Vintage toy boxes and packaging

Revell Lil HerbieWhen collecting old toys and games, some people will pay thousands of dollars more for the packaging or box, than the item itself. Others send their toys away to have them (and the packaging) valued and then put inside plastic cases.

If you collect old toys, how important is the condition of the packaging, to you?


Ever since the Internet gave rise to online trading, collecting has become a major hobby for many. People are now spoiled for choice in finding many previously rare items, and this means even the mere packaging has come in for much greater scrutiny over the years. Why settle for a used example of that toy you always wanted, when you might find a mint, boxed one, next week?

Obviously, I think it’s nice to be able to find old items with their original packaging or boxes. Most of the things I’ve found over the years still have the original box. Packaging reflects how products were marketed, and that says a lot about what our society was like when they were first sold. It’s a lot of fun.

It’s also nice if that original packaging isn’t ruined beyond recognition, or falling apart. But even when it is, it’s still nice to have the original packaging at all.

In short, I love old packaging.

See that Revell Li’l Herbie model kit pictured above? That’s a pretty rare model kit. And the box was quite old and worn. But that didn’t stop it being worth about $300 when I sold it last year, because the kit is so hard to find.

The most important thing was that the contents of the box, were still mint.

Buying an old toy with original packaging can be very, very expensive sometimes – particularly if what you’re buying is extremely rare, or in mint condition.

I do think some people are a little bit obsessed with “mint” packaging, to the point where they will throw a lot of extra money away. It’s their money of course. If someone wants to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars, just to own the most perfect, boxed example of some old thing – then that’s their choice!

But as with all good things in life (chocolate, exercise, sunshine…?) I tend to think there’s a “golden middle road” approach where enjoyment doesn’t necessarily require extreme behaviour (such as paying the maximum price).

So this is not intended as a criticism of anyone, but a summary of what some collectors do (and what I prefer to do).

Examples of diehard packaging collectors.

1. Nintendo collectors

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of people paying high prices for old video games. But in terms of paying extra for packaging, one example stands out.Bandai Stadium Events

“Stadium Events” was a cartridge computer game for the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), and was released back in the 1980s. The game wasn’t that popular or that much fun, but it had such a limited release that there are very few copies around today. Yet there are lot of Nintendo collectors who like to collect all the games that were released for the system. Hence, there’s a lot of demand for copies of rare games, for the sake of completing a collection.

I first heard about Stadium Events about 5 years ago when I read the story of a woman who sold her old NES and a bunch of games, on eBay.

Expecting it to sell for perhaps a couple of hundred dollars, her auction raised over $7,000 – all because one of the games included happened to be Stadium Events – in the original box. The game is so rare that most appearances of a copy are accompanied by discussions on video game chat forums. According to the experts, the Stadium Events packaging (a small cardboard box and instruction booklet) is worth more than the game itself. In short, the game cartridge might have been about $2500 of the total value, while the remaining $4000+ was actually the value of the packaging.

That’s some expensive cardboard. But it pales when compared to the person who paid $22,800 for a single copy of Stadium Events. Once again, the game cartridge alone is said to be worth $2500 – $3000. So it’s almost impossible to believe, but…the packaging may have accounted for the remainder.

2. R/C Kit Collectors

Well I confess, I don’t know that much about vintage video game collecting.

Above: A classic Tamiya Super Champ R/C kit with a damaged box. This box was found in a second hand store under a pile of other toys.

Above: A classic Tamiya Super Champ R/C kit with a damaged box. This box was found in a second hand store under a pile of other toys.

But I have certainly seen a lot of vintage R/C model and toy collecting, over the years. And there are certainly a few people out there who will pay a lot more depending on the condition of the box that the toy is in.

In some cases, I have seen collectors pay as much as $1000 more for a mint/boxed item, relative to the normal collectors price.

There are also some collectors who only want to buy mint and  sealed kits. Some R/C models were sold with their kit boxes wrapped in clear shrink wrap, so inevitably this offers some perceived proof that the contents inside are completely untouched by anyone since the kit was manufactured. And apparently this is enough to cause some people to pay top dollar. But a bit more on that later.

3. Action figure collectors

In the world of action figure collecting, recent years have seen the rise of figure and package “grading”.

Vintage Star Wars Landspeeder vehicle, after being "graded" and put in a clear box.

This vintage Star Wars Landspeeder vehicle has been “graded” and put in a clear box.

Basically what happens is this: you send your collectible action figure or toy to a grading company, and they evaluate it for you (for a fee) and they can also put it inside a box with the grade labeled on the outside.

Action Figure Authority (www.toygrader.com)  is one example, and they also operate sites for things like diecast models (www.diecastgrader.com) and dolls (www.dollgrader.com).

These services attempt the seemingly impossible task of establishing consistent standards across used goods (take a look at their FAQ to see how complicated the process gets). And they enable collectors to compare different collectibles with one another.

The pitfalls…

In my humble opinion, the downside to “official” toy grading systems is that there’s an increased emphasis on every tiny little flaw and detail. Any little speck of edge wear on cardboard packaging might be enough to downgrade something from a 10/10 rating to a 9.5/10.

Of course, a lot of people will consider this to be highly valuable information, that they have a right to know about, before spending their hard earned cash.

I guess I can’t help but wonder though… do minor flaws really matter? If there’s a speck of price sticker glue residue on my carded action figure, and it gets graded lower by a company that grades toys, does this matter? Should it matter? It seems to matter to some people. And I’m aware that these services are merely that – services. And that people are free to use, or ignore them, if they wish.

But what if they become harder to ignore in the future? By generating a self-perpetuating hype that places emphasis on very minor details, collectors inevitably worry. And then more people start to worry, because other people worry. And perhaps one day, every collector will worry whether their toy is considered a 9 or 9.5 out of 10.

Only one thing’s for sure – the more collectors worry about the minutiae of toy packaging condition, the more money the toy grading companies stand to make. And I’m certainly not the first to question whether such services are a blessing or a curse.

What’s inside that mint/sealed box?

The problem with collecting things like old R/C model or plastic model kits that are “mint and sealed in plastic” is that anyone could conceivably get an old kit and shrink wrap it themselves, with the right machine. Unlike action figures, most old R/C model kits do not have any kind of “window” to see the contents inside.

Team Associated RC10

Yes, I admit it – even some of the toys shown here on R/C Toy Memories are still sealed in the box.

So, what if the kit box contents are not even legitimate, and instead consist of just a stack of newspapers?

A new owner, having just paid top dollar for a shrink wrapped vintage kit, might never open it or discover that the contents are fake. Believe it or not, I have heard stories of people having sealed model kits x-rayed to try to make sure that the contents of their kit are legitimate.

But even if the contents are real, when it comes to R/C models – kits often contain other flaws.

Parts breakages, oil leaks, broken blisters… R/C kits are a mix of heavy metal parts and delicate plastic parts. Never opening a vintage shrink-wrapped R/C kit can present a risk, as the contents inside might in fact be broken or unusable. I have opened several brand new kits in the past, to discover that they contain broken parts.

Expensive Nintendo cardboard…

As I mentioned earlier, the cardboard packaging of some Nintendo games can add thousands of dollars to their value. And yes, people can spend their money however they wish.

But one thought springs to my mind when I hear stories of people paying thousands of dollars for a cardboard video game case: wouldn’t they rather buy and experience a wide variety of games, than devote all that cash to just one? Life is short, so isn’t it more fun to experience and enjoy as many items as possible?

I guess if you’re extremely rich , then all of this is irrelevant as it’s simply not an either/or decision!

Everything decomposes…

Dune Action Figure Yellowing

This action figure from the 1984 film “Dune” shows the kind of yellowing that can occur to the clear bubble of the package.

If the previous arguments aren’t enough to cast doubt on paying a premium price for mint packaging, then… what to do about the inevitability of toy packaging decomposition?

Some action figures – notably “Return of the Jedi” era Star Wars figures – were sold in poor quality packaging back in the 1980s that literally deteriorates over time, causing the clear bubble or blister that houses the toy to fade to a more yellow colour.

To my knowledge, this cannot be prevented – the chemicals in the clear plastic are breaking down over time, causing a yellowing effect. I’ve also seen it happen with a lot of other carded figure toys – such as My Little Pony figures, or the Dune example shown here.

I wonder how this factors into toy grading systems? If a toy is graded for a fee, then put inside a box with the grade on the outside, what happens if the toy packaging decomposes and changes colours in the years that follow?

We sometimes tend to forget that packaging was never meant to last.

Think about for a moment – in most cases, the sole purpose of packaging is to advertise the toy, and then deliver it safely from the factory to the hands of the consumer. And then be thrown away. That is why it’s usually made of cheap plastic and cardboard. It was never intended to last forever.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it for as long as it lasts, or even enjoy it when it looks old…

After all, what about “patina”?

“Patina” is a term usually associated with tarnish on metal. But it often gets used in relation to other objects that show some kind of wear, caused by age.

When it comes to old toys, I actually love it when the boxes or packaging show signs of patina, having sat on store shelves for many years – gathering dust, or fading in a window display. It gives those toys a real sense of history and it can make you more appreciative of the fact that they have survived for so many years.

Compared to a mint/white/crisp perfect box or package, a toy that actually looks like it’s a true “survivor” from the 1980s can seem more appealing – because of the very fact that it seems like it came from the 1970s or 1980s. By comparison, some mint/perfect cardboard packaging that looks brand new can seem more like it was manufactured last week. Particularly if it’s a toy that has also been re-issued, so that the old (mint) example looks and feels a lot like the new (mint) re-issue.

In summary…

As mentioned, I love old toy packaging and prefer that my toys include the original packaging or box wherever possible.

And I do own some mint/sealed toys of my own too.

But the point of this article was simply to say – I enjoy collecting toys just as much when the boxes are old and show their age and history, as when they are fresh and new. I don’t place huge emphasis on “mint”, and I don’t believe in paying absolute premium prices for the privilege of such pure packaging.

But that’s just me.

What do you think about toy packaging? How much extra do you pay for it, and how important is “mint” packaging to you? Your comments are welcome below 🙂

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4 responses to “Vintage toy boxes and packaging”

  1. squidaloopa says :

    Well if you’re a collector, I presume packaging is everything!
    But if I buy a piece of music gear, sport equipment etc off an auction site, I don’t really care about the packaging because I’m going to USE the item.
    So I suppose it depends on your intention!

  2. dave says :

    In addition to adding a favourite action figure to your collection, it is nice once in a while to find a package damaged enough to release the figure from its prison. I have lots of cool McFarlane goodies that I’ve never actually touched. I’m always tempted to remove them.

  3. Ms. J. Simnett says :

    Thank you very much for your information on deteriorating packaging. I want to get rid of some My Little Ponies that I have had since the 80’s and pulling them out of the basement I realized the yellowing of the packaging, not being a collector, just a slight hoarder of a toy I loved when my daughter was young, I was ready to scrap the packaging before selling them; but now I will sell them as is. Thanks again.

    • rctoymemories says :

      Thanks for reading, and glad you found it useful 🙂 In general, all old packaging – no matter how badly deteriorated, is better than no packaging at all. So it should always be kept, and not thrown away.

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