Finding the “Truth” in Collecting

By Shawn Robare

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how and why I collect.  Whether it’s refining and focusing on specific items, trying to curb the urge to splurge on modern collectibles, or just simply questioning why I want to do it on a fundamental level.  A good portion of this pondering has led me to question what is it exactly that I care about in the things that I collect.  When breaking a piece down there are a number of aspects that add or detract from the collectability of the item.  Is it vintage, what kind of shape is it in, is there any personal attachment of a similar item from my childhood, is it “worth” anything, is it rare or obscure, is there a pedigree to this particular item (e.g. did the piece come from a famous collection or was it owned by someone noteworthy), etc.  Every one of these criteria have different levels of importance for every individual piece, and this is something that makes collecting a rich experience.  Every piece has a story.  But sometimes there are things that we just want.  There’s a pull in the gut to pick something up and that desire can be so overriding that the collector, the curator of your museum of storied pieces, takes a backseat to convenience.

A few years ago, before I made the move from Atlanta to Baltimore, I took a tour of some of my favorite places knowing that I was probably never going to get the chance to visit them again.  One of these was a great vintage toy store out in the middle of nowhere that I was always able to find some decent, cheap vintage toys.  On one of these final trips I ended up picking up a cherished childhood Transformer, Afterburner from the Computron combiner set.  The toy was still mint on card and included inside the package was a short comic and mail-away order form for a set of three figures, a mini-combiner set known as the Decepticon Reflector.  Reflector, a toy made up of three robots that form into a single lens reflex camera, has forever been a piece that I’ve wanted to own.  Of all the Transformers action figures my favorites have typically been ones that change into everyday objects.  So Soundwave the tape deck, Blaster the Boombox, Perceptor the microscope or those rad Kronoform watches.  The cars and jets are cool, but it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief since none of these are to scare for obvious reasons, but the everyday items are usually pretty damn close (with the exception of Blaster of course.)

It was only ever available as a mail-away in the 80s, so it was kind of rare and I’ve never seen one in all my years of digging through antique and comic book stores.  Though I never had the opportunity to get my hands on a Reflector, I always hoped that at some point the set would be reissued.  Well, the other day I stumbled on an auction on eBay with a very affordable set of figures that were still mint in box.  Something felt very wrong about the auction though.  I knew that since the toy was a mail-away that the likelihood that Hasbro ever produced actual packing was highly unlikely (most mail-away toys come shipped in plain brown or white boxes and are sealed in plastic bags.  On top of the packaging, the toy was shipping from China.  Everything about this just screaming bootleg.  But, offered with the Buy-It-Now option at $25 with free shipping it gave me pause.  It made me rethink what it was exactly about my desire to own this figure that mattered.  What is the “truth” of this toy for me?

It very quickly occurred to me that none of the typical criteria for collecting mattered with this piece.  It isn’t a toy I had as a kid, vintage Reflectors in decent shape with all of the accessories command a fairly hefty price tag, and there are plenty of other pieces I’d rather buy in it’s place if I was going to spend that kind of money.  But I still wanted it, and I was extremely curious about the quality of this bootleg toy.  The seller seemed to be specializing in vintage, mint-in-box Transformer knock-offs that were all pretty affordable considering how much their “real” counterparts cost on the secondary market.  Some of those knock-offs are toys that I used to own and that are pretty high up on my hunt list, and what if the quality was nice enough that I could own these pieces again?  I decided to throw caution to the wind and buy the Reflector to test the waters.  For $25 it’d at least be worth satiating my curiosity and I knew that I could at least get some use out of the experience.

Though it took a while to ship out, I received the bootleg Reflector in the mail this past week and I have to say that I’m pretty shocked at just how good the quality of this knock off really is.  I was expecting a super flimsy box with poor printing and super cheap plastic reproductions of the figures and this couldn’t have been further from the truth.  The box feels and looks like an honest to goodness vintage Hasbro product with heavy cardboard, great diecuts on the corners and crisp saturated package art.  A lot of care was taken with the presentation from recreating the official tech specs, to including accurate correct English on all of the text.  I’ve seen plenty of bootlegs at flea markets before, but they always have a ton of broken English and very poor packaging.  The only detail that I noticed that was a bit off was the 1984 copyright/Trademark notice at the bottom of the package since this figure was released in 1986.

So, what about the toys themselves?  Again, I was expecting super cheap, light weight plastic with absolutely no metal accents.  And again, I was wrong on all counts.  Not only did the figures have metal core pieces, but the plastic feels very much in line with similar toys I had as a kid.  The paint is on par for 80s era Hasbro as well and not sloppy at all.  The included stickers look accurate, are printed on nice foil paper and the figure even came with one of those old school heat sensitive stickers that you rub to uncover their Decepticon logo.  In the world of bootlegs I’m pretty sure that is going way above and beyond!

It wasn’t until I transformed the figures and combined them to form the camera alt mode that I noticed some issues with the quality.  There was a little bit of plastic flashing on the figures, a couple little extra bits of excess plastic that needed to be shaved off with a knife in order to make the pieces fit properly in place.  But this is also an issue I’ve had with actual legitimate Transformers toys from Hasbro, so it was hardly that big of a deal overall.

All in all I am pretty stoked with this purchase.  For only a little more than the original toy cost back in 1986 I was able to nab this piece for my collection.  But this raises some interesting questions for me.  Since this toy is a bootleg, shouldn’t I feel, well, bad?  Granted, it’s not like I’m putting anyone out of work buy buying this since no one is officially manufacturing and selling legitimate re-issue Transformers like this, but isn’t there something inherently wrong about adding a bootleg like this to a collection?  Sure, there are a lot of folks that almost exclusively collect knock-off toys, but it’s very rarely toys that are so accurate that it takes a master toy detective to tell the bootlegs from the originals.  Most folks who collect knock-offs do so because they are so cheaply and horribly produced.  The attraction is the sadness of the doppleganger, the deformity, the horribly flashing issues, the terrible paint and plastic color choices.  With a replica bootleg like this though, the only draw is in acquiring seemingly legitimate pieces at bargain basement prices.

To be 100% honest, I’m pretty conflicted.  Though I’m not trying to pass this off as a credible G1 Transformer toy, it’s certainly something I’d have to mention if I ever had a fellow collector over to the house.  At the end of the day, I know that I want this toy on my toy shelf.  Looking at it and playing with it makes me happy, so it has found a home in my collection.  The question now becomes, how far down this rabbit hole do I allow myself to go.  The eBay seller also has a really nice gift set of the complete Computron combiner toys.  That’s an item that I would very much like to reclaim for the collection, but now I have to figure out what is essential about the piece.  What is the “truth” of the piece.  Do I stick to hunting down a vintage set, waiting until I find something I’m happy with at the best quality/price ratio?  Or do I tic this one off the list and order an affordable bootleg from China?

What would you do?

  • The Surfing Pizza

    Fascinating question! I love bootleg toys as their own thing and their own weird truths — the perfect replica thing does present a lot of weird questions for collectors… sort of the same one reissues do. I have a bunch of the reissued replica TMNT figures … and yet as shiny and perfect as they are, they don’t hold the same lure over me as the ones I know are originals.

    • Yeah, I think a lot of that lure (and alluring-ness) is that intangible feeling of time. We know those hunks of plastic have been around, like they almost have a life of their own, a history. The newer stuff, it’s just a visual metaphor of a memory. I think the question that the collector has to answer is what are they collecting, the thing, or the thought of the thing.

  • Great article, Shawn. Personally, I would love to find affordable copies of overpriced collector’s items. I’ve been dying to get my hands on some 1982 G.I.Joes but they’re so ridiculously expensive I find it hard to justify spending the money. As nice as it is to own an original, sometimes a copy is better than nothing at all. It seems like you’ve struck gold with this eBay seller.

    • Thanks! I hear ya on the Joes. I’m currently looking for an affordable Storm Shadow, bootleg even, and it’s hard to find (at least in the traditional color scheme, no problem finsing cammo, pink or purple ones.)

  • ShadowWing Tronix

    I have the same molds, in these colors, but they aren’t Transformers. I think from a Takara release (it has Microx on the camera) but it could just end up being a knockoff from back in the day. I don’t have any of the packaging and they each have some damage after years of play.

    • I know when these were released by Takara they had packaging, just not sure what it looked like. Love the overall design of these, and the camera mode is awesome. Perfect size for a kid.

  • I’m KO all the way. It does give me moral pause, but that’s about it. I have that KO Computron and it’s amazing. Again, not perfect, but damn close. A lot of vintage collectors decry the destruction of in-package specimens. However, I want that feel of brand new. So I guess by buying a KO at least I’m not depriving the MISB community of one less toy :)

    • Good points for sure. Question, what little things were off on your Computron?

      • The joints were almost too tight. Got really scared a couple of times, but plastic held up great. There was a lot of flashing. One of the worst things was the visor on the combiner head had a huge scratch on the paint. That just looked like a painting error. However, it speaks to the QC.

        • Gotcha. Might need to get an exacto knife to fix the flashing when mine comes in…

  • ToLust

    Could you please send me the link to the seller store. I would love to order one

  • Retromash

    Great article Shawn. And a fascinating dilemma. I’m with you all the way. As it is a particularly rare piece that would be hard, and expensive, to get nowadays, I think this is a great way to experience some of the joy you would have had as a kid if you had gotten the real thing. Why deprive yourself of that? The ‘truth’ is purely subjective, and is different for each piece that you will hunt. As long as you’re not buying this one to show people how complete your collection is, then it’s fine in my eyes. If you’re buying it for your own personal curiosity and nostalgia then go for it. You’re right though about the fact that if you ever show anyone your collection you’re always going to feel obliged to tell them that this one is a knock-off. But that’s probably worth it, and is quite an interesting story in itself. Thanks for sharing. Michael

    • Thanks Michael. Yeah, it’s so weird how collecting changes the way we feel about stuff, particularly when it comes to the honesty of what we collect. I just saw a guy on twitter the other day that had the most insane story about finding an original 1983 Kenner Gamorean Guard action figure on the pegs in a major chain department store. I mean, that is just impossible. With store resets, new merchandise, a million retro fans walking the aisles over 30 years, I just can not believe that a toy could just sit there on the pegs. Even if it was old merchandise in the back of a warehouse, I can not image that someone in the know didn’t happen upon it before now. Not that it really matters to me in the grand scheme of things, it throws that individual’s entire collection and web presence into question for me though.

  • Logan

    I have no issue with bootlegs. They save money, and they help to keep down the often insane prices of some pieces for collectors who only buy legit. I would also feel a pang that it wasn’t legit, but it would give the same warm fuzzies to have on a shelf as the real thing, and if it can save money then that can be put towards a legit something that doesn’r have a bootleg so much the better.

    • Yeah, the more I think about it the more bootlegs make sense. Just enjoy the toy.

  • Very cool!

  • Dyl Kloepfer

    I love bootlegs more than reissues a lot of the time.
    It adds charm for me.

    If I had to choose between the two, 9/10 times I’d go bootleg.

    I think about what you said a lot.
    Transformers specifically, I for some reason love Japanese reissues, especially boxed, but only for some characters, some have to be vintage, bootlegs are fine or even the best choice for a lot of them and then quality can range too.

    One of my favourites is to get the vintage figure and add reissue or bootleg parts, plus repro stickers.
    Feels like fixing up an old car, it’s nice to know a piece is original but with modern reliability added.

    • You know, that is an excellent point. The car analogy is a good one. I think about the vintage Jetfire that I was given by a gracious reader. Like most Jetfires, the shoulder joint is broken, and though it displays fine, I kind of would like to pick up a cheap bootleg to salvage the parts to fix the vintage one. Also, I’ve love to display one in the box, just for me and my own enjoyment, so it would have to be bootleg. Similarly, with this Reflector, it never had a box in the US. So this is the only way to display it in the box…

  • Not a fan of bootlegs or reproductions personally. I don’t think it’s right to feed the people who make a living off of steeling someone else’s trademark. I’d rather save up for a while and own a legit piece than have a knock off. Otherwise, what’s the point? Instant gratification? Instant gratification of what? A fake item? Admire it if you will, but it’s still not a legit Transformer in my book. May as well just plug the hole in your collection with a photograph of the item.