In The Future Of Collecting, Is Anyone Having Fun?
9:23 AM EDT on March 17, 2021
It’s hard to identify the definitive inflection point when the fun stopped in America, if only because to do so would ignore the fact that for some, the fun never really started. Instead, it’s more accurate to argue that the fun just keeps getting more exclusive. The money is funneled ever upward, leaving ever more of us on the outside looking in. As the affluence gap grows, markets change with it. Fewer people have money to invest and stock market participation has declined significantly over the past 20 years, with a mini-boon in the aughts buoyed by a market bubble that would eventually undo an entire generation’s trust in America’s financial system. Given that the American economy is based entirely around separating people from their money, a reduction in the number of people who have money to burn also results in fewer people feeling like they’re part of the game. You can’t win if you don’t play, and the buy-in is too high for so many.
So, if you’re a massive corporation whose entire livelihood relies on people believing in and buying into the intrinsic value of your product, how do you counteract this version of widespread consumer nihilism? You create a new market based around what people do have. And what do people in America have? They have a bunch of shit.
Piles of it. Old toys, new sneakers, video game consoles, vintage shirts in cardboard boxes in some dead relative’s attic. America is a consumer culture and after decades of consumption, all the things that didn’t end up in a landfill or choking a turtle to death in the middle of the Pacific are now for sale again. The sports memorabilia market is currently valued at over $5 billion annually. By the middle of 2020, StockX reported more than $2.5 billion in gross merchandise volume. Funko, maker of the wildly popular Pop! line of vinyl figurines, brings in hundreds of millions in revenue every year.
“For me, it was always about the money and the value,” says Chris Nerat, a consignment director at Heritage Auctions, the largest collectibles auction house in the world. “When I got my first pack of baseball cards and found out that this thing that I paid a few cents for was worth like 50 cents, it just became a fascination for me.” Chris is describing his first card collection in the 1980s, putting a fine point on the fact that this type of stuff has always been around in some capacity. A key reference point for these markets for the average outsider, particularly those that look at it with an understandable amount of confusion or even scorn, is the Beanie Baby bubble of the late ‘90s. At the time it was understood to be absurd. Today, it’s hard to imagine it fizzling out so quickly.
Something else that’s changed is how much our culture has accepted that this stuff isn’t just for kids; or perhaps we’ve had the realization forced upon us by those who stand to profit from it. Poptimism grew from something used by a handful of critics—a recalibration of the rubric for what made something artful, resulting in performers like Taylor Swift and Kanye West receiving treatment akin to MacArthur fellows—to a genuine large-scale movement that tells you your own obsessions, no matter how generic or frivolous, have great cultural value. All of this has coincided with a surge in nostalgia. What’s popular is good, and what’s popular is the stuff that made us happy as children, and the things that made us happy as children remind us of halcyon days of no responsibility and a functioning economy. And what a wonderful coincidence that you can sell a piece of that nostalgia to help pay your bills.
Collecting starts, as anything does, with a need.
Unlike food or water or shelter, this need is different. It’s less consequential but more invasive, something impossible to ignore. An empty shelf space. An admiration for something: the form, the accomplishment, the personality. And, finally, a request via email to a reclusive artisan in British Columbia known throughout the bobblehead hobby for crafting intricate ceramic pieces in the style of those from the collectible heyday of the early 1960s.
The Catman, born Matt Hirsch, starts with the mold. The general shape is pretty consistent regardless of which athlete he’s creating. A sturdy base with enough room on the bottom for some painted script recounting various milestones (“4-Time Stanley Cup Champion,” “5-Time NBA MVP,” etc.), and a generic body shape on top. A separate mold for that signature giant head, mounted on the body via spring to let it move and nod when tapped or moved. Unlike the modern bobbleheads that surfaced in the 1990s with realistic depictions of athletes etched into cheap resin or plastic, the Catman creates bobbleheads (or, in the parlance of the hobby, “bobbles” or “nodders”) that are reminiscent of the first one he ever bought.
A 27-year-old Hirsch was at a thrift shop with his mother in 1994 where he found a 1960s Japanese-made ceramic nodder for the local CFL team, the BC Lions, and bought it for about 50 cents. He didn’t know they were worth so much more than that. He didn’t care, either. Hirsch simply loved the piece, a sports-obsessed child who played whatever he could as often as he could. “I’ve always loved the CFL,” he says now. “I know it’s not like the big money or the big deal the NFL is, but those guys. They just play because they love the game.” Bobbleheads, particularly vintage ones, were even rarer in Canada than they were in the United States because of the relative dearth of professional sports teams. The CFL bobblehead earned a special place in Hirsch’s heart. Almost immediately, he started to wonder if he too could make something so special.
It started with BC Lions bobbleheads in the same style as the one he’d bought, replicating the form while putting his own unique twist on the precision of the painting. He experimented with molds, adding in props such as a giant football that the bobblehead leaned against, a particularly in-demand form from the 1960s in the collectible world. Eventually, the Lions started selling his bobbleheads at the stadium, which helped him gain some momentum. He traveled to card shows and collectible conventions on the west coast to show his product off, sometimes to a tepid response, sometimes to great fanfare. The business was still slow going until eBay launched in 1995, opening a pathway for The Catman to reach more people—and most importantly, to reach the American market, where competitive retail was already built into the fabric of consumer culture. Requests began to flood in.
Soon he was fulfilling limited-run requests by collectors who sought his work. He learned the optimal time to start carving the clay (as it dries, but before it becomes brittle) to create the textured hair of basketball players; hockey players with flow spilling out of their helmets; the spider-web grids of goaltender masks. The hobbyists recognized the care that went into each, even if Hirsch downplays his earlier work. A limited-run Michael Jordan UNC figurine now goes for well over $1,000 on secondary markets. “I only sold them for like $25 or $50,” Hirsch laughs. “I mean, sometimes I see that stuff and I just can’t believe someone wants something I made that badly. To pay that much?”
While the bobbleheads were taking up a significant portion of his time, they weren’t paying the bills. He was putting money back into the business, picking up odd jobs here and there. (“I’ve done construction, I’ve done roofing. I’ll never roof again. I came home one night and told my wife, ‘That’s the last roof I’m ever going up on.’ But I’ve done it all.”) An accommodating man, at one point he was essentially running an unofficial babysitting service for his neighbors, many of whom dropped their kids off with him while they went to work. Hirsch never said no. It wasn’t in his nature.
It caught up with him in 2004. Burnt out, Hirsch took time the summer off to try to rediscover his passion for bobbleheads. He didn’t, and at the end of the summer he got a job at Sears as a truck driver. The Catman was retired. He would consider it now and again, passing his workshop where the molds and the kiln sat collecting dust, beckoning him to take up his tools again. Hirsch ignored it. He had a family and kids to take care of, the mirage of financial security at the expense of happiness always on the horizon. He’d resume at the right time, at his choice.
Then, in 2009, a near-fatal car accident left him laid up and severely injured. His left side paralyzed, Hirsch was unable to hold things in his left hand. No more precision painting. No more carving of damp clay. No more new Catman bobbleheads. Overnight, they became among the hobby’s most sought-after treasures. In the world of collecting, scarcity—natural or artificial—means very real demand.
It’s not just the having. It’s the sensory experience and the memories it invokes, like Proust’s madeleines. Sneaker collectors obsess over the smell of a new pair of shoes, or the ritual of lacing a deadstock pair of Jordan 1s. Card collectors lovingly speak of the crinkling sound a pack makes when you run your fingers across it.
“I love the smell when I open one ... Do you remember the smell, when you were a kid, of a new Disney VHS? That’s what they smell like. It’s like a new VHS tape.” Karl Koveal has been collecting Funko Pop! vinyl figurines for at least a half-decade at this point, and though he can’t be sure of the exact year, he knows the first one. Everyone remembers the first one. For Koveal, it was Marty McFly from Back to the Future. “I always thought they were cool, like the design of them, the little eyes they all have, the distinct look. I didn’t buy one for a few years because I just didn’t need it, but I love Marty McFly so much. That was the first one I felt like I had to have.” In his eyes, Karl collects the franchises that he cares about, not the vinyls themselves.
Since starting in 2010 as a limited-production run for a toy convention, Funko’s Pop! line has become ubiquitous in the world of pop culture, shorthand for obsessives or a joke to those who don’t get it and never will. The company licenses with specific properties, most of which have ties to the comics, fantasy, or sci-fi genres that already tend to inspire higher levels of cult following. Sometimes the target audience is a little harder to pin down, such as with the Aerosmith license that allowed the company to create vinyl figurines of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. Each of them have the same general mold—a giant, blocky head on a tiny body—and a handful of common characteristics—the little beady black eyes, eyebrows, and button nose are usually the exact same across different figurines—with the rest of the details distinguishing each character.
Every aspect of the product is designed with collecting in mind. Packaging is designed so that the toy can easily be removed from the box for display without rupturing or destroying anything in the process, allowing collectors to slide the figurine back into its package for long-term storage and protection should they choose. Toys are numbered to signify which mold was used, allowing collectors to group their pieces within the different mold sets generated by the company. Funko offers an official app that allows the user to track which ones they have—and just as importantly, which ones they don’t. There’s more, but if you don’t collect them, it’ll sound equally silly. That’s the unifying feature of all collectible subcultures: Each one has a handful of shibboleths that sort seemingly identical products into “good” or “bad.”
“I used to collect Buffy statues,” says Koveal, whose general obsession with collecting started in the mid-aughts. “There were these insanely cool statues that an artist was making, they were limited run. I was young and had just gotten my first job and had extra money for the first time and it was my favorite show ever.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a formative show for him growing up and the statues were a way of expressing that love. But the individual pieces were just that: individual, relatively expensive, and difficult to obtain if you didn’t know where to look. They weren’t in the aisles of Target. You found out about them on collectors’ forums or fan pages, or through a fan themselves promoting their own unique artwork that either flopped or took off. No licensing necessary, because of fair-use laws and limited quantities.
Each of these pieces were being handmade or at least made in small batches by a fanatic, exclusively for other fanatics who respected the craft. The time frame is important here, too, as it predated the modern geek culture boon that arguably started in earnest with the 2008 release of Iron Man and subsequent success of the MCU. It’s a foreign concept barely a decade later, but geek culture was still relatively niche. “I kept all my Buffy statues at home,” Koveal says. “Keeping it at my desk would’ve been weird. I know my coworkers then would’ve thought I was a weirdo. Now they’d probably have their own.”
“I remember the first one I got was The Hound from Game of Thrones,” says Bryan Krasman, a developer in Pittsburgh who has been collecting Funko Pop! vinyls for about six years. “And it’s funny to think about now, because every show has so much merch, but when it came out there wasn’t a lot of Game of Thrones stuff.” Koveal and Krasman are both in the older Millennial/younger Gen X age range, and both describe witnessing how geek culture changed around them, from being a tightly guarded secret to something proudly exhibited. Krasman has an elaborate set-up in his office at home with specific shelves where he displays his vinyls, organized by franchise.
“It’s displaying a fandom,” says Koveal, a phrase he repeats a few different times while discussing his collection. To him, a fandom is about more than just the show or the characters or the property or even the feeling that it evokes, but rather as a signifier of values, and of belonging to something bigger. It’s a unifying factor in a divisive world; something that can bind two completely dissimilar people, their fondness for a show or a comic book transcending cultural barriers. It’s easy to mock if you don’t share the same affinity for pop culture, or for pop culture as a vessel for personality traits, but inherently it’s about community. And everyone has a different tolerance for how silly the foundation of that community is allowed to be. “My dad was a sports memorabilia collector,” Koveal says. “And nobody ever thought that was weird to have, because sports were cool.”
To the untrained eye, Funko Pop! vinyls are often confused with bobbleheads, which have become an iconic example of sports memorabilia. It makes some sense, given the gigantic head and undersized frame. And Funko does offer a line of Pop! figurines that are licensed with sports franchises and feature individual players (though they’re largely indistinguishable apart from uniform logo and number). Despite that, the world of bobblehead collectors and Funko collectors don’t have much overlap, if any at all.
“I don’t even think it’s the same thing,” says Kevin Czerwinski, a former Major League Baseball employee and Mets writer who runs a blog called the Bobblist. “I mean they’re not even comparable. You look at the quality on these bobbleheads and the attention to detail that goes into every one of them. It’s so far above and beyond what you’d see from like a Funko or something like that.” Czerwinski purchased his first bobblehead while on the road covering the Mets. The team had an off-day and he drove up to Buffalo to see a rehab assignment for Steve Trachsel. There was a mascot bobblehead in the gift shop and he said he simply had to have it. Nearly 20 years later, he has more than 400 of them. “I don’t even have all that many, compared to some of the guys I talk to who are into the hobby.”
At the turn of the century, after significantly lower interest for three decades, the icon had a resurgence powered by an extremely popular giveaway of 25,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads at a San Francisco Giants game. Once other clubs took notice, the new bobblehead boom was on, with ballparks across the country creating their own giveaways for fans to cherish and display, or put up on eBay within hours of first pitch. Czerwinski goes on to describe something that sounds a lot like the geek culture post-Poptimism boom in reverse: The mass-market bobbleheads have become poorer quality and not as hotly coveted in the world of memorabilia collectors today, especially when compared to the bobbleheads of the 1960s that sell for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. Czerwinski rattles off toy companies like Foco or Royal Bobbles that are more niche, specialty producers of higher quality bobbleheads. Their materials are more substantial and longer-lasting, particularly compared to the cheaper plastic used for mass-giveaway bobbles. At the same time, the craftsmanship is superior. Likenesses are exaggerated like any caricature, but should be distinguishable even from a distance. A bobblehead of Joe Kelly’s iconic pout from the 2020 World Series is unmistakable. The simple, generic ceramics and papier mache bobbleheads of the 1960s are far more similar to a Funko than anything going around a ballpark today, with the delicacy of the construction materials dictating just how much (or little) detail one could add; as one subculture moves away from distinguishing features towards a pursuit of cultural ubiquity, the previous throneholder moves toward them.
Much of the antipathy between the two hobbies feels generational. The struggle for major sports, particularly baseball, to gain and keep young fans is well-documented, while the types of properties that Funko contracts with are essentially printing money. But it’s striking to me how similar collectors from the two groups sound to each other. They all discuss similar themes of community, and recognize that their collections are just totems to that end. “It’s just a piece of plastic at the end of the day,” Czerwinski says about the bobbleheads in his collection. Implicit is a rationality that otherwise seems evasive: I can stop anytime I want, and I know that this is all silly. Yet this sentiment is relayed while, just a few feet away, a stack of hundreds (or thousands, for the more extreme collectors) of these pieces of plastic sit and watch, so that these collectors can communicate something essential about themselves and how they process reality around them.
John Brey is one of the leading experts in the bobblehead hobby, with a particular expertise in historical and antique nodders. In an interview with Czerwinski, he said of his passion, “They remind a lot of guys of the good old days and that’s why we like it.” They act as a callback to the formative experiences that became shorthand for their existence today. It’s comforting to believe you were and are part of something important.
Bobbleheads still tend to be worth more than the average Funko Pop! figure, but the gap is closing. In 2014, Heritage Auctions sold the most expensive bobblehead to date, a 1961 Yankees nodder that sold for nearly $60,000. By comparison, Funko speculative markets can be a little harder to nail down, but the consensus seems to be that the single most valuable vinyl is an Alex DeLarge (of A Clockwork Orange fame) figurine valued just north of $13,000. Given how young the Funko market is, that’s still a hefty sum of money.
The perceived cultural value of each piece differs, too. Nodder and bobblehead collectors have the advantage of collecting something that’s inarguably knitted in the essential fabric of our culture: America’s pastime, say, or the glory days of Vince Lombardi–era NFL football. That advantage is usually pushed front and center by sports collectors, particularly when trying to justify why their hobby is more relevant or worthwhile than the plebeians who showed up late to the collectibles party and brought their mass-market toys. But that tie to history may not have a lot to do with dictating value. “It’s not really about like being tied to something historical,” says Chris Nerat, of Heritage Auctions. “I mean, sure, there’s history to it, but what makes something valuable isn’t being tied to a historical event. A Dallas Cowboys bobblehead from the 1960s with the pointed toes is more valuable than the ones with regular feet because there were less of them made.”
What’s notable about Funko Pop! figurines is just how deliberately they mimic the obsessions that were formed organically within the collector subculture. It’s an optimized version of collectibles, wherein the company deliberately recreates the authentic experience of finding rare pieces that have minor defects or differences, or limited runs that differentiate them from the stuff that’s more broadly and cheaply available. The foundation of the company’s business model is its manufactured scarcity in combination with the fervor created by the franchises that it licenses. There’s no practical reason why the good folks at the Funko company can’t make enough figurines to satisfy demand. This is not a mom-and-pop shop. It is not reliant on one devoted artisan in the Pacific Northwest. But if everyone could get everything they wanted all of the time, there’d be no urgency, and urgency creates buzz, and buzz creates sales. Manufactured scarcity doesn’t just cut manufacturing costs for the company; it reduces sales and PR budgets, because fans are willing to do that work for free.
The bobbleheads and nodders of yesteryear are rare mainly because they are old, and old things become rarer as non-collectors throw them out, or break them, or lose them, or do whatever else one does with an old thing they’ve lost interest in. Even the modern bobbleheads given away at ballparks have a more authentic sense of scarcity, given that they’re produced for one specific ballgame in one specific stadium. But if all that matters is the scarcity, then the authenticity of that scarcity is irrelevant. Speculative markets are driven by assuming something will have value, or creating artificial value for it. And corporations are getting ever-better at knowing how to manipulate that value via manufactured scarcity, shifting definitions of authenticity, or any other means they choose. They have the capital. We need the things.
It took the Catman about five years of physical therapy to regain the feeling in the left side of his body. His left hand worked again. It was weak from years of atrophy but with patience he was soon able to squeeze and hold things again. “It was like being reborn,” Hirsch says of his accident and recovery. “It made me rethink the way I acted or what I valued. My family, my kids, my grandkids. Financial security and taking care of them. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make one again.”
He resumed creating customized nodders and bobbleheads two years ago. Most were thrilled to see him return, but some weren’t as happy about it. Worried that the value of their pieces from before the Catman’s paralysis would fade, bitter hobbyists refused to believe he was back.
“The collectors said some awful things about me and my family, they said I was a liar, really terrible, mean things. They said I wasn’t who I said I was, or they called me a fraud.” Imagine if you owned Guernica and read that Picasso had risen from the grave to paint another one.
Catman didn’t let angry collectors stop him, though it clearly affected him. This wasn’t a critique of the craft. This was resentment of a man returning to his passion for fear of market saturation; this was a shareholder revolt.
“I don’t really do those anymore,” he says of the limited runs he used to sell. “Most of what I do now is just one of one, no more sets. Someone will email me or something and we’ll talk about what they want, and I just make it for them. I know it makes them happy.” One person reached out and asked Catman to make a bobblehead of the customer’s late father. That’s the sort of work he finds important now.
He doesn’t plan on stopping. For his remaining years, he will craft one-of-one Mario Lemieuxs and Hank Aarons and unknown dads, for those who love the work for the work’s sake, not for its resale value. Surely some of them will still be speculators in it for the potential profit return, but he’ll accommodate them just the same. The collision of demand and supply. Maybe that’s what community is now, even if passion alone doesn’t pay.
“I love what I do,” Hirsch says, “but it would be nice if a big company wanted to back my product. Or carry it. It would just help a lot with exposure and financial security.”