Lost History: The LEGO Direct/eBay Partnership

These days we’re all used to going into LEGO branded stores and website to buy the latest Star Wars sets, but a couple of decades ago – back before the turn-of-the-century-slash-dawn-of-the-new-Millennium – our options were much more limited.

With the exception of big box stores like Walmart, Toys “Я” Us and KB Toys, the only other direct contact we had with LEGO was through their telephone and mail-in services, which (along with early AFOL community interactions) were managed through the LEGO Direct business unit under the guise of Shop@Home, a name that is still used by long-in-the-teeth LEGO fans.

As time went on the Shop@Home experience expanded to include the LEGO website, which by December 2001 had moved from an information-only website to a retail experience, but in those early days the future of online shopping wasn’t fully bedded in, and so LEGO Direct kept looking for new ways to create customer interactions – including a partnership with eBay in 2002.

Few collectors remember the brief period between 2002 and 2005 when LEGO experimented with eBay to determine if it was a viable means to grow online sales. Initially seen as a way to deliver unique items that would create buzz amongst fans, LEGO Auctions on eBay wasn’t planned by a think tank, but was born after a quick conversation about what the model shop had built already and wanted to move on to free up space.

Beginning in mid-April 2002 the first of the project’s 70 listings were of 10020 Sante Fe Super Chief on a special base, and by the year’s end an auction for a Jango Fett maxifig was live. Announced on LUGnet, it included a fully assembled and glued, one-of-akind model of the father of the galaxies most feared bounty hunter – and the source code of every clone trooper to serve in the Grand Army of the Republic – well as a buildable 8011 Jango Fett set and a Jango Fett minifigure.

Starting at $50 on November 12th, a week later it had closed for $1425. That might not sound much by today’s standards, but at the time it would have bought you nearly every LEGO Star Wars set that had been released to date!

Continuing with their auctions for exclusive models, LEGO Auctions on eBay listed a number of season Christmas and Easter ornaments, followed by a selection of lifesize dogs, before running their second and third LEGO Star Wars auctions – two mini-scale Death Star Trench Run scenes in June 2003. Due to the low key nature of these auctions – which were barely noticed by the LEGO or Star Wars collecting communities – the two auctions finished at an average $835, unlike the nearly thirty-fold increase from opening to final bid that the Jango Fett maxifig saw.

The next Star Wars auction, which ran in November 2003, saw LEGO reach into their vault of sets and pull out brand new samples of 7140 X-wing Fighter and 7190 Millennium Falcon from 1999 and 2000, respectively. The auction’s starting price was set at the sets combined originally retailprice of $129.98, and finished at $570, just over four times their original value.

While it could be suggested that the novelty of these auctions was petering out, it should be noted that – at the time – LEGO Star Wars sales had faltered, and a number of US retailers had opted to reduce the price on slow-selling sets and bundle them into copack bundles to help clear space on shelves.

Regardless of how it was perceived at the time, or how well remembered it is now, the LEGO Auctions on eBay project succeeded in bringing models that, while not necessirily commercially attractive, were inventive and special. Ultimately the passion that pushed the project forward waned when its main driver moved on and in its final year there were just over a dozen auctions.

However, the program’s final auction was an absolute showstopper, and is probably the most revered model that Varzegi and his team ever produced – the massive eight-foot long Venator-class Star Destroyer that was displayed at the LEGO booth during Celebration 3 in May 2005.

Going live on December 14th, the listing included a certificate of authenticity signed by George Lucas, free shipping in the United States and promised that 100% of the sale would go to a charitable cause. Drawing in more community attention than all the other LEGO Direct auctions received, it pulled in 68 bids in the 10 days the auction ran for, eventually finishing off at $31,602 – a massive $29,000 above its starting price.

There’s a lot more to tell about the Venator – but that’s another story…

Entertainment Earth

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