Decades from now, when we look back on the Transformers phenomenon and specifically the Transformers fan community in all its evolving glory from patchy little groups across the world to a globally connected, flourishing mass of thousands and thousands of enthusiasts and collectors, the names of 2 people will inevitably stand out. They will stand out and stand the test of time. Jon and Karl Hartman, founders of the world’s most famous Transformers convention BotCon, have given to this hobby immeasurably. The fact that both are wonderful, approachable and modest people just helps perpetuate their legend. This month we are honoured to feature Karl in our collector spotlight. A pillar of the TF community (figuratively and literally), he’s given us an interview with a great deal of heart and stunning photos of that legendary collection. Enjoy.
1) Who are you and what do you collect?
First of all, I’d like to thank Maz for the opportunity to contribute to this series of interviews! I’ve really enjoyed reading them. My name is Karl Hartman, and since “retirement” in 2006, I’ve only really actively collected new versions of G1 characters (from the Generations, Classics, Reveal the Shield, and Universe lines), as well as the toys from FOC and WFC. I’m really looking forward to many of the 2015 offerings that are coming in the Generations line, and as an “old-timer”, appreciate that Hasbro is continuing to update G1 characters. I hope to see more of that.
2) How has the collecting scene changed in the last 15 years?
Fifteen years ago, we were in the midst of Beast Wars. Obviously, many series have come and gone since then, so there are more choices to be made, as a collector. It seems like, to me, there are four distinct areas that have changed considerably. First, the continual discovery of new variations of the Minicars, primarily from South America, seems to be a constant, slow burn. From what I have read, it can not only be a difficult path to travel, but also rewarding one. Second, the availability of previously difficult to obtain production samples of unproduced toys seems to have become quite a bit easier, if you have the money for it, that is. It would seem that this may continue to be the case, in the future.
Third, with the increase in number of companies producing “Third Party” transformers-like or Transformers inspired toys, that has created a whole new dynamic to collecting. Fans can mix and match regular Hasbro production toys, with “Third Party” toys, to create their own personal collection. Finally, and most importantly, in my opinion, is the increase of collectors coming forward with and disseminating information regarding rarities, specialty items, previously undocumented variations, and simply aiding the task of keeping track of the general release items (which can be a herculean task in and of itself, due to the sheer volume of products being produced each year). There are so many resources out there now that I hesitate to mention any, for fear of leaving one out. However, Maz knows that I have been a huge fan of his groundbreaking research articles for quite some time, and I’ll say here that I sincerely hope that they continue!
3) How do you see, or hope to see the scene changing in 5 years’ time?
One disturbing trend that I started noticing in earnest shortly before BotCon this year (and I’m aware that it has been happening for a long time, but this time it finally really hit me in a bad way) was the online bashing of other fans for what aspects of Transformers that collectors collect. Folks, the whole universe of Transformers is gigantic, whether it is solely the production toys, comic books, specialty books, “non-toy” or “artifact” items, prototypes, production samples, or any combination or subset of those areas. Every collector collects what they want to. No one should have to defend the choices that they make for their collecting habits. The last thing that we, as collectors, want to do would be to turn away another potential collector, solely based on how they are treated online because of their collecting choices. So, I would hope that in 5 years time, with even MORE choices that we will have as collectors, that folks will be even more encouraging to newer collectors online.
4) What has been your single biggest success as a collector, or your greatest ever find?
I would have to say that probably our greatest find(s) were the Micromaster Transformable base, and the Action Master transformable Half-Track Tank. Nothing too special about the circumstances surrounding those, other than that Jon and I happened to be in the right place in the right time, and the cost wasn’t crazy.
However, I would say that our biggest success as collectors was the time frame between 1992-1994. During that time, we took a lot of our stuff to Tomart Studios in Dayton, OH, for them to photograph for what was probably the first “semi-official” price guide for Transformers, including a multi-page, full color spread in their magazine (We had contacted several dealers from across the country and asked what they sold specific items for, and then averaged their prices, for the price guide). This was before the Internet really had taken hold. Through that article, many people contacted us, who would later become very close collecting friends over the years. It helped to spread the word about Transformers as a potential collectible, during the time when Generation 2 was just starting to hit the shelves. Prior to that, the only real “price guide” that we had found was one where the listing was woefully incomplete, and has Transformers valued at less than their original retail value.
It may have also been during this time frame (it was a long time ago) that we wrote a series of articles for Lee’s Action Figure Toy Review, regarding specific subsections of Transformers. The pictures were not great quality, and in black and white, but they were ok for what they were.
Well, and then there was the little gathering that we organized called BotCon. You may have heard of it 🙂 It was intended as a gathering to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Transformers toy brand, and a way for collectors to get together. That was our biggest success: to help collectors realize that they were not alone, and there were others that shared the same interests that they did.
5) What is the most surprising or outrageous collecting story you have heard?
The circumstances surrounding the recent G2 Stunticons auction, as well as the fallout from that auction, have probably been one of the most outrageous stories that I have ever heard. I was excited for, then very disappointed for, the winner of that auction. I’ve also heard of people that have spent as much as $60,000 on their collection in one year. I can’t even think in those terms. More power to those that have the money and resources that can collect on that level.
Probably the most surprising story that I can think of that happened to us was at BotCon 2006. We were selling a lot of our stuff at that show, and Peter Cullen happened to be a guest at that show. Evidently, word had gotten to him that we were selling our stuff. He was looking to buy an original Optimus Prime to give to his granddaughter, as a gift. We didn’t know anything about this before it actually happened. After having Peter Cullen as a guest at BotCon in 1997 and 2004, I could recognize him pretty easily. So when he started walking through the dealer room over to our booth, I started getting a bit nervous. He asked me “I hear you have an original Optimus Prime for sale? I want to get one for my granddaughter.” My response was something like “Um, yes sir, we do. It’s right over here. Jon, get your camera!” So, after a picture, we sold the iconic voice of Optimus Prime our Original Optimus Prime toy. It was the most surreal of events. I only wish that we had just given it to him, not actually accepted a check from him for it.
6) If you could pick one item from your collection to keep, what would it be?
If we were to sell everything else, the only item that we would keep would be our first Transformer, Windcharger. He was given to me as part of a “secret pal” program in 4th grade, by Laura Weber. She drew my name from a hat, and so she got me what she thought a boy at that time would like. That ‘s why Pete (Sinclair) chose Windcharger for one of the Chase cards in the card sets at BotCon this year. That Windcharger was the single seed that started our collection, which, playing it forward, started BotCon. So, that’s why we’d keep him.
Interestingly enough, when we sold a lot of our stuff at BotCon in 2006, Windcharger was available for sale in our special rarities live auction at BotCon. I had put a ridiculous price tag of $15,000 on it, because of its significance. Those gathered around to watch that auction take place applauded when no one bid on it, and we got to keep it.
7) If you could have one item out of someone else’s collection, what would that be?
I’ll have to pass on this one, just because I only learned of this item’s existence last week, there exists only one of it in the world. I don’t know if the person that told me about it wants me to divulge its existence to the rest of the world, but that person knows who they are, and what that item is.
8) What advice would you give a new collector starting out today?
I would have three pieces of advice for beginning collectors. First, use every resource that is at your disposal online, and learn as much as you can. There are video reviews of toys, pictorial reviews, text reviews. Read them and watch them, and decide if you’d like that toy. In the age of limited expendable income, it pays to do research, and only buy toys that you know that you’d like. Second, do not, under any circumstances, feel like you need to collect everything. There is just too much out there. You’ll spend yourself into debt. Find one subset to concentrate on: a focus, then branch out from there, when you’re comfortable. Finally, get involved on an online community, such as TFW2005, Allspark, or Seibertron. There are many friendly people out there that are happy to answer any questions from new collectors. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Many kind and gracious thanks to Karl (and Jon) Hartman. For everything.
All the best