One man to whom this breathtaking second-wind success comes as no surprise is Jason Joiner, a 26-year-old from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. Jason began collecting Star Wars picture cards in 1986, as did countless children around the world. The difference is, he never stopped. He now has the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia - dolls, toys, books, picture cards - and the second largest collection of props and costumes from the trilogy in the world. Only Lucas himself has more.
"I saw Star Wars in 1977 and it totally grabbed me," explained Jason as we sat in the front room of his parents small semi-detached house. "But it was only after Return of the Jedi (the third in the Lucas space trilogy which also includes The Empire Strikes Back) that I began collecting." That was over a decade ago, he now has over 12,500 pieces representing hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment. Some of the money has come from his business partner, but most of the collection is funded by the numerous collectors' fairs Jason runs up and down the country, and by the profits from Offworld, his sci-fi memorabilia shop in Romford.
Jason began innocently enough buying pieces with his pocket money and swapping with school friends. "But I got to the stage where I had one of every piece of Star Wars merchandise ever made from around the world, from toy robots to yoghurt pots. I'd always wanted to own a Star Wars prop and someone offered me a Darth Vader mask. I couldn't believe that it was in this country because I thought everything from the films was at Skywalker Ranch [Lucas's home, studio, office and archive in San Raphael, California]."
In fact, much of the trilogy was shot at Elstree studios and the craftsmen and designers who worked on the films there often "ended up" with pieces of costume, sets and artwork in their lofts and sheds: they had invested too much of their time and skill in these works of art (including the light sabres, death star and droids which have gone on to become icons of the genre) to see them destroyed as the obsessively secretive Lucas demanded.
One such piece stands glowering on Jason's landing. Darth Vader - a seven- foot, leather-clad fascist vampire, for which Jason claims to have been offered pounds 80,000. He paid a slightly more reasonable pounds 25,000 for an R2D2, the only one to have escaped from Lucas (25 were made between 1976 and 1983, employing Formula 1 technology, at a cost of pounds 100,000 each). Its legs are stored in his spare bedroom, but the rest of his Artoo, along with much of the film prop collection, is in France, out of reach of the litigious Lucasfilm Ltd.
Jason has a complex and often frustrating relationship with the company, as well as the trilogy's distributor, 20th Century Fox. Lucasfilm has tried relentlessly to prevent Jason holding Star Wars conventions, staged under the banner of the Falcon Society, and are even less enamoured of his plans to publish a book on the trilogy later this year. Yet, with his dark, trimmed beard, and dull pullover, he looks uncannily like Lucas, who is clearly his hero. What do his family and neighbours think of his obsession? "The neighbours think I'm crazy, but I have an understanding family, as well as a very un-derstanding fiancee. I was going to buy a car and put a deposit on a flat, but then R2D2 came along ... The real world is fine, but this is more fun."
The few sets and costumes not entombed at Skywalker Ranch are too pricey for most Star Wars collectors. Major memorabilia buyers, like the theme restaurant Planet Hollywood, have the power to outbid all but the most obsessive and rich competitors at auction and Jason estimates that there are only three or four other main players in the UK ("You have to move in the right circles," he says enigmatically). They tend to buy directly from sources like ex-Lucasfilm or Elstree employees (producer Gary Kurtz sold Jason Han Solo's medal, awarded to the maverick spice smuggler in Star Wars joyously sentimental finale), though freak finds such as the 25,000 location photos he found in a London garage, and the 3,500 storyboards offered by an antiques dealer, surface from time to time.
There are, though, a couple of thousand UK collectors and up to 40,000 in the States chasing after the more affordable and sometimes bizarre artefacts made by Kenner toys, the US company with exclusive merchandising rights to the trilogy. With rarity, and the condition of their packaging, largely determining value, those toys that weren't up to the rigours of the playground and broke easily are now much sought after. One, a shoot 'em up, was adapted from a Second World War fighter game: "They only had a 50-day warranty and most broke soon after. Boxed, they're worth around pounds 2,000," says Jason. An R2D2 radio, available only with a full set of Star Wars Coca Cola bottle tops, and consequently one of the rarest pieces, is worth pounds 2,500, while prototypes of the toys, like the 12-inch Han Solo doll which never made it to production, are even harder to come by, and worth "whatever someone will pay".
Even the mass produced three and three-quarter-inch figures, which cost 97p when they first came out, are desirable if their packaging is virginal. "Unlike Dinky toys where the box can be half the value, with Star Wars memorabilia a lot of the time the box is 90 per cent," says Jason. The most popular, Luke Skywalker, can be worth pounds 500 if still "carded" (attached to its packaging card) even though hundreds of thousands were made. Loose, its value plummets to pounds 12. Of the trading picture cards produced by Topps, the infamous "Excited C-3P0" is the most valuable around at pounds 15. It depicts the supposedly asexual droid in a state of priapic arousal (allegedly airbrushed on by a bored employee). It must have mortified Lucas who went to great lengths to keep sex out of his pictures, in one scene insisting on taping down Carrie Fisher's (Princess Leia) breasts with gaffer tape under her costume.
Serious investment in Star Wars pieces began in the early Nineties, and Jason has been offered 20 times the prices he paid for certain items in recent years, plus an "undisclosed sum" for the entire collection. But he's not selling. Later this year he plans to open a sci-fi museum in London, the first of its kind in the world, featuring pieces from dozens of science-fiction and fantasy films.
Jason's desire to create a permanent display for his collection goes beyond obsession to a kind of altruism. "This is the last we'll see of things like this," he says, removing an errant Tribble (from Star Trek, in case you'd forgotten) from a four-foot-long model of a spaceship used in the obscure (and rather dreadful) 1981 Sean Connery film, Outland. "Now that everything is being done on computers, model-making and animatronics are becoming redundant" He has just acquired the Outland model for pounds 3,000. Made to a high standard, with working hydraulics, steam outlets and lighting, and weighing more than a fridge, it probably cost around pounds 20,000 to make. "The days of three guys working for a month to create something like this are disappearing, as are the skills and craftmanship that that requires. And most film companies have looked after their past very poorly - models are destroyed all the time because they are worried that the public will see them before the films are released."
Jason hopes to work with film companies to preserve props to both party's advantage; he has the support of sci-fi luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Ray Harryhausen and the BBC's Matt Irvine, who helped give Doctor Who and Blake's Seven their distinctive look on budgets of pounds 75 an episode.
But far from being buried only in Star Wars heritage, Jason is equally interested in its future. His latest venture, a special effects company at Elstree, will be bidding for contracts on the three new Star Wars films currently in pre-production. The films, prequels to the existing trilogy, which will explore Vader's fall from grace (to be directed by Lucas) and Obi-Wan's youth, are to be made over the next three years at Leavesden Aerodrome, not far from Jason's home. Maybe his passion and commitment to the timeless tale of "a galaxy far far away" will help to create a new trilogy to captivate the next generation of open-mouthed kids.
! The next sci-fi collectors' fair is at Westminster Central Hall, Storey's Gate, London SW1, on 26 April. Call 019087 679 845 for further information. Offworld is at Unit 19-20, Romford Shopping Halls, Romford RM1 3AP. Offworld and the Falcon Society are on 01708 765633.