Ted Ekering is a collector unlike most we’ve featured on this blog so far. Ted is based in Japan, and while he has an extensive Transformers and 3rd party collection, he also specialises heavily in a number of other toy lines and hobbies. His home akin to a toy museum, Ted has far more Star Wars figures than Transformers, and also dabbles in horror figures, Marvel figures, Batman figures, Star Trek figures…and over a hundred other action figure lines! A huge cosplay enthusiast, costume-maker, customizer, photographer and scourge of the TFW2005 Find That Transformer Figure thread, Ted delivers some fantastic insight and opinion on the 3rd party Transformers scene and has some sobering advice to anyone starting out as a toy collector. Get comfortable and enjoy this fantastic interview and gallery!
1) Who are you and what do you collect?
That’s a deceptively simple two-part question that will prove difficult to answer accurately, sir! I am many things to many people. To my family back home, I’m a distant memory, an anime otaku who’s abandoned his Canadian roots. While my obsession with Japanese animation (which began with Robotech and eventually led me to pursue a career in the industry) has largely faded away, much more lucrative and rewarding endeavours have taken its place. To my students, I’m a friendly and reliable English teacher known for his lavish Halloween parties and elaborate costumes. The time and money I put into costumes have made me something of a local legend, and I take the hobby very seriously. To my fellow Star Wars fans, I’m a reliable Scout Trooper for promotional appearances or the ideal Boba Fett for a charity event. I’ve been doing fundraising work with the 501st Japanese Garrison for seven years now, and I’m about to debut my third costume, a Shadow Stormtrooper.
To my fellow Transformers fans, I’m a strongly opinionated, fiercely competitive third-party whore and occasional customizer, who likes to modify his Transformers with custom stickers, custom accessories, custom paint jobs, and custom heads. To my fellow model makers, I’m an enthusiastic novice whose ingenuity more than makes up for his lack of experience. Despite my relatively limited skills with an airbrush, I’ve won three consecutive modeling contests so far, thanks to my unconventional approach and innovative ideas. To my online acquaintances, I’m a miniature photographer specializing in forced-perspective compositions. I’ve been known to spend hours lying on my stomach in parking lots, using low angles and elaborate dioramas to depict figures in photorealistic environments.
To my friends, I’m an avid film buff and toy collector with a suspiciously disposable income. My home theatre has attracted as many visitors as my toy displays have, and I enjoy showing films and TV shows to guests on my 130-inch projection screen. To my wife, I’m a well-meaning husband with a mental disorder. She respects my seven-day work week and doesn’t question how I spend my income, but she believes I have a pathological compulsion to collect and would like me to seek professional help.
Now, as to the second part of your question: I collect artwork and character merchandise corresponding to sci-fi films, TV shows, and cartoons I love. That includes animation model sheets, cels, art books, comics, posters, T-shirts, props and costumes, plastic models, resin kits, die-cast vehicles, statues, dolls, and action figures. Especially action figures. In fact, the local media estimates I have the largest private collection of action figures in western Japan… an impossible claim to prove, of course, but it sounds impressive!
2) How has the collecting scene changed in the last 15 years?
Conventional retail is dead. Very little of what I buy now is sold in stores — especially in Japan — and even those few items that interest me on store shelves are cheaper and easier to purchase online. Without a PayPal account or a credit card, it would be impossible to maintain this hobby. Fifteen years ago, I would visit the local Toys ‘R’ Us two or three days a week, every week, trying to keep up with the latest wave of Star Wars figures or Macross Valkyries. It was a competitive hobby, and often thrilling to find new items on the shelves. I relished the chase. The only shopping I do at Toys ‘R’ Us now is in the clearance bin, where I might find a toy worth cannibalizing for its electronics. I’m more interested in customizing model kits than collecting children’s toys nowadays. Even lines I continue to collect — Star Wars, for example — are considerably lower quality than what was being produced 15 years ago, and much of it never gets imported to Japan anyway.
Instead, with the rise of unlicensed third-party Transformers, all the best product is sold exclusively online. New items are announced months, sometimes years ahead of their release, and there are a dozen product reviews posted online before the figures are finally distributed. Everything worth buying can be pre-ordered months in advance. Anticipation of eventual release (tempered with frequent production delays) has replaced the surprise of discovering new product in stores.
3) How do you see, or hope to see the scene changing in 5 years’ time?
I see the fall of Cybertron, that’s what I see.
Are you familiar with “analysis paralysis?” It’s the scientific principle that states that, as people are faced with more and more complicated decisions, they are more and more likely to avoid making decisions at all. In capitalist terms, it means “the harder they have to think about it, the less likely they’re gonna buy it.” This is precisely what is happening to the third-party Transformers market.
Consider, if one small company in Hong Kong decides to produce an unlicensed, fan-designed figure of a popular character, how likely they are to sell enough of that figure to cover their extensive design, tooling, and production costs. If the figure in question is a substantial improvement over existing versions of the character, or the character has not previously been produced as a toy, demand for the figure is likely to be high enough to justify its production (regardless of the legal risks associated with intellectual property theft). Now consider two companies producing very similar figures of the same character, and releasing them within the same calendar year. They’ve effectively cut their market in half, resulting in a 60% loss of sales for either product (because there’s always a significant number of consumers that, when faced with a difficult choice, simply won’t bother buying at all). The chances of either company breaking even are now considerably lower.
Furthermore, those consumers who did choose to purchase one or the other are less likely to be satisfied with their purchase, nitpicking perceived flaws in the figure as it compares to the other option(s), and may never be sure they’ve made the right decision. Less consumer satisfaction leads to less repeat customers, which in turn affects sales of future product as well. These are basic business precepts — Economics 101, as it were.
As most of your readers are well aware, the reality of the situation is now far more absurd. There are frequently three, four, or five companies producing virtually identical figures simultaneously. It’s idiotic, and (in a tiny niche market like this) tantamount to financial suicide. Even though these brilliant engineering marvels are being designed by genius-level intellects, some of the financial decisions are being made by reckless morons. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking at the same time. Not to mention the emerging “fourth-party” market, with Chinese companies producing knock-offs of each others’ product at progressively lower costs (and quality)…
The snake is literally eating its own tail! Fans love to say we’re spoiled for choice, and competition keeps prices low, but the truth is we’re rapidly heading for a third-party implosion. This constant competition is terrible for an already over-saturated market, and it can’t possibly last much longer. The writing’s on the wall. Nowhere is this impact more clearly felt than on my monthly credit card bills, which have shown a steady decrease in third-party purchases over the past few years. In 2015, I spent over $8000 USD on Transformers, most of it third-party product. In 2017, I spent less than half as much.
And it’s not just me, either; mainstream audiences around the world are losing interest in Transformers, too. While Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction both made over $1.1 billion worldwide (putting them among the highest-grossing films of all time), The Last Knight earned barely more than half that much! What happened? And lest we forget the bankruptcy of Toys ‘R’ Us, and the detrimental effect it will have on the future of all action figure lines…
4) What has been your single biggest success as a collector, or your greatest ever find?
Oh, that’s an easy one. Back in the mid-nineties, while I was still pursuing my film degree in university, I spent a summer in Edmonton, Alberta. While I was there, I scoured the city for vintage Star Wars figures, checking all the collectors’ shops or second-hand stores I could track down. One afternoon, I found myself in a lonely old antiques shop, surrounded by Victorian-era furnishings. I had no intention of wasting my time there, but the old lady behind the counter wasn’t about to lose her only customer of the day, and called me over to offer her assistance. I thanked her politely, but told her I was looking for toys, not antiques.
“My husband used to collect Star Wars toys,” she told me. “Hold on, I think I’ve got some in the back.” She brought out a familiar grey plastic tray, one I recognized from Kenner’s 1979 “Mini-Action Figure Collector’s Case.” In it were a handful of late ‘70s figures — in mint condition, even — including Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Greedo… and an original small-head Han Solo! And a blue Snaggletooth! And a vinyl-cape Jawa!
They were the oldest and rarest figures I’d ever seen. “I don’t know what value they may have,” she told me, “but you’re welcome to them. Just pay me what you think they’re worth.” I told her they were worth a lot more than I could afford, and I could only offer what little money I had; she accepted my money, thanked me for my honesty, and handed me the whole tray of figures. They remain the most valuable figures I own — despite what I paid for them.
While not as valuable, however, the rarest figures in my collection are actually my “Maiden Japan” Junkions. Technically, they’re upgrade parts, rather than full figures (and will require painting to complete), but they’re so precisely cast and moulded that the base figures require no modification, apart from a simple head swap. By snapping on optional chest pieces, knee covers, shoulder armour, a shield, or a crotch piece, you could make up to six unique Junkion figures based on characters from Transformers: The Movie. However, few of these resin kits actually got produced and distributed.
Daisuke “Maiden Japan” Fukuda is a California-based professional toy designer, a generous and talented sculptor who promoted his Junkion kits through TFW2005, intending on making them available to whoever wanted them. Unfortunately, he was overwhelmed with requests, rapidly overextended himself, and was regretfully unable to fulfill orders. After a year of promises, he disappeared from the site and was subsequently banned. I was one of the first to receive a complete set from him — probably because I requested unpainted parts, intending to do the work myself — and while I’m still hesitant to paint them, I’m proud to have them in my collection!
5) What is the most surprising or outrageous collecting story you have heard?
Well, I was shocked to read about Virak Lim’s vintage Fortress Maximus, that was opened and subsequently smashed in his driveway by his vengeful wife. The poor guy hadn’t even had the chance to play with it! I was even more amazed to learn he’s still happily married to her. My marriage certainly wouldn’t have survived such an incident. Incidentally, Fort Max is the only G1 figure in my collection, ’cause FORTRESS MAXIMUS! I mean, who didn’t want that toy as a child? For an entire generation of Transformers fans, it was the Holy Grail.
However, there are actually far more outrageous stories within the Star Wars community, like that of infamous collector Carl Cunningham. His extensive collection of rare and vintage carded figures (an estimated $200,000 value) turned out to have been stolen from a fellow collector! And not just any collector, either — Carl had stolen from his friend Steve Sansweet, owner of “Rancho Obi-Wan,” the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world. This thief actually thought he could get away with stealing a rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype — one of only a handful known to exist, easily the most valuable item in any Star Wars toy collection — and sell it to a dealer without the world’s most famous Star Wars collector getting wind of it.
Needless to say, he was unsuccessful. He’s now serving a one-year prison term, and will have to pay Sansweet $185,000 in restitution once he’s released. What was he thinking?
6) If you could pick one item from your collection to keep, what would it be?
My original Kenner R2-D2, I suppose. The chrome has rubbed off, the PVC plastic is weirdly discolored, the right leg came off, and the drum sticker is in tatters — and I have no idea where that red paint on the left foot came from — but despite its miserable, worthless condition, it holds a certain sentimental value to me. That little droid and I have been through a lot together over the last 40 years. Would you believe he was actually kidnapped and held for ransom by one of my classmates in junior high school? Hell, I think I still have the ransom note somewhere.
I’ve only been collecting Transformers since the Masterpiece series was introduced, so I don’t have any sentimental childhood memories there… and other than the aforementioned Maiden Japan stuff, nothing’s irreplaceable…but if I had to pick a favorite, I’d choose ToyWorld’s “Constructor”. I was cautious enough to wait for the improved box set release, and my patience was rewarded with a flawless toy in every respect. It’s not only the biggest Devastator ever produced, it’s also the most accurate, the best-designed, and the sturdiest of all the various combiners. The individual robots are fantastic, insanely-articulated toys, and the gestalt form is a joy to behold. Also, unlike most of the floppy, ungainly combiners produced to date, Constructor is actually fun to play with!
7) If you could have one item out of someone else’s collection, what would that be?
Do the Lucasfilm archives count as “someone else’s collection?” I once saw the original ‘five-footer’ Millennium Falcon filming miniature at a museum exhibit in Kyoto. Despite its damaged condition, I would trade my entire collection just to own that one historic model. Since that’s not an option, however, I’ve decided to make my own.
When I was at the Pacifico Yokohama Convention Center for Transformers Expo back in 2014, I saw the awesome movie Bumblebee figure above. Unfortunately, they weren’t willing to part with it.
8) What advice would you give a new collector starting out today?
Quit while you’re ahead, get rid of what you have, and don’t look back. I can think of no legitimate reason to recommend this hobby to anyone. Even if you have a few friends with similar interests, it’s a solitary pursuit; very few toys appreciate in value, making it a poor investment; it’s a very limited means of creative self-expression, it’s only competitive in childish and petty ways, and it can take up an inordinate amount of space, even if not on display.
Seriously, where’s the upside? Moreover, most people just won’t understand you. My own wife thinks I’m mentally ill! Take it from me, there are far more productive ways to spend your time and money. Pursue a hobby with more opportunities for social outlet, personal growth, and artistic expression. Save that money for your future, your children’s education, or your retirement.
Or, in the immortal words of Megatron:
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.
“That’s a question you should ask yourself, Ted.”
Many kind and gracious thanks to Ted Ekering for words and photographs.
All the best