It was a beauty. And it changed everything. Forever.
The Panasonic Omnivision Player/Recorder VCR with stereo outputs was big and heavy, and in its day, a luxury beyond Jay Carlson’s wildest dreams.
Of course, he was only about 4 when his parents lugged the Panasonic into the Carlson home in Brookfield, Massachusetts, so just how wild could those dreams have been anyway?
But that’s the thing about dreams, especially the wild ones. Sometimes they swoop in on the wings of new technology and knock you over when you’re just a little guy, when the entire world is a magical VHS tape popped into a VCR allowing stereo sound (!) to rock your world, introducing you to a lifelong love affair with movies.
Wild? You bet. And that was just the beginning, because there was no way Jay Carlson ever saw what would eventually happen to that 4-year-old kid in the next forty years or so. Which makes sense, because, quite frankly, it’s a little incredible to imagine. After all, not many outside of a core of fast-forward-thinking collectors looked at the VHS tape and said, yup, this is a thing.
But here we are, on the threshold of what could be one of the most confounding collecting trends to emerge in the ever-expanding collecting universe.
Heritage Auctions is hosting its first standalone VHS auction April 21 featuring between 200-250 VHS tapes. If you ever stepped into a Blockbuster on a Friday night to rent a movie, you’re likely to recognize these titles up for sale: Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Karate Kid, The Goonies, Jaws, Top Gun, Blade Runner, and The Shining.
The highlight of the event is an original Back to the Future, the classic 1985 movie starring Michael J. Fox, owned since it was first released by Thomas F. Wilson, the actor who played everybody’s favorite bully, Biff, in the film.
The auction could go a long way in revealing just how much interest there is for the once ubiquitous VHS movie now graded and encased and treated reverently, befitting an artifact dating all the way back to ... the ’80s? This development might not be staggering, but it will do until staggering shows up.
“This is a watershed moment,” says Carlson, who left a corporate job dealing with credit card fraud to become Consignment Director of Home Entertainment for Heritage in January. “It puts people on notice of a new category and something they may want to pay attention to. The time is right for this. The market is about to take off.”
Late last year, a sealed, never-opened copy of Star Wars: A New Hope VHS tape sold at auction for $57,600. Almost everyone expects VHS values to increase exponentially.
To be clear, it’s the sealed, first or early release editions of VHS movies that have potential early-retirement value. That opened, beat-up copy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial stashed away in your attic or basement? Not so much.
The market for pristine VHS is scorching and the power of nostalgia is reaffirmed. Sound goofy? Well, before you judge, keep in mind the sage advice of Blockbuster, the once-giant video store chain that dotted the landscape: “Be kind, rewind.”
So, let’s do just that.
The advent of TV in the late 1940s and its dramatic adoption throughout the 1950s offered a whole new home entertainment option for Americans, supplanting the radio as the medium of choice. Comedies like I Love Lucy, Westerns like Gunsmoke and riveting dog-driven dramas like Lassie could be enjoyed by millions, but only if they were in front of their TV sets when the shows came on. If not, well, the best they could hope for was to catch a rerun at some point.
That all changed when the VHS tape was developed in Japan in 1976 and brought to the United States in 1977. Short for “Video Home System,” the VHS promised something revolutionary, offering entertainment of all kinds – from hit movies to Jane Fonda workouts – in the comfort of your own home.
Not only could film fans peruse the aisles of video stores on Friday nights, but they could also make home movies thanks to the VHS tape, as well as tape episodes of television with the record function of the now-defunct VCR.
Every revolution, alas, has a lifespan. VHS was essentially discontinued in 2006 when films stopped converting to tape, although it had long been on life support before then with the advent of DVDs and the Internet.
Nonetheless, the impact of VHS tapes was astonishing, James Chapman, a professor of film studies at the University of Leicester in Britain and the editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, said. It was “the first technology that allowed mass, large-scale home media access to films,” Chapman told The New York Times.
For many, that singular contribution is not easily forgotten.
“It’s pure nostalgia,” says Kohl Hitt, founder and owner of VHSDNA, the VHS grading company that handled the record-setting Star Wars tape. “VHS is something everyone can relate to. Not everyone is a comic book collector, or a baseball card collector, but the one thing we all have in common is film. Everyone has a favorite movie.”
Hitt is a movie buff to the extreme, collecting movie posters and movie ticket stubs (he has more than 1,500). “I was the kid who walked into Blockbuster, went right to the free-poster bin and took home all the posters,” Hitt says.
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Today, Hitt has 25,000 VHS movies in his personal collection, using them as a reference library for his business.
“I’m a diehard movie guy. It’s been a passion of mine since basically 1989,” Hitt says. “I’ll never forget getting my first VHS tape, Batman, my mom handing it to me in the kitchen. I’ll never forget seeing that cover art, that black and gold, and thinking that was just the coolest thing ever.”
Heritage’s Carlson can relate.
“I distinctly remember my parents getting our first VCR,” Carlson says. “I remember watching Star Wars and Ghostbusters on it. I was immediately hooked. It started my love affair with movies and, especially, VHS.”
It helped that Carlson’s hometown was small with little else competing for his attention.
“We had a Cumberland Farms convenience store and a video store. That was about it,” Carlson says. “When the video store opened, I was one of the first people in town to get an application and take it home for my parents to fill out so I could rent movies.
“I remember fondly riding my bike to the video store with a couple of dollars burning a hole in my pocket to rent movies,” Carlson says. “I would literally spend hours in the store, looking at the front and back of VHS movie boxes, reading everything I could about whatever movie I could get my hands on. I’m sure the manager wasn’t thrilled having a kid spending all that time there.”
Carlson’s first, real, full-time job was at a Media Play in Worcester, Massachusetts. “That was a 40,000 square-foot store, and a quarter of it was just VHS tapes. I would venture to say they had 10,000 to 12,000 VHS tapes for sale. I loved it there.”
Carlson and Hitt are prime examples of what’s driving the VHS collecting market: A love of movies and a desire for a physical connection to an experience, a memory, a moment in time lost but now magically rewound in the shape of a VHS tape.
“For somebody like me,” Carlson says, “it’s less about the actual movie because I’m not watching the movies on VHS. It’s about what the movie represents. It’s about an object.
“Two things happened that brought me back into VHS. I had gone back to my hometown about two or three years ago, and I saw that the little video store I used to rent from was still open. They were selling off movies I used to rent as a kid. I bought a shopping bag full of VHS tapes, the exact same movies I used to watch as a kid. It felt like I was buying back my youth.”
“At around that same time I went to a local comic book store. It’s a huge store – carries pop culture items, comics, just about everything. They had a small amount of VHS tapes, including a sealed Ghostbusters tape, which was one of the first to make an impact on me as a kid.
“I just stood there, marveling at the fact that there was an original, sealed copy release of this movie from 1985, not a re-release, but the original tape, and the fact that it was still in its shrink wrap blew my mind.”
At that moment Carlson knew. He turned to his wife and said “I might start buying some tapes.” And so he has, to the tune of about 2,000 tapes, or so, of movies from 1977 to 1990, the sweet spot for him as a kid.
“I know there is a devoted group of people who love watching movies on VHS,” Carlson says. “I’m not one of them. I love watching movies in 4K. The bigger the better for me. VHS is more about having that tangible piece of history for me.”
Which brings us back to today, and how this tangible blast from the past is capturing the imagination of serious collectors. Almost everyone involved points optimistically to the stunning success of video games as a comparable.
That’s significant because just last summer a Super Mario Bros. 64 video game – a game that sold for about $60 when it was released in 1996 – sold for $1.56 million, a world-record amount that rocked the collecting world.
No one is remotely saying VHS is at that stage – yet.
That copy of Star Wars, the one with an overall grade of 9.6 Mint that sold last December for $57,600 at Goldin Auctions? That’s the most ever realized for a publicly sold VHS movie, a far cry from $1.56 million, but there are whispers.
“As popular as video games have been – and they are incredibly popular – I think there is potential for something just as significant with VHS,” Carlson says. “I don’t know about you, but almost everyone I know has a favorite film. And most of those films are older that came out in the era of VHS. It doesn’t matter if it was someone like me who was a kid during the ’80s when VHS was out, or if it was someone older, everyone has a favorite movie.”
“I don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse,” Carlson says of a potential million-dollar VHS tape, “but just what I’ve seen in the last 12 months, the enthusiasm and the money that is being thrown around for some of these tapes, I can see it happening someday. Absolutely. A lot of other people can see it, too.”
“Tens of millions of VHS movies were made at a time,” Hitt says. “But they were completely discarded when DVDs came on the scene. So, to now find some of these early releases of some of these popular titles is going to be harder and harder to do. It’s all about scarcity and popularity. Add the perceived value of grading, and yeah, I think we’ll see a seven-figure VHS tape for sure.”
It could happen, sooner than later. After all, there’s nothing we love more than rewinding the past.