entering their prime earning and investing years during the 80s) had become especially scarce and sought after.
The match was lit, but Wayne Gretzky touched the flame to the fuse in 1991 when he made the most expensive baseball card purchase of all-time. He acquired the hobby's crown jewel: a T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card. The card was issued from 1909 to 1911 and somewhere between 50 and 200 copies still exist. Gretzky bought the one that was indisputably in better condition than all the rest.
The hobby exploded in popularity and seemed like a legitimate avenue for investors.
Baseball cards weren't little pictures of ballplayers on crappy cardboard anymore, they were big business. Packs of new cards flew off the shelves, and in the cluster-fudge to attain marketplace dominance, the manufacturers did the only thing that made sense. They made more cards. They made SO MANY cards. How many? Well, it's estimated that Donruss printed about 3 million copies… of each of the 770 cards.
Collectors didn't know it until later, but these new cards weren't worth the paper they were printed on. The manufacturers profited in the short run, but values plummeted for all but the rarest of cards as the 90s came to a close.