This is why we collect: 'Star Wars' fans on their quirky and lucrative hobby

Key Points
  • Tom Stewart's collection of Star Wars memorabilia is worth more than $100,000.
  • Jonathan McElwain, a collector from Virginia, said that vintage food packages can be worth as much or more than the rarest of toys.
  • Kristy Glasgow's wardrobe is a collection in itself.
A 'Star Wars' Collectible at Sotheby's in New York.
Debra L Rothenberg | Getty Images

For Tom Stewart, collecting is in his DNA.

His parents, two pharmacists, collected old radio premiums, little orphan Annie decoders and pharmacy memorabilia; his brother collects Disney products; and his sister is on the hunt for all things Winnie the Pooh.

Stewart found his collecting passion in 1977 when he was 10 years old. It was the year that "Star Wars: A New Hope" hit theaters. Forty years later, his stockpile of Star Wars action figures, food packaging and party supplies now takes up a significant part of his 1,600 square-foot basement and is worth more than $100,000.

"I already had the collecting influence, but I think the time frame of when this movie came out and how old I was, it just really grabbed me," Stewart told CNBC. "It was revolutionary in its special effects, story telling and everything and at 10 years old, I was just the right age to really eat that up. Based on how my family had grown up, I needed to collect something and this was just what grabbed me."

His collection first started with Wonder Bread paper products that were sold during the run of the first Star Wars film. Since, his collection has steadily grown to include products like Campbell's soup cans, CoffeeMate bottles and quite a few boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

Source: Tom Stewart

Stewart said that his collection is about 30 percent food items and packages, 50 percent toys and a 20 percent hodgepodge of retail items like bath products and party supplies. These items are spread throughout his basement adorning shelves and walls in his downstairs guest bedroom, library, rec room and pool table room.

He has ventured across the U.S. and traveled abroad to add to his collection, even taking a trip to Peru to purchases 40 boxes of Star Wars-branded chocolate with several other collectors, just to get the Star Wars toys.

The chocolate company had produced 60 different mini toys — 20 characters and vehicles, each in three different colors — to put into the boxes. Each box of the Peruvian chocolate contained 30 chocolate pieces and 15 miniature Star Wars toys. In order to collect four sets, one for each collector, Stewart and his friends thought that they would need 40 boxes.

"Imagine four guys in their forties playing with chocolate and toys in the hotel lobby," Stewart said. "We were making a big pile, organizing the toys to complete all the sets and all the employees were gathered around watching."

Source: Tom Stewart

After hours of unboxing and piling up chocolate, they were eight toys short of having all the sets they needed. In order to get the remaining figures, they enlisted the help of local collectors, who were able to find the missing toys.

In the 40 years that Stewart has been collecting, he estimates that he has spent around $50,000 on his collection. That includes one of his most expensive: $500 for a Steinbach Darth Vader nutcracker signed by the company's owner.

That purchase pales in comparison to what some Star Wars collectors will offer up for a piece of memorabilia.

In 2015, Sotheby's auction house teamed with a Japanese designer to auction off more than 600 original action figures, coins, collectibles and toys. The collection garnered more than $500,000.

Among the items were two sets of "Star Wars" coins that sold for $27,500; a rare Luke Skywalker figure — one of only 20 confirmed — that sold for $25,000; and the highest-selling lot, a seven-figure multipack sold exclusively in Canada in 1980, that fetched $32,500.

Source: Tom Stewart

"I've spent as much as several hundred dollars on a single vintage cereal box," Jonathan McElwain, a collector in Virginia, told CNBC.

Like Stewart, McElwain started collecting at a young age. He was four years old when "A New Hope" hit theaters, but was 10 by the time "The Return of the Jedi" premiered.

"As a kid, I collected the Topps trading cards, Kenner Toys, Marvel comics, pack-in food promotions (from cereal boxes, cookies, and like), and anything else I could get me hands on," he said.

These days, McElwain's main focus is collecting items related to Star Wars food promotions — Coca-Cola bottle caps, Pringles cans and boxes of branded taco shells.

McElwain declined to say how much his collection is currently worth, but did say that it has appreciated in value and expects that to continue.

"As the value of those toys continues to rise in the post-Disney purchase era, there is a broadening interest in collectible categories other than the toys, including food promotion items," he said. "In many cases, the rarity of vintage food packaging rivals the rarest of the toys."

Star Wars action figures, Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker, part of Tom Long's collection at his home in Portland, ME.
Whitney Hayward | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

While Star Wars memorabilia was plentiful in the late '70s and early '80s, Stewart and McElwain both spoke about the "dark time" in Star Wars collecting, a stretch of time between 1986 and 1995 when the franchise saw inactivity in merchandise production.

"Fortunately, my family, we still did collectible shows, so I was still able to find older merchandise that I didn't have," Stewart said.

Since the release of the prequels, fans and collectors have been inundated with new merchandise and not just toys and food products, but clothes, too.

Geek apparel has always been a prominent part of Star Wars merchandise, but these days it's a bit more fashion-forward and even couture. Kristy Glasgow, a New Zealand collector and the brains behind the Kessel Runway fashion blog, doesn't just own traditional Star Wars collectibles, her wardrobe is a collection in itself.

"I have been specifically collecting Star Wars fashion since around 2004, but it has become a bigger focus in recent years, especially when I launched The Kessel Runway," Glasgow told CNBC.

Glasgow's collection includes everything from T-shirts and dresses to jewelry and makeup, with a special focus on apparel featuring female characters like Princess Leia, Rey and Jyn Erso.

Glasgow has spent quite a bit on her collection including $560 for Darth Vader long-sleeve silk shirt from a 2014 London Fashion Week designer and $300 R2-D2 heels from Irregular Choice.

There are a few items that Glasgow tucks away, never to be worn. But, for the most part, her collection is a daily showcase of her fandom.

"The range of women's Star Wars fashion available now is fantastic, with more and more companies producing new collections," Glasgow said. "Clothing is so much a part of who we are and how we present ourselves to the world, so Star Wars fashion is a big part of my life."

She isn't sure how much her whole collection of clothing is worth, considering most pieces lose their value once worn, but she estimates her Star Wars footwear collection is worth a few thousand dollars.

However, for all three collectors, the worth of the collection isn't really the point — it's all about the hunt and the community.

"I really value the friendships that I've made with other collectors in the hobby... well above the monetary value of these items," McElwain said.