Could your vintage Lego set pay the college fees?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
When Lego released its version of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon in 2007, it was the biggest set the Danish toy maker had ever produced. Part of the Ultimate Collector’s Series, it consisted of 5,195 pieces and cost £342.49. Two years later, the set was discontinued. In 2014, an unopened example – further sealed in an airtight case – sold at auction in Las Vegas for $15,000, making it the world’s most expensive Lego set. “Admittedly, that’s Las Vegas prices,” says Gerben van IJken, toy expert, Lego valuer and auctioneer for the site Catawiki. “But elsewhere at that time an unopened set would still have fetched €5,000.”
Lego issued an updated version of the spaceship in 2017. Good news for Star Wars fans desperate to build the ultimate Millennium Falcon; not so good for those who had squirrelled away their 2007 set unopened for a rainy day. Nonetheless, at the time of writing, a used but complete 2007 model was being offered on eBay for £2,500.
The brainchild of carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, Lego (leg godt means “play well” in Danish) is the world’s most valuable toy brand. It started out making wooden toys in 1932 – among them a duck with a beak that opened and shut (now £1,000-£1,500) and a fire engine (£600-£800) – before releasing its first boxes of plastic bricks in 1949. Christiansen’s son Godtfred patented the blocks in 1958, and the rest is history.
“Lego builders will pay about £15 a kilo for decent-quality mixed bricks,” says collector and intensive-care consultant Sonia Hudson. But it is complete sets that create the most competition. “Mint in box, seals intact. That’s what every investor wants to see,” says van IJken. “If opened, it’s automatically worth around 25 per cent less.”
Van IJken is currently seeing a lot of interest in the Lego Space series from the 1980s. “Most aren’t in a box because kids ripped them straight open to play with, but if you do have a box and a big set, such as the Galaxy Explorer, you can usually sell it for over €600.” Getting your hands on a set like that is all about nostalgia, says Chris Malloy, managing editor of The Brothers Brick, a website for Lego enthusiasts. “People are after that holy grail set they always wanted as a kid, but never got for Christmas.”
For Malloy, another sought-after set is the 1990 Airport Shuttle Monorail. It had very limited production because Lego outsourced the making of the track to a company that went bankrupt and the moulds were lost. The highest price achieved for a pristine set is $2,484, but at the time of writing a couple were available on eBay, with the manual and open box, for about £1,000.
One of the UK’s biggest collectors and vintage sellers is Michael LeCount, who runs Sheffield toyshop Bricks and Bits. “Most of the demand is from adults who were growing up in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” says LeCount, who bought a second home to house his collection. “So, if you’re a child of the ’70s, you’d probably be after the yellow castle, number 375, the first Lego castle. For a true collector’s display piece, with its box and instructions, expect to pay around £200-£250 – and to sit back and wait. Unboxed ones, you can pick up for under £100.”
As to the best places to track down such sets, there are dedicated websites such as Brickset and BrickLink (purchased by the Lego Group in 2019 for an undisclosed sum), as well as online auction sites like eBay. “But some of the best stuff I’ve come across is from actual auctions around the country,” says LeCount, adding that he keeps an eye on what is being listed via sites like the-saleroom.com. One of his best finds was the 1958 church, which, he says, would cost between £400 and £600.
Even single minifigures can be valuable – Mr Gold, of which only 5,000 were made, has fetched over $1,500 – while the most exclusive sets are those with a code number beginning 40000. These are the limited-edition numbered sets from the Lego Inside Tours, which take place at the Lego factory in Billund, Denmark, four times a year (£1,700 per ticket). They range from 2011’s set of Moulding Machines (4000001) to 2019’s depiction of Lego’s administrative headquarters System House (4000034). “Lego only ever produces 80 of each, and they can go for £5,000 or more,” says Hudson. “I took my 10-year-old godson with me on a tour and his set – a Lego tour truck, number 4000022 – is sitting in his cupboard. He’s 14 now and with any luck by the time he hits university it will pay for a year of his fees.”
But for many Adult Fans of Lego – or Afols, as they’re known on sites such as BrickLink – keeping sets boxed up misses the point. The building’s the thing: “There’s something very zen about sitting down with a brand-new set, throwing on a good movie or some music, and meticulously turning a loose jumble of bricks into an X-wing or a Porsche,” says Malloy. “Whether you’re designing your own models or building a kit, it’s incredibly cathartic to create something physical – something you can hold in your hands, play with and admire.”
What to read
The Lego Book by Daniel Lipkowitz (DK Children)