It seemed like a good idea at the time. One that was supposed to be an easy way to make ‘playtime’ educational. A way to enhance creativity and develop a sense of imagination and potential. When we bought our three-year-old son his first LEGO set - a LEGO Duplo Fire Station Playset - we thought we were making a smart choice.
Watching him build and rebuild and push his brick-like fire-truck around the lounge room, validated that thinking. But as so many people have found, one LEGO set wasn’t enough. After all, a fire truck is of little value if there’s no one to rescue, so we bought another set. And another and another. Fast-forward five years later, and our spare bedroom has become a great shrine to that Danish plastic brick.
Looking back on that day, we had scratched the surface of something big and had unconsciously stumbled down a path that tens of thousands of people around the world have walked before us. We had not only become LEGO collectors; we had become adult fans of LEGO (AFOL).
For members of the AFOL community, LEGO is more than a mere toy; it’s an obsession. Most AFOL have fond memories of playing and building with LEGO during childhood, and as new generations become brick enthusiasts, nostalgia rekindles what was for many, a dormant interest.
With over 300,000 members across the globe, the AFOL community has become a phenomenon. LEGO conventions like Brickvention, bring thousands of people through the doors, as hobbyists display their custom-designed creations, while a quick search in YouTube will find a multitude of videos made by LEGO fans either unboxing, building or reviewing new and old sets and mini-figures, or creating their own LEGO movies.
Scarcity breeds demand
A long way from the humble brick of the 1950’s, LEGO has evolved into a cultural behemoth, branching out into video games, television and movies, but for collectors and hobbyists (and unwitting parents), it’s the increasingly elaborate playsets and mini-figures that vie for their money. And the rarer those sets, the better.
Aficionados see LEGO as more than a children’s toy; it’s an investment of time and pride. It is the thrill of the hunt, and any self-respecting collector spends countless hours scouring blogs, toy stores, eBay listings and community forums searching for elusive set or minifigure.
“Finding that rare set is a skill of its own,” says David Wallace, a 35-year old public servant from Melbourne. “You need to know not only where to look, but when. It takes time, a lot of time, and you need to know when certain sets are coming out so you can be there the moment they land in store.”
David can’t put his finger on how many hours he’s spent chasing down the missing pieces of his LEGO collection but says it’s more than he cares to think about. “It’s probably more time than I’ve spent with my wife,” he jokes, half seriously.
A collector since his early twenties, David owns over 100 playsets (most of them still unopened), including the entire LEGO Lord of the Rings and Hobbit-themed releases, over thirty different Star Wars themed sets and the very hard-to-find Indiana Jones themed sets. But pride of place is his 300-strong menagerie of minifigures.
“I like the sets and have a few on display, like my Millennium Falcon and my Ghostbusters Car, but I love the minifigs,” says David. “Each one in my collection is unique, and some of them are incredibly rare and really valuable, like this Bilbo Baggins minifig from Comic-Con in San Diego.”
“My wife and I were travelling in the US in 2012 and were doing touristy stuff in Los Angeles at the time, and both of us thought it’d be a great idea to drive down and check it out. We were lucky enough to take part in the ‘Build-A-Bilbo’ event, where you had to follow a map and run around the place picking up little pieces of Bilbo until you had the whole figure. We were thrilled to have a Bilbo each; it was so much fun,” he recalls.
Four years later and David’s collection is down one Bilbo; the other was sold “to fund other LEGO interests.” This, according to fellow AFOL and co-founder of LEGO investment site Brickpicker.com, Ed Maciorowski, is all too common as collectors see the financial potential of their LEGO stockpiles.
“All sets are retired at some point, and several hundred are retired each year a movie run ends, a licence expires, or the Lego company wants to refresh its range. They don’t overproduce their sets. Once a set is retired, it’s retired,” he explains.
Averaging 12% annual returns over the past decade, Ed says retired LEGO sets have become a better investment than gold (averaging around 4.1%), and believes it’s largely down to the toy’s lasting popularity and durability.
“For the most part they don’t fade, they don’t work differently, it’s a toy that never goes bad, and they’re almost indestructible. It’s really hard to break a Lego piece! The mini figures all work together. That’s what’s great! It’s a commodity. It’s a thing that sits there and doesn’t go bad and generation after generation of kids always like building stuff,” he adds.
From hobby to business
Committed to helping other collectors, Ed developed brickpicker.com with his brother Jeff to share their expertise and help savvy brick-hunters – like David – build their LEGO investment portfolios through pricing updates and advice and turn their hobbies into lucrative online businesses.
“Understanding the LEGO product cycle is critical. You need to know when sets are scheduled for retirement so you can buy them and store them away. It won’t take long before they start returning a profit,” says David.
From his lounge room in Templestowe, David has turned his obsession into a viable sideline business, selling retired sets and minifigures around the globe. Using a combination of eBay and the LEGO reseller site, Bricklink.com, David and his wife Sarah sell and ship between 5-10 parcels a week, ranging in value from $20 - $50 for hard-to-find minifigures to $300-$1000 for larger retired sets.
“While the price for larger sets is greater, I prefer to deal mainly in minifigures. They’re easier for me to get my hands on, are less expensive to buy and also cost a lot less to ship. Plus they’re also really cool,” says David.
Clearly, investing in LEGO is paying dividends for David, but much to Sarah’s chagrin, his obsession means much of his profit is spent on adding to his already impressive collection.
“I’m probably buying as much as I’m selling. If you talk to Sarah, she’ll tell you we receive as many parcels as we send,” he laughs.
Originally published at Stories at Australia Post.