Star Wars Vintage Trading Cards - A Collectors Guide
The release of George Lucas’s 1977 epic Star Wars needs no introduction, but it is fair to say, that it’s success took everybody, perhaps with the exception of Mr Lucas himself, by surprise.
A few retailers had the foresight that this was going to be something big and along with the likes of Kenner, amongst others, Topps Trading Cards Inc secured the rights to release a series of Trading Cards based on images and information from the film, Topps, however didn’t hold the exclusive rights as there were also Trading Card releases from Wonder Bread and Burger King, although these were generally small number promotional issues. Topps did however license their images to other publishers who had secured international licenses in other territory and therefore the same cards were issued in other countries which the images were all but identical but captions and reverse were translated into the local languages. Some of the publishers included O-Pee-Chee (Canada, text was in English/French), Scanlans (Australia), Alans & Regina (New Zealand), along with regional Topps subsidiaries such as Laboratorios y Agencias Unidas SA (Mexico) and Topps Argentina. Due to local production techniques, many of these cards are considered inferior in quality to those of the US & European productions, with cardstock, print quality and cutting accuracy often considered poorer.
The release of Topps’ first series of cards in 1977 was at the forefront of what was to become film history’s biggest and most successful commercial franchise and was unsurprisingly a huge success for the company who went on to produce a further four sets based on the original film and have retained the license to the present day and have now issued over 50 different trading card sets, which continue to be popular. I have put together a very brief document of some of the most popular sets based on my own experience but there are some very detailed sites out there that provide much more concise information than is presented here and are well-worth checking out, these include starwarscards.net and Ryan Cracknell’s excellent cardboardconnection.com.
Star Wars Series 1 - Blue Border with stars – Released 1977 - 66 Trading Cards and 11 Stickers
Topps’s first release was a huge success and probably the set that most people who grew up with these remember most. Each packet came in a black wax wrapper with a pointing cartoon C3PO image and contained seven cards, one sticker and a strip of pink chewing gum. The set featured publicity shots of individual characters and images from the film with a short caption illustrating the character name or detailing what’s happening in the image. On the reverse of the cards there were movie facts and a written summary of film, whilst other cards created a montage image of the cockpit scene in the Millennium Falcon and the main Star Wars promotional poster. The sticker sets feature edited Close-Up images of the main characters, from the same images in the card set but on black backgrounds with green, orange or yellow “halos” around the image, all very much a design of it’s time (i.e the 70’s).
This set, along with the stickers, are still widely available from online specialist retailers and on eBay and for a set in Near Mint condition, you would typically expect to pay $40-$50 in the US and £30-£35 in the UK, pushing up to $60-$70/£40-£50 if the original stickers set is included. Cheaper sets can usually be obtained for good to poor quality standard.
Star Wars Series 2 - Red Border – Released 1977 - 66 Trading Cards and 11 Stickers
Topps second release soon followed and featured a plain Red border with exploding yellow star and blue Star Wars logo and yellow wax packet’s featuring a cartoon characterization of Darth Vader. Issued in the same format as the first series, with 7 cards to a packet, 1 sticker and 1 piece of bubble-gum. The US version of the card set were numbered 67-132, however the UK version was numbered 1A-66A. Similar to the first set, the reverse featured actor’s profiles, movie facts and montage of cards formed Tusken Raider and Chewbacca. The sticker set was similar in style to the first wave, although with a more uniform red “halo” around each image and once again, a duplication of images from the cards, although more “action” stills from the film rather than individual characters.
Personally, I always preferred the images on the second series of cards, to the first as there appeared to be more action shots rather than actors publicity images. Similar to the first series, still widely available on eBay for around the same price.
Star Wars Series 3 - Yellow Border – Released 1977 - 66 Trading Cards and 11 Stickers
The Third wave was issued with a plain Yellow border with an exploding red star and white Star Wars logo and image descriptions in red type. The Wax wrappers featured a cartoon image of R2D2 on a pink background and the format and ratio of cards were same as previous sets. The cards were numbered 133-198 and stickers 23-33. This series featured two stickers per pack, as opposed to the original series having only 1. The sticker design changed for this series, with the 10 sticker designs now showing a white background and “cinema reel” side edging and dispensing with the retro 70’s design if the previous series, which was less easy on the eye. The reverse featured “General Description” #1-22, which profiled individual characters and spaceships from the film. The montage created images of C3PO & R2D2 and a group picture of Han, Luke & Leia. The third wave continued the trend of predominantly screen shots from the film.
Series 4 never appeared to be as popular as the other sets and Near Mint sets are often available slightly cheaper than the other at around US$40/UK£26, although it worth mentioning that in general, prices in the US are cheaper than the UK, based I’d imagine, on much greater availability, however Shipping charges (and sometimes, if unlucky, import duties) from the US to the UK & Europe will generally push the prices up to the same, or sometimes more, than prices in the UK,
Star Wars Series 4 – Green Border – Released 1977 – 66 Trading Cards and 11 Stickers
The fourth wave featured plain green borders, again with Red exploding star with white Star Wars logo, the picture descriptions and slogans are in yellow. The wax wrappers followed a green colour scheme with a cartoon Luke and Obi-Wan. The cards were numbered 199-264 and stickers numbered 34-44. The stickers continued the new style with white background with a red/orange film reel side edging, the stickers reverted to predominantly character publicity images.
The price for a near mint set (without the error card, see next paragraph) is normally in the US$40/UK£40 region, usually slightly higher if stickers included.
The fourth series has become famous (or infamous?) for it’s #207 error card featuring C3PO with an apparently enlarged comic below-waist extension (for want of a better description!). There has never been any official confirmation as to how this came to happen, most rumours point to it being caused by the actions of a “disgruntled” employee, and it’s hard to see that it was anything other than deliberate. However thousands were released in packets to retailers, and it was only when concerned parents contacted the company that a revised version was issued, I’m guessing the factory QA dept were on holiday at the time! Needless to say that the error #207 has long been a collectors favourite and demands a high premium, although some argue that there were as many error cards issued as there were the corrections and that there are no real justifiable reasons for it’s premium value at around US$45/UK£30 (as of 2014), often listed as much higher.
Star Wars Series 5 – Orange Border – Released 1977 – 66 Trading Cards and 11 Stickers
The fifth and final series relating to the release of the first film featured a plain Orange border with exploding Bluestar with yellow Star Wars logo and black picture description text. The wax wrappers had a blue and orange colour scheme with a cartoon X-Wing. The cards numbered 265-330 and the stickers 45-55. The stickers continued the same style as before with orange film reel edging on white background.
This set differs considerably to the previous four sets and is the first to predominantly include “behind the scenes” images of the making of the movie and is considered by many, mainly for this reason, to be the most sought of the 5 waves.
it’s interesting to note that O-Pee-Chee (Canada) issued the set as Series 3 and made it a 132 card set with 22 stickers, the cards were numbered 133-264 and the stickers #34-55 and was essentially a combination of both wave 4 & 5 sets combined with orange borders, bizarrely, they didn’t produce Series 3 (yellow border), which explains the break in numbering on the sticker set.
The popularity of the Orange border series 5 is often dictated in the price, which is usually slightly higher than the previous 4 sets, often in the US$50-$60/UK£45-£50 region, higher if stickers included and as per all prices mentioned above, only indicative, sometimes maybe higher if the cards are considered "pack fresh" condition or lower if card corners are worn or cards creased.
Topps Star Wars Trading Cards from the Early 80's-2000s
After the release of the 5 series in conjunction with the original film release, which retailed from late 1977 through the next year or so, Topps maintained the license from Lucasfilm and despite some small promotional regional issues of cards from other manufacturers (usually short term promotions, such as Wonderbread & General Mills, most of which used the same stock images, as were used by Topps),
Topps continued to dominate the market in the early 1980’s, releasing 3 Series for the Empire Strikes Back in 1980. The design of the cards changed considerably with the first two waves maintaining a similar grey/white outer border but with a coloured inner border which was Red for Series 1, Blue for Series 2 and Series 3 changed to a green and white inner border and yellow outer patterned border, similar in style to series 1 & 2. The stickers were a mixture of letters with images of the films inset mixed with irregular shaped character stickers, although the third series had just the letters. I had always felt that it was a slightly odd design choice, as there were two letters to each sticker, I can only guess it was to allow you to create your name, but I’m still not entirely sure why?. There were 132 card and a further 33 stickers in waves 1 and 2, although Topps did increase the number of cards per pack from 7 up to 10. In Wave 3 of the ESB cards, the set was reduced down to 88 with 22 stickers, however probably the most interesting of the three series with behind the scenes and for the first time, artwork based on the film.
Topps also produced a variety of sales options which differed from the original first series, including collectors packs, rack packets consisting of 51 cards in a packet, and mail-away collectors boxes. They also produced a separate “Giant” collectors set consisting of 30x 5”x7” individual cards, but with only one card per packet.
In 1983, to coincide with Return of the Jedi, Topps released two sets of cards, this time with 132 cards and 33 stickers in the first series and 88 cards and 22 stickers in the second. The first set had a red border and second a blue border and were in a similar, if plain style, compared to all previous sets. The reduced issue would indicate that there was a decline in popularity compared the massive success of the first two films.
The last set would mark the end of the vintage period of Star Wars Trading Cards and there would be not be another set released for another 10 years when the Star Wars Galaxy Series was kicked off in 1993, which is highly regarded by many, however a resurgence of interest in the franchise relating to the Widevision re-release of the original trilogy in 1997 and leading up to 1999’s prequel "The Phantom Menace" reignited a global interest in the Star Wars brand and Topps accordingly issued a number of card sets relating the three prequels during the early to mid 2000’s.
Topps continued to release sets relating to specific films in the second trilogy, which were perhaps of limited interest to collectors, there were a few stand-out releases that were of interest to those who were still fans of the Original Trilogy/Vintage cards. In 1996, a Widevision 3Di set of 63 Cards were released and were popular (and still remain so, sets are generally in the US$45/UK£30 region) and 1999 Chrome Archives 90 card set which was took 30 cards from each of the OTC sets and shiny chromium printing technology is interesting . The 2004 Star Wars Heritage release was the first to show images from all 6 films and all the cards were printed in a retro style of the cards from the first three films. Also the Heritage set was the first (I think!?) to include artist sketch cards and autograph cards, which created a resurgence of interest from collectors of the original sets.
Various Galaxy and Clone Wars related sets were issued during the period, some of which are rated very highly by collectors, but for me, the stand-out set from the period is the 2007 30th Anniversary issue. This 120 card series is perhaps the best to date, certainly from the modern era, although some gauge it as the best Topps Star Wars release ever!. Very stylish black cards with silver edging design and razor sharp images and quality card stock. The set had the most comprehensive autograph card line-up of all releases, incredibly including the very reticent Harrison Ford, along with Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels and even John Wiliams, amongst others (the first Harrison Ford card that was found and put on eBay reputedly went for nearly $10K!!) The set also had animated film cells, magnets and very high quality sketch cards . Each hobby box had at least one sketch or autograph card and also a box topper that was an original “New Hope” vintage card that had been stamped with a gold “30th” logo in the lower right hand site. Whilst the red and yellow appear to be the most common of these (and retail at around US$10-20/UK£10-20) there are green and orange versions which are much rarer and command a higher premium. The sheer volume of variables in this release would make it almost impossible to complete the collection, but barring all the one-off’s and special cards, the base set is well worth getting hold of and base sets can be obtained from around US$20/UK£10.
Modern Cards/Sets from recent years
2013’s Jedi Legacy cards proved popular with collectors, due to the inclusion for the first time, of costume relic cards and original film cell’s. The costume cards allow you to own a piece of Chewbacca’s hair, Ewok Fur or a piece of sail from Jabba’s barge, although the ratio of unique cards per box are quite high (relic cards cards are 1 in 5 hobby boxes, although one film cell ratio per hobby box) The 90 Card set also includes autograph and printing plate cards. The set includes a number of chase card variations. The set is still widely available, with 8 cards per pack and 24 packs in a box.
Another interesting 2013 set was the “Star Wars Illustrated” set, released in 2013, to coincide with the commercial release of the Highbridge Audio’s 1981 radio drama version of “A New Hope” . This drama originally spanned over 13 episodes and expanded on the original film version and included some of the original cast such as Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill . This 100 card set features new illustrations from the original story along with a large array of chase cards including unique sketch cards, sketchagraghs (autographed sketchcards), film cells, One year earlier illustrations, printing plates and original foil artwork, along with additional movie poster and mission cards. Frustratingly, both of Topps 2013 sets appeared to have only released to the US market and it is quite hard to purchase outside the US, other than in the secondary market, which is usually at a premium and expensive to import to the UK/Europe.
So there you have it, there is much evidence that the Star Wars card collectors market is still flourishing, much of which is probably made up of individuals (like myself) who collected the original series in their youth and still enjoy the nostalgia of those times, even though we are in our 40’s or 50’s and should know better!! I must confess that there is still a thrill in opening a fresh packet (or if you’re lucky, breaking open a hobby box) and the excitement and wonder of what might be contained therein, so Best of luck with your future collecting and, who knows, there might still be a Han Solo autograph card out there, waiting to be found!