Antique and collectible toys resonate with collectors today for their ability to evoke the power of memory and nostalgia. From holding on to your first Barbie doll to discovering a mint-condition action figure from your childhood, these objects offer a glimpse at the historical evolution of toys in our society and serve as cultural relics. Here, we explore some of the most popular childhood collectibles, including vintage toys from the 19th century through the 21st. Read on to see if your favorites make the list.
By the turn of the 20th century, technology made it possible to easily produce toys in the same manner as early cars and trucks. Before the rise of action figures and franchise-driven toys, vintage toys enthralled children all across the world. Today, toys like model trains and porcelain dolls that were once cherished items are now valuable collectibles.
Wind-up toy mechanisms first appeared in the 15th century when German inventor Karl Grod developed a mechanical fly and eagle. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, large-scale and toy-sized automaton figures were created with wind-up motors that were used to produce lifelike motions.
By the early 18th century, wind-up toys gained traction in Germany and other parts of Europe, and by the 19th century, a wealth of European toymakers began mass-producing tin versions. This led to a large influx of tin wind-up toys in America during the Industrial Revolution. In 2012, a rare Marklin wind-up toy boat sold at Bertoia Auctions for $264,500.
First created in Germany in the 1830s, model trains were made by pouring molten brass or tin into a mold. Shortly after, the first American version was created by Mathias Baldwin of the Baltimore Locomotive Works. After the American Civil War, model trains grew in popularity, and eventually more advanced features like the section track, figure eight layout, and electric capabilities caught on. Demand for model trains began to wane in the mid-20th century, as interest shifted from trains to cars.
Diecast cars began appearing in the early 20th century when toy manufacturers started to create miniature versions of the Model T and MG sports cars. These detailed replicas provided a means for collectors and car enthusiasts alike to own the expensive models they coveted. Diecast cars reached the height of their popularity during the 1960s.
While older, rarer models can sell for thousands of dollars in the market, the most expensive example ever to sell at auction was a gold-plated 1:8 scale model of a Lamborghini Aventador, which started at a price of $7.5 million in 2013.
Antique Porcelain Dolls
First appearing in the mid-19th century, antique porcelain dolls became a popular children’s toy and are now considered cherished collectibles. To-date, the most expensive doll ever to sell was a bisque doll, which sold at Theriault’s for $300,000 in 2014. Though limited editions and dolls made before the 1930s generally sell for loftier amounts, others generally sell anywhere from $10–$2,000.
Cap guns grew in popularity towards the end of the American Civil War when the gun manufacturers that had produced firearms and ammunition prior to the war began developing toy models as a way to stay in business. Cap guns were further popularized by the introduction of fictional heroes of the American West in movies and television programs. Toy companies like Hubley, Kenton, Kilgore, Wyandotte, and others began entire production lines of cap guns, and the height of their production was a 20-year span in the years that followed World War II.
Today, collectors find the most value in mint and boxed versions, especially those in complete sets with lifelike features. Rare cap guns in their original boxes have sold for upwards of $2,000.
The rise of action figures and franchise-driven toys dominated the toy industry in the 1970s. Characters were important components in how toys were deemed relevant, and this allowed for a franchise’s multi-media reach across literature, film, and television. Vintage toys are still notable today and are coveted relics for modern collectors.
Dinky Cosmic Interceptor
The Dinky Toys company produced miniature diecast toys from the 1930s until the 1970s. Today, Dinky diecast toys are in-demand at auction: a collection of 3,500 rare car toys sold for £150,000 at Devon auction in 2016—and one of their later airplanes even increased its value at auction in 2015.
Pez dispensers are loved for both the candy inside and the playful characters on top. While the dispensers are often produced in limited editions (and thus, hard to find), sometimes Pez candy itself can be incredibly valuable. In 2012, a collection of hard-to-find Pez candies from the 1970s, in their original wrapping, sold at Profiles in History for a hammer price of $300. The candies came from the collection of Chad Dreier, one of the most avid collectors of entertainment and pop-culture memorabilia, including a swath of vintage toys, games, and action figures.
With the ability to stretch to four times his size and snap back without a mark, Stretch Armstrong was one of the most intriguing and entertaining toys to emerge from the 1970s. It was the only toy of its kind, and its unique approach made it desirable to many. Unbreakable and dexterously satisfying, this doll has been known to sell for over £300 at auction.
Evel Knievel “Stunt Cycle
Evel Knievel is one of the most notable stuntmen of all time. His daring motorcycle tricks seemed to defy gravity, and the merchandise that was modeled after him allowed kids (and adults) to take home a piece of the action. His “Stunt Cycle” action figure is now a tough toy to find, but an original, unused piece in its sealed box—with the original price sticker of $4.49 still attached—landed over $600 at auction in 2016.
Hot Wheels, a brand of diecast car that launched in 1968, gained traction during the 1970s. Various models were released throughout the decade, including mirrorings of drag race culture and a partnership with Marvel comics for themed cars. Though many different models and lines of the cars have been released since they first launched, earlier releases are coveted collectibles.
Star Wars Memorabilia
Star Wars was the ultimate film phenomenon of the ‘70s and still draws a strong cohort of fans to this day. Action figures of well-known characters came to the market shortly after the franchise launched in 1977 and were beloved by fans both young and old. A near-mint vintage figure of a character with little screen time took home £8,500 at auction in 2017—main characters have been known to garner far more.
In addition to action figures, the Star Wars franchise launched a line of Marvel comic books. As a testament to the enduring appeal of Star Wars merchandise, this comic book was originally sold for just $0.35 in 1977. In 2016, it sold for nearly $4,000 at Heritage Auctions in 2016, indicating that interest in the franchise shows no signs of slowing.
Toys in the 1980s were a mix of classic favorites mixed with new technology. Dolls and action figures remained a quintessential fixture of toy boxes everywhere, but technological advancements saw the rise of video games and more electronically savvy toys. Their worth was defined by the pioneering spirit of these new toys and their enduring appeal today.
The Koosh Ball, still in production today, is a stretchy and soft toy that serves as a plaything for children (and is often used a stress-reliever for adults). The multi-colored ball won’t cost you more than a few dollars today, but an original with the tags intact can be worth much more.
G.I. Motorized Battle Tank
G.I. Joe action figures first came on the market in 1964 and were popular until they were discontinued in 1978, largely in response to waning support of the Vietnam War. The 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in toys of military interest due to Cold War sentiments, and G.I. Joe made a comeback, with the Motorized Battle Tank leading the way as one of the most favored toys in the line.
Teddy Ruxpin was the original talking teddy bear. He “read” children stories from cassette tapes, based on the same technology as the talking figures featured at Disneyland. Though adoration for him didn’t withstand the test of time, an original Teddy has been known to sell for three times its pre-sale estimate; worth more than just a good story today.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This action figure line was already on the rise, but the release of the eponymous 1990 film propelled their success. Fans still flock to the franchise today, with films, action figures, and comic books enjoyed all over the world. The value of the action figures doesn’t live in the sewers as their namesakes do, though original pieces have been known to sell for more than two to three times their pre-sale estimate.
Thundercats Thunderwings Action Figures
The eponymous animated cartoon aired from 1985–88, continuing the obsession with coordinating action figures. Capitalizing on the theme of humanoids and aliens that took the decade by storm, Thundercats action figures provided a fantastical outlet for kids and are collected by nostalgists today.
Rubik’s Cubes are arguably one of the most iconic puzzles to ever exist. Still in production, consumers have been known to use them as casual pastimes, or to even engage in competitions—world records have been set for the fastest time to solve one. A brand new cube in its original packaging from 1980 can run for nearly $300.
Strawberry Shortcake was a beloved character in the ‘80s. Her popularity spread through television shows and children’s books and is still a favorite today. While the world has seen an abundance of dolls to hit the market, Strawberry Shortcake’s key differentiator was that the dolls actually smelled like strawberries. This one-of-a-kind feature exponentially increased the doll’s value.
Cabbage Patch Kids
Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage in the 1980s, and New Year’s Day in 1983 marked the sale of more than three million dolls. Today, an original toy can earn up to $375 at auction, depending on its condition. The high demand for the dolls also later served as inspiration in the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Jingle All The Way.”
Launched in 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System revolutionized home video games. For the first time, the excitement of the video arcade could be replicated in your living room and with the release of the Nintendo system, the video game world was changed forever. As one of the most recognized gaming systems of all time, an original, unopened version could fetch more than $500 at auction.
Nintendo took the world by storm in the 1980s, and that was just the beginning. The original Game Boy was a huge step forward for mobile gaming. Its audience included people from all ages and backgrounds, including astronauts—this particular unit sold for $1,220 at auction after it flew to space in 1994.
American Girl Dolls
Since the launch of American Girl dolls under the leadership of Pleasant Rowland (The Pleasant Company) in 1986, the brand has flourished to include books, film adaptations, and brick-and-mortar stores. The success of the first three dolls is credited with the rise of the franchise, and an original Molly McIntire, Kirsten Larson, or Samantha Parkington doll could be worth more than $1,000 today.
The 1990s saw sustained interest in action figures and the rise of high-tech toys. You may still have a few in your closet or be familiar with many of the reissues that have occurred in recent years. Though not the distant past, the ‘90s still yielded a swath of collectible toys.
Magic: The Gathering
Magic: The Gathering was the first trading card game released in 1993, and the phenomenon is still played today. The intricate activity has a number of unique cards to entice players and make things interesting. Each game depicts a battle between wizards known as planeswalkers who cast spells, use artifacts, and summon creatures that are seen on the individual cards.
The value of these cards depends greatly upon their rarity. Some were less produced than others in printing which increased their value in both the game and cost. A small, colored symbol on the card represents its rarity, where black is the most common and orange-red or bronze is mythic. Depending on your collection and its condition, these cards could be more valuable than just making the right play.
The Furby took the 1990s by storm, igniting the tech-toy boom. With a wide-ranging vocabulary and snarky attitude, the Furby kept kids busy and surely drove some parents insane. A characterized re-release of the toy to correspond with new Star Wars films yielded a resurgence in Furby’s popularity in 2015.
Carrying a pet around all day is a commitment, but a digital pet that fit on your key fob or in your pocket allowed kids the best of both worlds. The craze was wide-reaching in the late 1990s, and despite the rerelease of the toy in 2018, an original Tamagotchi could be worth up to $100. The revival may have something to do with its value—fans of the toy as children may be doing a bit of nostalgic collecting as adults.
After it appeared on Home Alone 2: Lost In New York in 1992, the Deluxe Talkboy was a huge hit. The toy allowed friends to radio each other and keep in touch during play, and is more than just a cheap piece of plastic and wires today—an original toy is worth at least $130.
The 1990s had its own wave of action figure franchises. Power Rangers toys were based off the live-action superhero television series and catapulted the action figures to the spotlight. Only a few dollars a piece would have allowed you to be part of the fun back then, but today, an original piece could be worth more than just nostalgia.
Though Mattel recently relaunched the Polly Pocket line of toys, the original collection is still highly sought after, as some parts and pieces are difficult to track down. The small figures allowed players to flex their creativity and craft a unique, tiny world of storytelling and imagination.
Still enjoyed today, Super Soakers are signature features of any child’s summer. While the market has expanded to include a variety of models and designs, an original vintage Super Soaker can be valued at nearly $500. As the first toy of its kind to shoot water over 50 feet, it was a revolutionary development for pool time.
Spice Girls Doll Collection
The Spice Girls were a ‘90s girl band sensation. The five British singers were well-known globally by their unique personas and catchy songs. A complete collection of all five Spice Girl dolls in their original boxes can take home up to $600.
Launched in 1992, Mario Kart was—and still is—one of the most beloved video games of all time. The racing game brought friends together for long afternoons of fun, and original versions can be worth up to $1,000 today, sought-after for their original graphics and gaming features.
Beanie Babies were some of the most desired childhood animal toys during the 1990s. Special edition Beanie Babies—such as the Princess Diana memorial bear—were not only sought out by children but also by collectors. Auctions featuring the bears during the height of the craze brought top dollar.
Hot Wheels Treasure Hunt Cars
Though Hot Wheels had been around for several decades by the 1990s, the release of the signature Treasure Hunt Cars line brought on a new obsession for the cars. A limited edition line of cars with real rubber wheels and modified designs were instant hits with collectors and are still highly sought after today.
Harry Potter Books
While not your average toy, the first publication of the Harry Potter book series holds a special place in many hearts, and is one of the most notable childhood landmarks of the ‘90s. The first publication in 1998 only produced 500 copies, 300 of which went straight to libraries. A first edition signed by author J.K. Rowling took $162,500 at Christie’s in 2018.
Japanese fantasy cartoon Pokémon took the United States entertainment world by storm. Not only did it comprise a television series and video game, but the coordinating card game became popular in the ‘90s and still is to this day. Trading cards were amassed by players and collectors over the years, and some are worth far more than their original value.
While rich in sentimental value, collectible toys from decades and even centuries—ago can fetch top dollar when sold in their original condition. The evolution of toys and how much they are auctioned for—from simple wind-up toys to technologically complex video games—gives us a glimpse into how the childhood experience has changed over the decades. Such cultural relics give collectors insight into our historical relationships with toys, and provide a hint at where the future of toys is headed.