In this interview, Paul Holstein talks about collecting Star Wars cards, from finding obscure cards to completing and grading full sets.
I was 10 when the movie came out and I went to the store and bought a couple of packs of Star Wars cards. But I ended up trashing all the cards I had when I was a kid, and in my collection today I have none of the cards that I had then. They all went to the garbage, but later on down the road, seven or eight years ago, in my early 30s, I started collecting them again. I still like Star Wars and this was a little bit before the new trilogy came out. I realized that there were a lot of cards, more than when I was a kid.
I tried to research how many there were, and found out, to my surprise, that the whole world loves Star Wars, not just the United States. There were sets made in other countries and all over the place, and they didn’t necessarily copy the cards that were made for the U.S. market. They used different images from the movies and different formats, different sizes. A lot of the foreign cards had no numbers on them, or they had sticky backs where you would lick them and stick them into albums. In a lot of the countries in South America, all their cards are meant to be licked on the back and stuck in albums, that’s how they collect them.
So I said, “Wow. This is really cool. I’m going to start collecting some other ones.” You know how it is when you have the type of a personality that you like to collect stuff. It just became an obsession and I started collecting more and more. I’m a computer programmer, so I do a lot of stuff with the Internet and I have a robust computer system. So it was natural that I started scanning the images and building a website to put up the information.
I consider collecting the cards the core of my hobby, but the website is a big part of it, too. As the website grew, people started contacting me and saying, “Hey, I have a little bit more information. Do you want to put that up?” or “I have some cards. Would you like to buy them?” and it just grew from there.
At some point I decided I wanted to have a comprehensive collection. I wanted to try to collect every single Star Wars card that was ever made. But eventually, I realized I needed to have a focus, and I decided that I was only going to collect the cards that were made and distributed during the years when the original three movies were out, so my collection spans from 1977 to 1984 or 1985. I don’t collect anything after that because it would be just out of control. One of the things that really helped me out was that when they made the three additional movies, interest in Star Wars just went crazy. eBay was around, so people just came out of the woodwork, buying and selling Star Wars cards. The whole thing became a lot more popular.
Even though the prices were up, availability was better than ever, so that allowed me to pick up a lot of Star Wars cards. Since then, interest has dropped off a bit and it’s a little bit harder, but I’m still working on it. I have a lot listed. People might not believe this, but there are individual single Star Wars cards that can be worth thousands of dollars. I’ve talked to a lot of different collectors. I’m not the only one that collects Star Wars cards in the world. Andy Dukes is another collector and he’s got a really good website. There are a lot of sets no one has ever completed. That’s surprising to me, and I’m still looking to complete some of those sets.
Collectors Weekly: What makes those sets so hard to complete?
Holstein: They’re just really hard to get. An example would be the set that was made in Argentina. There weren’t a lot of people obsessed with Star Wars in Argentina who bought the cards and put them away for the future. Not very many were made, and the cards themselves are paper thin and meant to be licked in the back and stuck in an album, so they’re very easily damaged. Probably most, if not all of them, went to kids who wrecked them and threw them away. Not a lot were collected by adults.
Also, there were a few cards in the set that were short printed, which is similar to a lot of sets. That happens for several different reasons, and nobody really knows because there’s not really any documentation on how many of those were made and why certain ones were printed in lesser quantities than the others.
There’s another rare set that was made in Costa Rica. There weren’t a lot of collectors. In the U.S., there are a lot of different sets made. In Costa Rica, there was one, and in Argentina there was one, so those are really hard sets to collect. Between now and the end of my life, I’d be lucky if I ever complete the whole. I don’t expect to. But it’s something I enjoy doing. I like looking at them and collecting them.
I have 50, 60, maybe 100 different sets that I’ve completed and put away. Collecting has progressed to a new level, and that has to do with grading. This isn’t just Star Wars cards, but all trading cards. It’s actually something that started with sports cards and now has expanded into the non-sports area. The older the cards are, the more valuable they are, and the more people are going to be interested in getting them graded.
A lot of cards in the sets that you’d consider common – like the U.S. Topps set, the most common set – are generally worth 10 cents each. But if you send them in to this company, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), they will take your card and encase it in plastic, give it a serial number, register it on their website, and give it a grade between 1 and 10. Most of the cards, if they grade it 10, are worth 50 to a hundred dollars, sometimes many hundreds of dollars. Just for a 10-cent card.
I’m still just trying to complete the rarer sets and that’s my only goal. With a lot of the common sets, the goal is to have a set in very high grade, and the collectors will compete against each other. If you take every single card in the set and then you take your grade between 1 and 10 and get an average, that’s the average grade of your set. In the case of the Topps Star Wars cards, I think there’s somewhere around 25 to 30 collectors competing to have the highest grade set, and then the PSA issues awards every year. I have stacks of awards that I’ve received for my Star Wars sets from PSA for having the best set in the world based on the condition.
It’s an obscure hobby, though, in all fairness, I’m the only one that collects a lot of them, at least for PSA grading. It costs $5 for each card to be graded, so take a 330-card set… if you’re trying to get a grade between 1 and 10, you might have to send in 10 or 12 different copies of the card to get the grade you’re happy with. I don’t understand the way they do it sometimes. I’ve taken cards I thought were going to come back as PSA 9 and instead were a 6. If you spend $5 and you send it in and you get a 6, it’s worthless. You break it out of the plastic and put it in the shredder.
It can be very expensive to get a set graded, so it’s not that I’m the only collector of a lot of sets, it’s that I’m the only one that values the set enough to actually get them all graded and register them and put them online. Therefore, if I’m the only one at the end of the year, of course I get the award.
Grade is based on quality, not rarity. Mostly what they call condition. Are the corners sharp? Is the centering perfect? Is the card in focus? Is the color bright? Are there marks on it or printing defects? Anything that would make the card not perfect could possibly downgrade it. There are other companies, too. PSA is the grading company I use and other collectors might use other ones. If you had a Mickey Mantle baseball card, you’d want to get it graded because it can greatly increase the value. For Star Wars cards, although it does increase the value somewhat, it’s mostly just for fun.
Collectors Weekly: How many cards do you have?
Holstein: Tens of thousands. I’ve never actually counted them. Probably a better question would be how many different cards do I have? That’s my goal, to have the most different cards, but there are a lot of cards I probably have 20, 30, or 50 of.
If you look at my website, that mostly shows the individual cards, the ones that look the best and the highest grade ones, but I also have many unopened vac packs and even waxed boxes full of packs that have never been opened. I have a whole shelf just stacked with those. A lot of times I buy them for the grading. I’ll take unopened wax boxes and open every pack and carefully take each card out and make sure that there’s nothing wrong with it. I put it in a little plastic sleeve and try to find the best ones to send into PSA for grading to upgrade the sets that I already have.
Then I take all the extra ones and put them in boxes. I try to offload them, get some of my money back so that I can reinvest in some new cards. But I’ve probably got too many. I feel sorry for the guys that collect Star Wars toys because a lot of the toy collectors need a warehouse to store their collection. Luckily for me, trading cards are really small, and I have one room in my house devoted to collecting the cards.
Speaking of that, I have a close friend who does a lot of woodworking. He’s very good at it, and he built me all these custom cherry wood boxes that are made to hold the cards. So I have around 15 of these boxes, and that’s my main collection, my most valuable, my most cherished cards, all lined in these really nice boxes, fitting out for display. But most of my cards are just packed in boxes, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to trade them or something.
Collectors Weekly: So you keep them in plastic sleeves and then PSA puts a tag at the top?
Holstein: Yes, they put the tag at the top with a serial number on it, and then they register the serial number on the website so you can prove that you own that card. If you were to go to one of the sets I have registered to compete for the best set in the world, I have to enter all the serial numbers from the card and then they make sure that I actually own those cards by verifying the serial numbers.
When I submit my set, I say, “Look, these are the serial numbers of the cards in my set, and I’m submitting these to be the best set in the world to win the award for this year.” They would then verify that nobody else has submitted that set or reused any of those serial numbers and that the grades associated with those numbers are actually the grades that they have on file. It’s a system of verifying that I actually have a card of this particular quality.
You’ve probably heard of the Honus Wagner baseball card that sold for well over a million dollars. One card. There are a lot of cards that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars, so it makes a big difference when you’re going to sell it, especially through the mail to somebody that you’ve never met, that you can prove the quality of the card, and that’s what PSA does. For someone like me, I’m just obsessed with Star Wars cards, and apparently I have too much money and I’ve decided to use it to fund this incredibly cool but odd Star Wars card collection.
When I first started looking for Star Wars cards, all I went to was antique shops, because even though technically Star Wars cards aren’t antique, for some reason antique shops like to sell them. You see them all the time at antique shops. If you’re looking to start, eBay is the best possible place. The great majority of the cards that I have are either from other collectors or from eBay. If you get them from other collectors, they know what they’re worth. They know which ones are rare, so you’re not really going to get any great deals or rare cards.
There are similar sites to eBay for New Zealand and Australia, and those are the best places to look. Some of the rarest and coolest Star Wars cards are from New Zealand and Australia. I go there a couple times a week just to look to see if anybody popped up any cards from Topps. Topps is the company that makes cards in the United States. O-Pee-Chee makes cards in Canada. Scanlens makes cards in Australia, and Allens & Regina in New Zealand. So if you’re trying to complete the Allens & Regina version of the Star Wars cards sets, the best place to look would be probably an e-commerce site that deals with people in New Zealand.
Australia and New Zealand are really into the science fiction fantasy stuff. A country like China, as far as I know, there are no Star Wars card sets there. I’ve never dealt with any collectors there. New Zealand’s tiny but tons of people collect them. It’s hard to say why, but basically the culture’s similar enough to ours that they have taken an interest.
One of the biggest challenges is dealing with countries where they don’t speak English. Japan and Spain are two of the biggest countries where they made a lot of sets, but it’s really hard to communicate with the people there. Even the money isn’t easy to figure out. A lot of times I’ll find one collector that has 20 cards I need and he wants a thousand dollars for them, and to send a thousand dollars to somebody in Australia or New Zealand is a little bit scary because how do I know they’re not just going to keep the money and not send me anything? A lot of times they want bank transfers, and you have to do currency conversions.
A lot of times I’ll get an e-mail in a foreign language and I have to go to a language conversion program to figure out what they’re saying, and put a response together in English and use this program to covert it to Spanish or Japanese or whatever. Sometimes they don’t understand what I’m saying and it adds a whole different unique twist to collecting. But it’s fun. It works out. I’ve never really had any situations where anybody’s ripped me off. I’ve had a few bad eBay experiences, but they’ve just all been in the U.S. The overseas people are not really setting up scams to rip off Star Wars card collectors.
Collectors Weekly: Is there any specific card or character that’s highly sought after?
Holstein: There’s an error card in the U.S. set, card number 207. Somebody airbrushed a pornographic appendage on C-3PO. The story goes that it was a disgruntled employee who defaced this card and nobody noticed when it got out. They were cards for children, so Topps found out about it and recalled all the cards and destroyed them, but some of them got out and that card is very sought after. PSA won’t grade it because it’s obscene. There’s a whole controversy there because every collector wants that card in their collection. You don’t have a complete collection without it.
With any type of collectible cards, the first card in the set and the last card are always harder to find in good condition because children would generally put rubber bands around their sets and the rubber band would damage the top card and the bottom card. Also, not every set has a checklist, but if they do, it’s more likely that you’re going to find marks on the cards where somebody tried to check off which ones they had on the checklist.
Then there are the short-printed cards. They would print the cards on a sheet, which is generally rectangular, and depending on how many cards are in the set, usually you can’t fit exactly one set on the rectangle. Sometimes you can, but most of the time you can’t. Sometimes they would print the whole set and then add a few more cards from the set, so on one sheet, every card will be on there twice and maybe 10 cards will only be on there once. Then they chop them up and put them into packs, and there are a lot of the cards that are on the sheet twice and not as many of the cards that are on the sheet once. Collectors try to find pictures of the sheets or maybe even collect the sheets themselves and count the cards to find out which ones appear the most and which don’t.
Most collectors really don’t collect by character. Most collect by set. People don’t usually say, “It’s got Darth Vader on it, so I’ll pay more for that.” There is probably somebody that collects only Darth Vader cards or only Yoda cards, but it’s not very common.There are a few sets where the set is comprised of one card of each character, but that’s rare. Most of the sets are just different pictures from the movies. It’s very rare that one set has images from more than one of the movies. Most of the time, the theme is one movie. As far as which images they choose, who knows how they pick them? Somebody probably just went through a bunch of pictures and said, “This looks cool. I’ll put this on the card.”
Collectors Weekly: How many cards are usually in a set?
Holstein: The U.S. Topps set is 330 cards, and that’s a fairly large set. The first known Star Wars card set was inserted in Wonder Bread, and I think that’s a 16-card set, so it’s pretty small. There are even smaller sets, like a set of maybe six cards that came on the packaging for candy bars. If you bought a multi-pack of six candy bars, the box they came in had a card on the bottom that you had to hand-cut out. Some of the bigger sets, like the Topps set, would be sold with 10 cards in a pack and a stick of gum. You’d go in and buy five packs at once and chew the gum and buy five more packs, and it would be easy to accumulate a large number of the cards.
Germany made a few sets that are huge, hundreds and hundreds of cards. There’s a Swedish set that’s really big, but they put cards from all different areas in there, so the set is gigantic, but not all the cards are Star Wars. If you’re a collector like me that only wants Star Wars cards, you’re not really collecting the whole set, you’re just collecting the Star Wars cards out of it, so that’s an interesting situation.
I focus my collection on legitimate cards, cards that actually were produced with permission from Lucasfilm. There’s one set that was made by a fan. Nobody really knows who he is, but it’s been verified that it was distributed. Who knows how many different sets he made, but more than one. It’s not legitimate, but they’re pretty decent looking. There’s another set that was made in Greece for The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment in the Star Wars trilogy. It was really interesting, because the person picking the images apparently hadn’t seen the movie and mistakenly picked a bunch of pictures from Star Trek. So throughout the set, every once in a while they’ve got a picture of Captain Kirk or Spock or something.
Some collectors would shy away from those bootleg sets, especially where there are mistakes that make it less desirable. But if you’re a diehard collector, you’ve got to have them all. It depends, too, on how much money they are. I don’t mind picking up sets like that if they’re reasonably priced.
Collectors Weekly: How do you know which cards are in a set?
Holstein: My website would probably be a good resource for that. There have been a couple of books on Star Wars that include information on sets, so I started by getting some information from there, mostly because Lucasfilm themselves never officially released a list of all of the sets that they licensed.
“A lot of kids probably got started off with Star Wars cards in cereal boxes.”
It’s hard. When I started, a lot of the full sets weren’t even known, and I worked with other collectors to figure it out. There’s this one set from Japan that was made by a company called Yamakatsu with pictures on the front and text on the back in Japanese and no numbers. If you buy a complete unopened box, it will come with 50 cards, I believe. It turns out that it’s a 36-card set, but we didn’t know that because there’s no information and I can’t read it anyways because I don’t read Japanese. I had no way of knowing that there were 36 cards in the set, and a full set is not in the box. It’s just a random assortment of cards. Buying one box, you wouldn’t know, and the average price is about $500 for a box of 50. I bought three boxes of them and I had a friend who bought two boxes of them and we just compared them.
We started asking other collectors, “Have you ever seen any cards that we don’t have?” I’ve corresponded with Japanese collectors and had them translate the text for me, so I know what they say, and eventually I convinced PSA that I knew how many cards were in the set and got them to register it on their website. It can take years to really document a set and get it legitimized by PSA and get the cards graded and put on there. There are still some of them that I don’t know how many cards are in the set. Like I mentioned before, there are some sets that nobody’s completed yet. We assume that some of the cards have been short printed, but maybe some of them don’t even exist.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect other Star Wars memorabilia or just the cards?
Holstein: I collect things that are related to the cards. For example, I have a whole collection of all the different wax wrappers. Usually each one would have an ad on it. It’ll say, send in five wrappers and you can get this prize, or, send five wrappers and a dollar and we’ll send you a poster. There are a lot of variations of the wrappers. The packs themselves would be in a cardboard box, and those boxes are collectible. I have a whole collection of the boxes that the cards came in. 16 boxes would come in a case.
I mentioned Wonder Bread before – there’s the bag the Wonder Bread came in that said that the cards were inside. There’s a set made in Spain where there are little stickers for Empire Strikes Back that came in Yoplait yogurt, and Yoplait did a whole advertising campaign with magazine ads. You can find magazines that have a full-page ad advertising Yoplait yogurt where it says, if you buy Yoplait yogurt, you’ll get one of these stickers.
A lot of the Star Wars sets came in cereal boxes, so you would buy one box of cereal and inside you would get a trading card. If the cereal box has an ad for a Star Wars trading card, I collect it. Cereal boxes themselves are extremely collectible. Cereal boxes are the hardest and most expensive to find – hundreds, thousands of dollars can be paid for good-condition cereal boxes. But like I say, I don’t collect just any cereal boxes, only the ones that advertise Star Wars cards. They’re pretty cool looking.
For a lot of kids that collected Star Wars cards, it was easiest to get them from the cereal, because it’s hard to talk your mom into taking you to the store to buy Star Wars cards. Money’s tight. But if you were to say, “Mom, could you buy me this box of cereal that has a Star Wars card in it?,” your mom’s got to buy you cereal, so why not buy the one with the Star Wars card in it? I think a lot of kids probably got started off with the cereal boxes. Those are from foreign countries, too, and the cereal boxes that contain Star Wars cards from Canada are really highly collectible.
I try not to collect anything else. People come to my house, especially my family, and they say, “Paul likes Star Wars. Let’s get him something for Christmas. Some Star Wars figures, a T-shirt with Darth Vader.” They don’t exactly know what you like and they jump to conclusions. I have so many coffee mugs. I have a whole collection of Star Wars mugs that people bought me, and a bunch of Star Trek ones, too. People look and they see a Borg and they say, “That must be someone from Star Wars. He’ll collect that.” But I like Star Trek, too.
Collectors Weekly: What about your autographed cards?
Holstein: I’ve met a lot of the different actors from the movies over the years. I’ve talked to some of them multiple times and got their autographs on the cards. There’s a comic convention they hold in cities around the United States, and the actors will meet and greet fans. I would know in advance they’re going to be there and go through my collection and find the cards that I like that are in good condition, and stand in line to take a picture with them and talk to them for a minute. It can be pretty interesting. That’s probably one of the nerdiest things to do, to go there and stand in line so you can say hello to R2-D2 and get his autograph, but it’s fun. It’s real fun.
With a John F. Kennedy autograph or a Marilyn Monroe autograph, it’s worth somebody’s while to try to forge them. But if you’re talking about R2-D2’s autograph or C-3PO’s autograph, I bet if I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t even know who those people were. If you saw them in real life, you wouldn’t even recognize them, and their autographs aren’t worth a lot, so you’re probably not going to see a lot of forgeries. I really only collect the ones that I get in person, but I do know that a lot of signers will do it through the mail. People will send them some cards and say, please sign this and send it back to me.
Carrie Fisher has somebody just signing for her. She doesn’t sign them. I wouldn’t really call it a forged signature, but it’s not really her signature. There are actually autograph experts. PSA does this. You can send PSA a card that’s been autographed and have them authenticate it, and they’ll tell you whether it’s a real autograph or whether it was signed by somebody who was paid to sign the autographs for the actor or if it was completely forged by somebody. Now, how do they know for sure? I don’t know.
I don’t like to buy autographed cards on eBay, because anybody can just sign Harrison Ford on the card. Because of the popularity of collecting signed trading cards, the Topps Company now commissions actors to sign the cards. When you buy a pack of cards, you can get a random inserted autograph, and they can go for a lot of money. One of the recent Topps sets had some autographed Harrison Ford cards and people are paying over a thousand dollars for each one if you could get them. Harrison Ford apparently doesn’t want to spend all day signing cards, so he didn’t sign very many, but some of the actors have a little more time and have signed quite a few of them.
Collectors Weekly: Have you noticed any trends in collecting Star Wars cards?
Holstein: Like I said, when the new films came out, there was a huge boom, and lots of people started collecting. Then that dropped off again. There are a lot of people that collect just the autographed cards. There are a lot that collect just the cards from the old three movies, or the new three movies, or maybe even just one movie. Some people only collect Topps cards, or O-Pee-Chee cards. Any little subset of cards you can find, there’s somebody who collects just those.
Right now, the most popular cards are the newer cards. A lot of people like to collect the ones that are coming out right now, and Topps is still putting them out. I’m not sure why, but all of a sudden they decided to start a division called the Topps Vault, which sells production samples, test runs, that kind of stuff. Recently, Topps started to take all those production samples out of their vault, as they say, and sell them on eBay. They actually have a lot of these production samples for the Star Wars cards if you’re willing to pay $30 or $40 per card. There’s a lot of people that collect just those, but probably nobody really thinks they could complete a whole set because there’s only one of each and they’re just too rare and too many people are bidding on them. It’s hard enough to win one or two, much less every one.
Collectors Weekly: What are factory sets?
Holstein: Trading cards are collectible. You basically get a random assortment and you look at the ones you have and you figure out what you need. You try to buy more packs and put together a set. A factory set is where they sell a whole set together. There are not a lot of those.
If you were to take a deck of playing cards and print a Star Wars character on every one, you would have 52 different cards that were technically Star Wars cards, but more of a deck of playing cards. It would be a factory set. There were a few different games that were made throughout the world, and I try to pick those up, but they’re definitely not nearly as sought after as the cards that are meant to be collectible. I don’t like them as much. I don’t think anybody does, but they’re decent. They’re nice to have.
Collectors Weekly: Any advice for someone wanting to start collecting Star Wars cards?
Holstein: Buy all my extras! Buy what you like. It’s just fun, and don’t try to think of it as an investment because it’s not a good one. Make sure you’re enjoying it as you pick them up. If you buy a couple and you like them and you buy a couple more and you keep doing that, you may become obsessed with them like me. I don’t think a lot of people are going to start collecting unless they remember the movie. Most of the collectors are about the same age. They followed the movie when they were a child, and now they’re older and have enough money to spend to collect. So if you’re getting tired of what you’re collecting now and want to collect something else, it’s definitely something to think about.
If you’re going to collect Star Wars, why not collect trading cards? They’re easy to collect. They’re cheap, and easy to store. At some point I decided that I did not want to collect toys. I don’t have room for them, and the prices can get outrageous. If you have a real big collection of toys, there’s no end to how much money you can spend, and they’re hard to move. Trading cards are so small and you can get a lot of enjoyment out of them. You don’t have to buy a warehouse to display them.
Collectors Weekly: What are some helpful resources for Star Wars card collectors?
Holstein: There’s a guy named Stephen Sansweet, who wrote a couple of books on Star Wars collectibles, including information about cards. A couple of other collectors have really detailed websites – StarWarsCards.net is one of the biggest ones, and Andy Dukes out of the U.K. has a really good website. My website focuses on my collection, plus a few things that I posted because I thought the information was really important even though I wasn’t able to acquire the item.
I don’t know if I would’ve started collecting Star Wars cards if I’d known how many there were. At first I figured, hey, there’s a couple of different sets. These are really cool. Who would have thought they made Star Wars cards in Costa Rica and Argentina and Japan? They didn’t just make a set for Star Wars. They made a set for Return of the Jedi. They made a set for Empire Strikes Back. In a lot of the cases, they made two or three different sets for each movie in the foreign countries. Probably before eBay, it would’ve been almost impossible to track them down.
There’s a trading card-related magazine called The Wrapper. Before eBay, if you wanted to try to track down these cards, you would’ve used The Wrapper. You would’ve gone to the classifieds at the back of that magazine and looked for collectors that wanted to buy, sell or trade. But once eBay came online, things really opened up. Where before that it would’ve been really hard to find some obscure item, now it’s pretty easy.
Collectors Weekly: Is Japan is a popular place to find trading cards?
Holstein: Yes, they’re huge in doing a lot of sets. But it’s not just that Japan made a lot of them – the quality of the cards in Japan is just incredible compared to all the other sets. They have absolutely the best quality sets in the world. It’s cool because the language is so different. You look at the cards from Spain and some of the other ones or the U.K. especially and sometimes the ones even from Australia and New Zealand, and you can’t even tell that they’re not from the U.S. Japanese cards are full color, glossy, they have Japanese print all over it, and they’re really interesting cards. There are some collectors that only collect the Japanese cards.
(All images in this article courtesy Paul Holstein.)