10 Lessons on Collecting from BotCon

Liz Ohanesian for L.A. Weekly

BotCon, the annual convention that roams around the country to share the love of Transformers, celebrated its 20th Anniversary near Los Angeles last weekend. Just a week prior to the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, fans piled into the Pasadena Convention Center to dig deep into the 30-year-old franchise. Yes, Transformers is older than plenty of its fans and the entertainment line has changed a lot over the years. From first generation toys to recent collector items, decades of Transformers were on display inside the exhibit hall.

The sheer volume of Transformers-related products was immense. Tables overflowed with complete Transformers and toy parts, boxed items and pieces in plastic bags. To be honest, it was overwhelming, particularly for someone who saves her collecting energy for synthpop records. Some people came into the exhibit hall with a list of must-haves. I entered with a list of questions. Here’s what I learned in two days at BotCon.

10. The Too-Expensive Toy from Your Childhood Is Now Even More Expensive.

Liz Ohanesian

For decades, Fortress Maximus was the largest of the Transformers. At a little under two-feet tall, he can shift from a city to a mech with smaller bots that spawn from his head. Fortress Maximus is a hulking piece with lots of small parts involved and he wasn’t the kind of toy you could talk the parents into buying on a whim. “Only the wealthiest families were able to afford him for their kids,” says Michael Bergstrom of Phoenix-based Toy Anxiety.

Metroplex eventually out-sized Fortress Maximus, but this old school toy is one hell of a high-priced item. Bergstrom says that one in good condition, but without a box, could go for $500 to $700. A boxed one that isn’t sealed might run in the neighborhood of $3,000. A sealed Fortress Maximus could cost $6,000. Even so, this toy’s value has actually come down a little since a reissue hit Japan not too long ago.

It’s not just a complete, or even semi-complete, Fortress Maximus that costs an arm and a leg. Those little missing parts, which collectors will buy separately, add up too. Bergstrom didn’t have a full Fortress Maximus on hand, but he did have some a couple parts. There was a gun that he had marked at $80 and an upper torso that was listed at $60. “Generally, when you find a Fortress Maximus, or any other older toy in a collection, it’s not usually complete because kids played with their toys,” says Bergstrom. There’s a good chance, though, that the collector is going to want to complete the piece. Now those small parts can cost almost as much as the original once did. For some, buying a few small parts individually is a better option. Bergstrom says that it costs less than buying multiple “almost complete” toys to match parts. Maybe the purchase is worth it. Maybe you’re over the disappointment of not finding Fortress Maximus under the Christmas tree that one year.

9. There Are a Lot of Different Kinds of Transformers Collectors.

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James Szewczyk, who lives in Virginia Beach, is a BotCon vendor who is also collector. He’s been setting up shop at this convention since 2006 and has seen a lot of different kinds of collectors. Some, like him, are “old school G1 collectors.” In other words, they collect the toys that were released primarily in the mid-to-late 1980s. There are also young fans, like his nephews, who seek out toys from the movies. “They want what they’re seeing on the big screen,” says Szewczyk. That’s not his thing. There’s definitely a generation gap amongst Transformers fans. Maybe it’s not as pronounced as it for Star Wars, but it’s there.

Amongst the older fans, though, there’s still a lot of diversity. There are completists, who work to get every G1 or G2 toy that exists. Some of them might be looking specifically for items that are sealed. “They’ll never break it out of the package,” says Szewczyk. “If they like the toy that much, they’ll buy a second one.” There are also people, like Szewczyk’s wife, who stick to a specific character. She’s a Starscream fan. Sometimes, collection motives change over the years. Szewczyk initially wanted all the G1 toys. Then he was after the accessories. Now, he’s trying to get them all boxed. He’s nine boxes away from that goal.

That’s not all, though. There are people who go after the Botcon exclusives, special sets that are released at every convention. Others like the newer, reissued toys.

8. The Box Is Important, Even If It’s Not Sealed.

Liz Ohanesian

Over at the booth for Pennsylvania-based toy dealer Wizard’s Realm, Glenn Becher pulls out Smokescreen in a box. It’s not sealed, but it’s still valuable. This is a G1 toy, which are among the most coveted at the convention. It’s a nostalgia thing. “The G1 figures are highly desirable for Transformers fans because those people are at that age right now where they have money to buy expensive toys from their childhood,” says Becher. The nostalgia issue is a double-edged sword, though. Collectors might want to reclaim the items in their old toy boxes, but they also want them in nice condition. That’s tough when you’re talking about items that were once favored by the elementary school set. Eight-year-olds aren’t always gentle with their toys. The Smokescreen at Becher’s booth may not be pristine, but it’s in good shape.

Becher explains that this is an example of a “loose complete.” That’s when the toy is in the original packaging, but the box has been opened. This one was open on one side, but still had the factory tape on another side. There’s also a plastic insert missing from this box. The stickers that come with the toy are still in here; they were never applied to the Transformer. “The figure doesn’t look like it’s ever been transformed,” says Becher. “It’s still just the way it came of a store. There’s no wear on it. There are no marks on it.”

Items like these are still valuable, in fact there are a lot of loose completes at Botcon that are marked at over $100, many times much more than that. Some collectors might be fine with a few missing pieces. Others will see it as the start of a quest for parts.

7. Sometimes a Bad Idea Becomes Valuable One.

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There are Transformers that don’t do the whole transforming thing. It’s a counter-intuitive idea and one that wasn’t necessarily popular. Yet, these toys do exist and they do have their fans.

Dahveed Kolodny-Nagy was working at ToysRUs when the Action Master series hit shelves years ago. “At the time, it was kind of disastrous,” he says. “They’re just action figures.” Still, Kolodny-Nagy used to grab those toys and put them aside so that he could buy them at the end of the day. They still matter to him and other collectors. It was the end of the first generation, a “last gasp,” he says, for a franchise that was losing its hold in the U.S. “It was kind of like the end of an era for me, personally, so they have a lot of significance, I think for other collectors as well,” he says. These days, some collectors do seek out these pieces. Kolodny-Nagy had a couple at his booth, including one that was sealed. They’re a quirk in the series and that makes them special.

6. It Doesn’t Have to be a Toy to Be Collectible.

Liz Ohanesian

Some fans aren’t obsessed with the toys. Greg Monroe, who was working at a booth for Toy Addicts, pointed out some Transformers watches displayed under glass. People are on the lookout for items like that, or maybe a sleeping bag or some other relic of the 1980s. “When it comes to Transformers, with the stuff that’s out there, it’s not really about what’s the best piece,” he says. There’s no Transformers must-have. It’s a personal thing. People get what they want.

Over at the Wizard’s Realm booth, Glenn Becher had a few cool statues of characters like Ravage, Starscream, Grimlock and Jazz. In the early 2000s, a company called Hard Hero released cold cast, porcelain statues of Transformers characters. When the company lost the license, they had to get rid of the remaining stock quickly. Because they’ve been off the market for years, they’re difficult to track down. They aren’t incredibly pricey items, but they’re cool ones to have.

There are a lot of different reasons to check out Botcon. Throughout the weekend, lines for autograph sessions were long. Getting the signature of a voice actor is a big deal for some. Others hit up the tables for art prints or comics.

5. The Amount of Transformers That Exist Is Mind-Boggling.

Liz Ohanesian

Transformers has been around for 30 years now. Over that time, Hasbro released multiple iterations of a pretty hefty stock of characters. There are originals and reissues, exclusives and more. Plus, there are the versions that were released in other countries, most notably Japan. That’s a lot of Transformers.

Beyond that, there are the toys that were released as something better than a souvenir at Botcon or another similar event. Some of the priciest items you’ll see at Botcon are called “Lucky Draw” toys. Anthony Preto, from Tempting Toys and Collectibles in Santa Clarita, CA, had a few of those at his booth. Lucky Draw items are exactly what you think they are. The super limited edition items went to those who were lucky enough to score them through a magazine or store promotion, usually in Japan. Preto’s big item is Convoy, the Japanese version of Optimus Prime, planted in black with red highlights. There were only 50 of these given away through a magazine contest. This one is now marked at $4,500.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of frustration that comes with being a Transformer collector, unless you collect something yourself. When do you stop? Is there point where you have to admit defeat, tell yourself that you’ll never obtain every version of Optimus Prime/Convoy out there?

4. The New Toys Are Popular Too.

Liz Ohanesian

It’s not just vintage finds at BotCon. In recent years, the Transformers: Masterpiece line of high-end toys was frequently cited as favorites here. Year of the Snake pieces have caught fans’ attention as well. “The hardcore collectors really love this stuff,” says Dennis Klegin of Big Bad Toy Store. “They’ll check the package for any dents and and creases and whatnot, find the most perfect box that they can for a shelf or storage. Then there are the people who just really want to buy it for display and to play with.”

Many of the first generation of Transformers became collectible by happenstance. These days, though, there are a lot of collectibles by design. I can’t help but wonder if even beautiful pieces like these will hold the same sort of weight that those early releases do 30 years from now.

3. Sometimes, a Weird Toy Catches On.

Liz Ohanesian

Cory Koeppen, a vendor from Nebraska, came out to BotCon armed with Pretenders. These aren’t your basic car-robot hybrid. Instead they look like humans or unusual creatures. “Robot in disguise in the best way possible, right?” says Koeppen.

Pretenders are kind of odd. They seem like a terrible idea, but are interesting-looking in person. Koeppen is a fan. “They did a good job of representing some of the original characters in a new way,” he says. There are other Transformers collectors who are right with him. Koeppen says he runs into a lot of people who want these. The Pretenders come with a lot of accessories, which makes the collecting aspect difficult. It’s hard to find a complete piece.

2. BotCon Is Mostly About Collecting.

Liz Ohanesian

There are a lot of different aspects of the Transformers fandom, but the collecting aspect is overwhelming. You’ll see cosplayers and some of them have done an amazing job at creating costumes based on famed Transformers. However, that’s a very small segment of the audience at BotCon. There are artists selling prints, but the artist section here doesn’t even come close to matching that at a small anime or comic book convention. The panels, ranging from Transformers art to flashback sessions to voice actors, do draw a really good-sized crowd, but you’re not going to spend all day in line for them.

The collectible booths inside the exhibit hall, though, rarely lacked crowds. If one seemed a little empty, it was only for a matter minutes. It makes sense. Transformers, from the get-go, was part of that ’80s wave of cartoons-to-sell-toys. Plus, collecting can be an all-consuming hobby. If you’re spending years trying to track down the perfect addition to your G1 team, you may not have time to make a costume or draw some fan art. Everybody has priorities.

1. Vendors Who Are Collectors Make Us Excited to Buy Stuff.

Liz Ohanesian

Plenty of the vendors I met at Botcon are also collectors. Some sell to fund their own habits. That’s the case for James Szewczyk. He has spent just about a decade on the hunt for a Diaclone piece, one of the Japanese toy lines that Hasbro used to create Transformers. Twice, he came close to getting the toy that inspired Sunstreaker, but missed out on the opportunity. On Friday morning, he finally got it for $650. It’s not a complete piece. There are a few parts missing, but he has some spare Hasbro parts that can fill in those gaps. After so many conventions, dealers get to know each other, which is how Szewczyk came into this gem. The vendor’s excitement about his own purchase was contagious. I don’t collect Transformers, but, if I did, I would want to buy from someone who could gush over the awesome, hard-to-find item that just came into his or her possession.

Previously by Liz Ohanesian

“7 Lessons Learned From Watching Star Wars with Someone Who Never Saw It”

“9 Awesome Things You Might Not Know About Cartoon Network Studios”

“7 Reasons Why Marvel Superhero Movies Are Really Boring”

“10 Surprising Facts About Titmouse Animation Studio”

“The 8 Goth-Rockingest Episodes of The Venture Bros.”

“7 Lessons Learned From Watching Star Wars with Someone Who Never Saw It”