May the force be with you if you want to assemble a high-grade 1977 Topps Star Wars set.
Like the beloved George Lucas film it's based on, this 330-card issue has developed a large following.
"There's no doubt that the competition for PSA [GEM-MT] 10s can be a bloodbath, especially for the low population cards," said David Underwood, who has compiled the No. 4 Current Finest, 1977 Topps Star Wars set on the PSA Set Registry.
Pete Tolman, owner of the registry's No. 3 Current Finest set, has had a similar experience.
"This is one of the first card sets that kind of opened up the floodgates to non-sports collecting," he said.
But Eric Roberts, who possessed the registry's No. 1 set from 2007 to 2013, notes that common PSA 10 cards from this issue remain relatively affordable.
That's good news if you're contemplating starting this seminal sci-fi offering. A sensation upon its May 25, 1977, release, the original Star Wars movie smashed box office records and spawned trading card sets in several countries. There are 18 different 1977 Star Wars trading card sets listed on the PSA Set Registry alone.
It's a safe bet that the U.S. Topps offering had the largest print run of any of its contemporaries. It's also the most widely collected. Demand for the blue-bordered first series singles (#1 to #66) inspired Topps to churn out four more series. The cards in each series can be distinguished by their border colors (see the chart).
The majority of the card fronts showcase scenes from the movie above a starburst with the Star Wars logo and card number in it. Captions describing scenes or providing the character (and/or actor) names are also included on the bottom, alongside the copyright information.
The backs come in various formats. Some are puzzle pieces while others present story summaries, movie facts, actor profiles or official descriptions. The non-puzzle backs showcase the Star Wars name inside a pink film banner at the top, followed by a scroll of text over a yellow background and a cartoon space scene.
All five series were distributed in seven-card/15-cent wax packs. Each pack also houses a sticker and a piece of gum. And although this set is regularly identified as a 1977 offering, Underwood points out that the latter two series were distributed in 1978. These pasteboards were also available in 500-card vending boxes.
The blue-bordered Series 1 cards are the most sought after. This series leads off with eight pasteboards that highlight key characters, while the ensuing singles offer scenes in chronological order.
The set's first card - which features Luke Skywalker - regularly commands the most. Not only was this card exposed to wear and tear from being on top of collector piles, it was also located on the edge of a print sheet, a position that generally makes cards vulnerable to condition woes like miscuts.
"I've never seen a centered example of card No. 1. I've never even seen one come close," noted Roberts, who has opened up cases of this product. "That's a really tough card."
Poor left-to-right centering has hampered most of the examples that Roberts has pulled, but he has also seen cards with bad top-to-bottom centering.
Of the 245 submitted, just five have been deemed PSA 10s. One PSA 10 sold for $2,500 on eBay in May 2014.
Roberts adds that card #53 "Battle in outer space!" and #63 "May the Force be with you!" - which are located in edge-sheet positions like card #1 - were also difficult to track down in top grade. Just four and three PSA 10s exist of each respectively. One PSA 10 of card #53 fetched $200 on eBay in March 2012.
Collectors seem to agree that the Series 2 (red borders) and Series 4 (green borders) cards are the most elusive in pristine condition.
"The red tends to show more scratches," explained Underwood. "And because many [Series 2 cards] have a vertical format, they tend to be difficult to find centered well."
But cards from the green series appear to be even more elusive in top condition.
"Green is a hard color to produce [in the printing process]," explained Underwood. "[Green cards] tend to have more bubbles and things like that."
The green series also harbors the set's most controversial card. Two versions of #207 "C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)" were created. A so-called X-rated version, which somehow made it through the production process, presents the scholarly droid with an extra appendage. This error sparked a number of complaints, so many, in fact, that Topps attempted to recall boxes and produce a corrected version.
"The story I've heard is that it was done by some employee who was disgruntled," said Underwood.
Others insist that the appendage was the result of an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction that just happened to occur when the photo was snapped. Whatever the true reason may be, the X-rated error does generate a premium. Some collectors contend it's not much rarer than the corrected version, but Roberts has had a different experience.
"I've opened up cases of these over a 10-year period and I've only pulled four X-rated cards," he said. "In my experience, the X-rated version is much harder to find, probably 25-to-1 times harder to find."
Roberts also adds that the X-rated single is tough to uncover properly centered. There are only two PSA 10s of the error card and nine PSA 10s of the corrected version.
Underwood says third series cards (yellow borders) are the easiest to find in top condition, while the fifth series (orange borders) include a number of behind-the-scenes photos.
"At that point, they must have just been tapped out of photos," said Underwood. "In the fifth series, they used a lot of photos from the production of the movie. I didn't like the production photos as a kid, but now I think they're cool. Now I can go and have George Lucas sign a card. It's neat to look back at the production photos and the models and see how they actually filmed the movie."
Centering is the biggest condition issue hampering cards from the 330-card set.
"If you go through these cards, and you're talking over 250 cards a box, you're lucky if you can find maybe 10 that will grade high," noted Tolman.
Print defects also often plague the backgrounds and borders on these cards, and if you're opening packs today, one card is likely to have a wax stain.
Underwood explains that the cards were usually inserted into packs with the front card against the back of the pack. So when they sealed the pack, the back card would be left with wax stains on the front of it. Ultimately you'd end up tossing that card, which would then leave you with six cards and a sticker, noted Underwood. "And the gum was always against the front of the pack and usually on the back of the sticker."
This explains why the stickers are generally tougher to track down in top condition compared to the cards. Eleven blank-backed stickers were released with each series (55 in total). The stickers in the first two series (#1 to #22) have black borders, while the last three series have photos framed in a film-strip design inside white borders.
Unless devoted to a specific character, these stickers do not have a caption, but many of the action scenes on the stickers are similar to those in its sister card series. For example, Underwood points out that the scene on sticker #11 closely resembles the scene on card #53 "Battle in outer space!" As a result, hobby publications generally list the stickers with same caption as its corresponding card.
Most packs had one sticker in them, but both Underwood and Roberts have opened packs that have had more than one.
"I've been collecting the cards out of the unopened packs, but with the stickers, you can't do it that way," explained Roberts. "For one thing, the gum has probably destroyed the sticker. But even if I had bought them out of packs in 1977, many of them have a roller mark on them."
Tolman says stickers from Series 1 and 3 are the most difficult to obtain in pristine form, while both Tolman and Underwood have seen an abundance of high-grade Series 2 and 5 stickers in recent years.
Thirty-eight years after their initial release, these cards and stickers remain highly coveted. The movie has been re-released several times and a new Star Wars film (Episode VII) that will reportedly reunite a number of the actors from the original movie is slated to open in December 2015. This is bound to generate even more interest in the 1977 Topps Star Wars cards.
"I'm looking forward to the new movie," said Tolman. "I like the director [J.J. Abrams]. I really hope he can bring back the original fun that was part of the first film. The main characters gelled well together. There was attitude and there was fun."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures and Set Registry rankings are those as of March 2015.