If you’ve been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I have, you’ve no doubt encountered plenty of vintage action figures along the way. But not as many as world-renowned collector, Steve Sansweet.
After amassing an enormous collection of Star Wars memorabilia, Steve was recently awarded the Guinness World Record for the largest Star Wars collection in the entire world. Based at Rancho Obi-Wan, plenty of his collection is made of up those little, plastic action figures. I have to admit, I’m rather jealous.
I remember many a happy moment as a child, making Boba Fett pilot an AT-AT while Han Solo made a daring escape in a stolen TIE fighter… So imagine my delight when I caught up with Steve Sansweet to discuss his collection.
How did your Star Wars collection first begin?
“I wrote a front-page story for The Wall Street Journal on old toy collecting about a year before Star Wars came out,” he told me, taking me back to the very start of his collection. “One of the guys I was interviewing brought out a case of plastic, battery-operated robots and said ‘you know what, this is the next thing’ and of course, since I loved that to start with, I went that evening to the place where he bought them and bought nine off the shelf and all the batteries – I was hooked.”
“And then Star Wars came out and it was part of this whole space toy collection that I was starting to build and then Empire Strikes Back came out three years later and that cemented my love for Star Wars. It became more and more the focus of the collection.”
Of course, Star Wars eventually took over as Steve’s great obsession… and he eventually landed a dream job as Lucasfilm’s Director of Content Management. But it’s his Star Wars collection that he’s become famous for – and with a staggering 300,000 pieces it’s the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.
Why do you think Star Wars figures were so popular in the first place?
“I think it’s the fact that they were delayed. Unlike today, when all these toys for the big films are in the stores six to eight weeks in advance, Star Wars was a movie that was driven by demand. There had been no real successful licensing of a movie up until that point.”
“When it came to TV shows like Star Trek, there were some fairly mild successes. But the contract Kenner signed with Lucasfilm was only signed a month before Star Wars opened in the US. Back then, to do a line of 3D moulded toys from design to manufacturing, carding and distributing took a minimum of twelve months… and Kenner took the contract thinking that Star Wars would be in theatres for a short while and that by the time these figures were out, people would probably have forgotten them. Obviously, the fire that Star Wars caught was a surprise to everyone, including George Lucas… so there was this insatiable demand for anything Star Wars.”
What was the first Star Wars action figure you ever bought?
“It was the early-bird kit,” he revealed… an advanced pre-order of the very first Star Wars figures. “Those things were selling in the stores for like, $7.99. And since my kit was one of the first that arrived, I was one of the lucky ones that got the double-telescoping Luke, which is the rare version.”
Of course, the double-telescoping version of Luke Skywalker has become somewhat of a rarity – an action figure which included a double collapsible lightsaber which was eventually replaced by a more sturdy design.
“I bought the figures as they came out on the cards and of course, ripped them all off the cards and put them on my shelf next to the other space toys… and it was only a couple of years later when I decided, I’d like a set in really good condition on the cards.”
In time, those figures began to inflate in price, so I simply had to ask…
What’s the most expensive figure you ever bought?
“The most expensive single figure would be the original, blue missile-firing Boba Fett – that was somewhere south of $10,000. I got the entire set of fourteen unproduced Ewoks and Droids figures from 1986… they were never produced with one rare exception in Brazil.”
“I managed to get a full set of that sourced through a Kenner employee. These were hand-painted with all the accessories and that’s one of the things I really love in my collection. The cost of that was only a little bit more than the missile-firing Fett.”
You actually have a rocket-firing Boba Fett? Was that hard to find?
“There are so many fans out there who do research on figures and there are so many people I talk to who said ‘oh yea, I got one of the early ones that actually fired the missile’. But the problem is, those figures were never actually released. ‘Oh well, ummm, I buried it in the back garden and we moved’ or ‘the dog bit its head off so I threw it away’ or ‘it’s one of the ones I set on fire’. And amazingly, none of these people who received it in the mail could produce one… of course, because none were ever sent out.”
The rocket-firing Boba Fett was a special release that never quite made it to the shelves. Featuring a small, plastic missile which slotted into his back, the projectile was fired using a very weak spring with a lever that would be pulled back. But it was because of product safety issues that the toy was never produced.
“Mattel had problems with one of their missile-firing Battlestar Gallactica ships – a baby choked on one. And that was the beginning of the product safety issues… despite changes to its design, the figure was still not granted approval. I don’t know what they were thinking, frankly… they used the same sized missile but they changed the back to what they thought was a locking mechanism. But the problem was that the missile was the same size.”
“I eventually acquired both versions – the painted J-Slot version is actually a lot rarer than the unpainted L-Slot. We’re really not sure how many of those exist. I’ve got what I am sure are the two main early versions. There are some who even have the hand-painted prototype – it’s amazing what collectors have been able to turn up over the last 15 or 20 years.”
But let’s be clear – while money can be made with Star Wars figures and collectibles, Steve has some very importance advice for anyone thinking of starting their own collection…
Don’t expect to earn a living from Star Wars figures
“Don’t collect because you think you’re going to make a fortune,” he explained. “I can practically guarantee that you are not. Collect by the character that you love or the movie that you love or the scenes that you love… and put together your own kind of collection.”
Of course, there are some rare exception, such as a vinyl-caped Jawa which recently made a small fortune for its owner. But these are certainly not the norm… and you’d be much better of putting together a collection you truly love.
“I understand why people get their figures graded, because then they sell on e-bay and command a much higher premium,” he said. “But if you’re buying for yourself and have no plan to sell them, don’t worry about condition – it’s for your own likes. Is this good enough for you? If you want it graded, then you’re going to pay a lot more… if that’s not the important thing to you and you just want to have it on your shelf, then you can find a lot.”
Which are your personal favourite Star Wars action figures?
“I think I have to go back to the very beginning,” he said. “When I first saw Star Wars I identified with Luke Skywalker. I identified with his yearning to leave his backwater town and to explore the universe and I had gone through the same thing. Of course, my backwater town was not so backwater – it was Philadelphia. But I just wanted to explore the world.”
“I had this strong desire to break away and be on my own and that’s what I did. So that first Luke Skywalker that came in the Early Bird kit still remains one of my favourite action figures of all time.”
After speaking with Steve, it’s clear how passionate he is about the Star Wars franchise… in particular, his action figure collection. If you’re interested in Star Wars action figures and want to get a more in-depth look at what you can find, Steve has written a wonderful book on the subject – Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection.
So why not have a look. You never know – you might be sitting on a small fortune.
Do you have fond memories of those original Star Wars action figures? Which were your favourites? Let us know what you think in the comments below…