What happens when the frenzy ends and the world doesn’t value your valuables?
“It’s just so sad to see somebody spend so much money on something that isn’t real.” That’s what Karen Boeker, counterfeit Beanie Baby expert, says motivates her work: separating the valuable Beanie Babies from the pretenders. Of course, the value of the real ones is debatable, too. Honestly, if you think about it too long, the entire concept of worth can fall apart.
Boeker, 54, can’t quite pinpoint why she’s dedicated more than 25 years of her life to Beanie Babies. The frenzy around them faded long ago, as these types of things tend to do. Maybe she has an addictive personality. Maybe it’s the thrill of the chase. Maybe it’s just that they’re cute. Whatever the case, she’s kept at it. She sold Beanie Babies to pay for an emergency appendectomy about 20 years ago and, more recently, to help pay for her son’s wedding. She’s also one of three women behind a Beanie Baby pricing guide and a Facebook group for collectors with tens of thousands of members. Combined, they have several decades of Beanie experience. Their names, naturally, are Karen, Karen, and Becky.
Boeker and Becky — Estenssoro — also run a Beanie Baby authentication service, True Blue Beans. Estenssoro used to do the authenticating alone, and Boeker joined in April 2021. They charge $5 per Beanie Baby for a sticker that says whether the toy is counterfeit; for $15, they’ll put it in a tamper-resistant display case and tell you whether it’s “museum quality,” “mint condition,” and even “magnificent.”
“You get all those adjectives in there,” Boeker says. Their customers prefer that they don’t give negative marks to the Beanies, but they have to be honest. “If it’s a dirty Beanie,” they’ll say so.
At the height of Beanie Baby mania in the 1990s, plenty of people genuinely believed the toys might be the key to their retirement or their kids’ college tuition. Some people stole litters of them, and at least one person was reportedly killed in a Beanie-related dispute. Now, when cleaning out their basements or going through bins left behind by their grandparents, some people decide to check in — just in case — to see if they’re sitting on a gold mine of ’90s relics. Most of the time, they aren’t. “I hate getting people’s hopes up, because we’re constantly crushing dreams,” Boeker says. “I don’t like that.”
It’s not that Beanie Babies are worthless — collectors in the hobby are willing to pay quite a bit of money for the right ones. It’s that the most coveted Beanie Babies today are the ones most people have never heard of.
When I ask Boeker what makes a Beanie Baby worth anything, then or today, her answer is frank: “It’s what people are willing to pay for it.” Why some people are willing to pay anything for it is harder to square.
For most, it’s unfathomable to imagine spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a stuffed animal. Then again, it’s also unfathomable to imagine how we value most things, from personal mementos to art to blunt-smoking digital apes. It’s easy to look at the current financial landscape and recognize hints of Beanie Baby-like bubbles in, for example, NFTs. The interest in both of them has a bit of a je ne sais quoi element. But the same goes for all markets. Personal and objective worth are inevitably intertwined. There’s an unavoidable human nature to value.
The Beanie Baby craze swept the United States and much of the globe in the 1990s. The era was marked by the hunt for the Princess Diana bear, endless lines outside Hallmark stores in anticipation of new releases, people hoarding tiny stuffed toys with names like Quackers and Nip and Peanut in their living rooms and desperately protecting their tags. Boeker jokes she and her friends were “feeding all the homeless in Houston” after circling around McDonald’s drive-throughs buying Happy Meals to secure the Teenie Beanies found inside. (They did, in fact, donate the food.)
The world experienced a sort of collective delusion around the worth of what is, essentially, a fabric sack of beans. In hindsight, bubbles rarely make sense. “It’s a flaw in the human character,” says Jeremy Grantham, market historian and bubble expert. “No one is immune, no matter how smart you are.”
Beanie Babies were the creation of Ty Warner, the elusive billionaire behind toy company Ty Inc., which he founded in 1986. He launched Beanie Babies in 1993, and initially, people didn’t get it. “At the beginning, nobody really wanted Beanie Babies,” says Lina Trivedi, one of Ty’s earliest employees. Consumers didn’t seem to quite get them, and retailers didn’t think they’d fit the aesthetic of their stores. Then, she says, it felt like a switch flipped overnight. Beanie Babies took off in the suburbs of Chicago, where Ty’s headquarters was located, and then fanned out. “When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t really see the intensity escalating or whatever,” Trivedi says, “because you’re in the vortex of it all.”
To the extent he could, Warner manufactured the craze around the items — the endeavor was, after all, to make money.
Despite retailers’ and shoppers’ initial reservations, the Beanie Babies were indeed cute, and Warner’s team attached names, poems, and birthdays to them to make them more personal. Most of the original ones were written by Trivedi. The toys were accessibly priced, and at the same time, Warner was able to pull supply strings to create a sense of scarcity around them. Warner would retire certain Beanies, upping the ante even more not only on the primary market but also on the secondary market, where prices of the $5 items soared into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.
There’s also an element of inexplicability to any fad. “What sort of lights the fire, we just don’t really know,” says Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology.
Maureen Laughead, a relatively early collector from Pennsylvania, recalled her daughters selling three politically themed Beanies — Righty, Lefty, and Libearty — to a local ice cream store in exchange for $1,000 and a Princess bear, which was released after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The Princess bear was the “it” Beanie of the era. “If I tried to sell those three now, I’m sure they’re not worth anything,” she says.
At its most basic level, value is how much someone is willing to pay for something, given all the other stuff they could pay for instead. It’s how much worth they ascribe to the thing based on what they feel they get out of it. But there are different ways of thinking about the concept. In Marxist terms, there’s use value — the extent to which something fulfills a want or a need — and there’s exchange value, the proportion to which it can be exchanged for something else.
At the height of the Beanie Baby craze, the use and exchange value that people were ascribing to the stuffed animals became completely untethered. The market was completely distorted.
“It becomes a bubble when it disconnects from the value,” Grantham says. “Prices spiral up.”
An entire media ecosystem of Beanie Babies emerged, from early-stage blogs to magazines to trade shows. Estenssoro was one of the first avid collectors with her neighbor, Becky Phillips, in the Chicago suburbs. “At first, we didn’t know it was going to be this big old thing,” Estenssoro says. Once the toys began to catch on, the pair began documenting them and building early collections, eventually launching the first Beanie Baby price guide.
Beanie Babies were among the first big internet fervors, and their rise coincided with eBay’s. In May 1997, eBay auctioned off $500 million worth of Beanie Babies, accounting for 6 percent of its total annual sales. When the platform went public in 1998, Beanie Babies accounted for 10 percent of total company sales. That same year, the New York Times Magazine chronicled the proliferation of Beanie-related crimes, declaring, “A world gone Beanie mad!”
Perhaps the most emblematic photo of the Beanie Baby bubble was one snapped of an estranged couple named Frances and Harold Mountain — a judge ordered them to separate out the animals on a courtroom floor during divorce proceedings. “It’s ridiculous and embarrassing,” Frances Mountain complained at the time, before, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “squatting on the courtroom floor alongside her ex-husband to choose first from a pile of stuffed toys.” The image came to epitomize the moment — grown adults were swept up in a baffling belief that these stuffed animals were highly valued possessions.
But the lore around the photo isn’t accurate: The moment wasn’t about the money, it was about revenge. Frances had been awarded primary physical custody of their children as part of what was an “ugly, disputed divorce,” recalls Frank Toti, an attorney who worked for Frances on the case. Harold asked to take half of the Beanie Babies “out of spite,” Toti says. “It had nothing to do with Beanie Babies, it had everything to do with the father being upset about not being awarded custody.” After selecting a few of the Beanie Babies from the pile, Harold gave up and said his ex-wife could have the rest.
The Beanie Baby bubble burst at the turn of the century; the “animal spirits” — a term coined by British economist John Maynard Keynes — driving the market fell away. The toys were mass-produced, so beyond those from the earliest generations, few were actually rare. Price declines begat more price declines, and the Beanie Baby smoke, in a way, lifted. And so millions of Americans were left with millions of Beanie Babies in their basements; forgetting the passé toys except for, now and then, the errant consideration of what to do with them.
Looking back at a mad rush around often-colorful, often-cutesy, questionably useful odds and ends, it’s hard not to see what’s currently going on in the NFT market and wonder whether it’s Beanie Baby-esque. There’s a similar level of unbridled optimism and a rush to claim ownership over relatively arbitrary items in the belief that their value will go up. The nascent arena is also plagued by scams and potential crimes.
Many NFT aficionados refute the suggestion that they’re dealing in digital Beanie Babies. They say Beanie Babies didn’t have the same sense of community (they did), that they weren’t as high-profile (they were), and that NFTs have a much more tangible utility than Beanie Babies (up for debate). However, Arthur Suszko, a collector of both Beanie Babies and NFTs, embraces the comparison. “There’s a lot of parallels between what’s going on with NFTs now versus Beanie mania in the ’90s,” he says.
Suszko, 34, was into Beanie Babies as a kid and began collecting them again as an adult. His current project is to create NFTs of his Beanie Babies, where people could buy the NFT and therefore ownership rights, but his company would still hold onto the physical item unless the buyer later traded the token back in. It would essentially separate ownership from possession. “It’s a merger of my childhood dreams and modern passions coming together,” he says. Still, he’s aware the NFT moment is likely fleeting. “Nobody’s going to care about random jpegs that might be selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars right now.”
The market for Beanie Babies didn’t vanish entirely after the crash, but today’s market does look different — and indeed, the vast majority of them aren’t worth much. There are still expensive Beanie Babies out there, they’re just nowhere as well-known as, for example, the Princess bear. “It’s funny, because sometimes the ones that are actually worth a lot of money, they don’t realize are worth a lot of money because they’re not talked about, because they’re rarer Beanies,” says Karen Holmes, the other Karen of Karen, Karen, and Becky. She maintains the price guide website, where a series of ebooks laying out the costs of Beanie Babies and other Ty products are available starting at $5.95.
According to the scarcity principle, things become more desirable when they are in limited supply. In the ’90s, Ty used the illusion of scarcity to drive the urgency around Beanie Babies. People were made to believe they were in short supply when in actuality they weren’t, and once they realized that was the case, some of the allure faded. In the aftermath, the scarcity principle still applies, perhaps in a more real fashion. If everyone’s selling the same Beanie, it’s not a hard-to-find Beanie, and therefore it’s probably not expensive. Indeed, the priciest ones are those most people have no idea even exist. Some were never sold in stores at all.
Enter Chef Robuchon, which was created in 2006, years after the ’90s bubble burst. The light brown bear wears a white chef’s hat and embroidered jacket with a French flag-themed collar, and the Beanie Babies price guide values it at up to $6,500 if in mint condition — up to $8,000 with the case and invitation. Ty Warner handed out the bears to celebrate the opening of a restaurant helmed by chef Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons hotel in New York, which Warner owned. The toys were given to food critics and journalists, most of whom probably never gave them a second thought, and many have been lost. “When it was given out, nobody really knew about it because it was given to foodies,” Holmes says, “not to Beanie people.”
Beanie people would have known better than to brush off a Chef Robuchon bear.
As a general rule in the Beanie trade, the older and rarer, the better. What’s on the tags, and how the tags look, matters. It’s not entirely intuitive. What seems like the tiniest thing can mean a hundred- or even thousand-dollar difference to those in the know. A regular Libearty — a white bear with an American flag on it — in top condition isn’t generally worth much more than its original $5 price. But if it’s got a Summer Olympics tag on it, Boeker says, its worth can jump up to over $1,000. Ty apparently didn’t have permission to use the official Olympic trademark in 1996, and so for most of the Beanies, the mark was removed. A light blue Peanut the elephant can go for up to $100; one made in a darker royal blue could fetch up to $1,500.
“It’s all in the details,” Boeker says. In a sea of tiny red heart-shaped tags hanging off the toys, a star or the curvature of a letter matters.
It can feel like the people deep in the hobby almost speak in code, referring off-hand to generations of hang tags and tush tags and naming off the toys like familiar characters, in the way you or I might mention, say, Mickey Mouse or Batman.
Caleb Riley, 26, learned to crack the code thanks, in part, to Boeker. His mother collected Beanie Babies years ago and finally handed them over to him to try to sell. In those efforts, he’s learned more about the stuffed animals than he’s ever cared to know. In 2021, he posted a MasterCard Beanie Baby to the Facebook group the Beanie Baby ladies run. The bear had a brown nose instead of a black nose, and that difference garnered him what he says were a dozen offers in a single day. Boeker warned him not to sell it for under $1,500. “It was like mania,” he says. He sold it and a handful of other Beanie Babies for $5,000.
Of course, Riley’s experience is the exception. Plenty of people who are sitting on mounds of the plushes aren’t Beanie Baby thousandaires. Holmes estimates that of the roughly 3,000 variations of Beanies out there, one-third are worth more than they originally retailed for, though often not by much.
There are generally three stages of collecting in consumer culture: acquisition, possession, and disposition. In the current zeitgeist, Beanie Babies are stuck in limbo between phase two and phase three. Most people aren’t super jazzed about the Beanies they’ve got on hand. They’re not really in a hurry to get rid of them, either.
There are, however, still people in the acquisition phase of collecting, such as James Hamblin, a 42-year-old father of two who lives in Massachusetts. When I first spoke to Hamblin about his Beanie Baby collection, he blamed it on his daughter. “Of course, the kids want the harder Beanies to find,” he says. When I asked him whether she was allowed to play with the Beanies, he cracked. “I mean, I do buy some for her, but then the ones that I buy are pretty high in price,” he says, chuckling at the acknowledgment that it’s much more of a dad hobby than a daughter one. “She gets some of the crumbs.”
Demographically, Hamblin isn’t unique in his interest in Beanie Babies. Just as the most coveted Beanies today are not the ones you might think, neither are the identities of the people collecting them. I came across a lot of men in their 30s and 40s, especially in the high-dollar market. It’s sort of equivalent to the My Little Pony enthusiast Bronies — call them Beanie Bronies.
Hamblin says he really has no idea why he got into Beanie Babies, joking that maybe it’s a midlife crisis. He finds the chase addicting and gets a rush out of finding a Beanie Baby he’s been on the hunt for; his goal is to collect all of the first- through third-generation Beanies (essentially, the early ones). Thus far, he’s amassed about 200 toys in total and thinks he’s spent about $50,000 on the endeavor, the priciest being a third-generation royal blue Peanut with a German tag at $2,500. While other people have a “deep love” of Beanie Babies, Hamblin insists it’s not the case for him. “I don’t really have any sort of attachment to them, I’ve just set myself a goal,” he says. “Hopefully, one day I’ll either sell them or I’ll display them properly.”
Hamblin has met similarly enthused Beanie Bronies, like his friend Joe Mancuso, 35, who says he was offered free Beanies in exchange for intimate pictures of himself (he declined), and Nick Rosato, 32, who began selling Beanie Babies, in part, to help keep his family afloat when he was out of work. “We ended up making ends meet any way we could, which unfortunately involved selling off some of my collectibles,” Rosato says. “But you do what’s best for your family.”
The men of Beanie world aren’t just suburban dads. Nearly everyone I spoke with for this story referenced one young man, a startup co-founder based in New York, who is an extremely well-connected collector and dealer in the field. He helped Boeker secure a Russian exclusive bear she’d been after, and Riley says he was the buyer of the MasterCard bear. He deals in exotics and prototypes. “If you want a Beanie Baby,” Hamblin says, “he’s the one I’d go to.” The collector declined to speak on the record for this story, though he was also very concerned that I get my facts straight. Even this market still has its whales.
The Beanie Baby world might not be what it once was, but it’s by no means quiet. There’s excitement: accusations of scammery, disagreements around what it means to certify an item’s value and who gets to decide.
Take a quick spin around the internet and it’s quite easy to come across a list of Beanie Babies that are allegedly worth thousands of dollars. On eBay, you can almost always find a Princess bear for sale with an asking price higher than the typical house. The thing is that you can list anything on eBay for anything. The other thing is that there are a lot of Princess bears out there. While they were a hot commodity in 1997 when they first came out, in the year 2022, not so much.
“A lot of people are still looking at clickbait articles that say Princess is worth half a million,” Holmes says. “It’s not.” Many Princess bears on eBay are being sold for under $20.
Holmes, Boeker, and Estenssoro view their mission, in part, as one of educating people about what is and isn’t valuable in Beanie Babies. Boeker has expertise in looking out for counterfeits, which were quite common during the bubble. The trio frets about rumors that errors on tags mean they’re especially valuable, even though most of the time they mean nothing at all. (Plenty of errors were also mass-produced.) They speculate that some of the eBay listings are money-laundering schemes, or at least say they think they used to be.
“Somebody else mentioned drugs,” Boeker says. “They would put up a Beanie Baby and then they would sell them drugs, but it looked like they were buying a Beanie Baby. I don’t do drugs, so I don’t know.”
In 2018, the trio got Business Insider to correct a video on Beanie Baby valuations that featured Lori Ann Verderame, known professionally as Dr. Lori, a television personality and antiques appraiser. In the video, which was removed from most platforms, Dr. Lori, who also markets herself as a Beanie Baby appraiser, declared a certain Valentino bear worth $100. Business Insider’s correction notes its actual value is more like $5 to $10.
The Beanie Babies price guide ladies are hesitant to say much about Dr. Lori — after all, they are rivals. And most Beanie Baby people are, well, nice. Boeker says that while Dr. Lori does know about art and antiques, she is not an expert on Beanies. “She’s a smart woman,” she says. “But I don’t know of a single collector who respects her.”
Dr. Lori, for her part, tells me that she appraises thousands of Beanie Babies a week. She acknowledges that there’s a lot of confusion around value, though when I asked for a more concrete sense of what makes a Beanie Baby valuable, she was relatively scant on details, insisting instead that people just get her appraisal. “You could have the winning lottery ticket, and a lot of people [do],” she says.
Boeker says that they sometimes have people come to the Facebook group who have gotten appraisals from Dr. Lori for much higher than what other people are generally willing to pay. “Rarely are the prices she gives accurate,” Boeker says. “She’s making money, good for her.”
Karen, Karen, and Becky don’t typically do appraisals; so many people have common Beanies, it’s not really worth it. The price guide costs money, though, as does the authentication service.
Most collectors trust them, but to a point. Leon Schlossberg runs a website dedicated to Ty and has with his daughter Sondra collected nearly 19,000 Beanie Babies, which they hope to someday put into a museum. He says that Boeker is “extraordinarily knowledgeable” about Beanie Babies and that the Beanie Babies price guide is the only one that’s legitimate out there, though he has quibbles with it. Still, he doesn’t love the idea that the women are both tracking the prices and selling — or at least, Boeker is. “You have to look at somebody who sells those for a living and wonder if that’s the person who should be making the value guide,” he says.
The point isn’t lost on Boeker, who brought up in one of our conversations that it’s a bit of a conflict of interest for her to sell Beanie Babies while at the same time working on the price guide and authentication. From time to time, there are flare-ups in the women’s Beanie Babies Collectors group on Facebook where potential sellers accuse buyers of undercutting prices in an attempt to later flip the Beanies. Boeker reassures me there’s no trickery going on — but she’s definitely come across some Beanies in the wild that are worth more than the asking price. “Let’s just say I’ve gotten some good deals,” she says.
The problem with bubbles is that even if at some point it becomes clear what’s going on, it’s impossible to gauge when the bubble will burst. If bubbles were predictable, people would start to sell early, and the bubble would self-implode. Obviously, they don’t. And what was in the bubble really never goes away. The objects themselves don’t disappear. They become zombies.
“Beanie Babies are mostly not going to get tossed in the trash, they just dissipate out,” says Camerer, the California behavioral economist. “The technical definition of a bubble is that prices are above some fundamental, but that just begs the question of what is the fundamental? What’s the value?”
For people into Beanie Babies now, the fundamentals don’t really matter. If the world moves on from something and you don’t, you don’t for a reason.
Most of the Beanie Baby collectors I spoke to couldn’t specifically identify the impetus of their interest in the toys. Maybe a neighbor had one, or they saw it at a store, or their kids got into them. Many point to the economics and investment properties, but not all of them. Some collectors want cats or dragons or tie-dye bears not because they’re particularly valuable but simply because they like them.
Many collectors insist that there’s no real personal attachment to their Beanies, even though it’s impossible to imagine there isn’t. People don’t spend hours and hours learning the intricacies of any market for nothing, let alone a market as cold as Beanies. They like the hobby, but they also recognize it’s a bit silly — multiple people were skeptical that I might make them look bad in print. On the spectrum of habits, collecting stuffed animals is a healthy one; it’s also one where you might recognize others could think you’re a kook.
If you think about it, the way we value anything is sort of strange. Value is, to a large extent, ineffable. The most valuable things in my life aren’t actually worth a lot of money. Are yours?
Estenssoro says beyond a handful of Beanies she has “in a box somewhere tucked away,” she no longer collects them. The same goes for Holmes, who sold her collection about 12 years ago before having open-heart surgery because she wasn’t sure she’d make it through. She got two Chef Robuchons off her hands at the time.
Boeker, however, hasn’t been able to give the hobby up. She had to sell off her collection some 20 years ago to pay off medical bills after having an emergency appendectomy while uninsured. “It was awful, back when I sold it,” she says. “I was in tears, I’ll admit that.” Slowly but surely, she’s built her collection back up.
Recently, she sold some of her Beanie Babies, but for a happier reason: Her son got married, and she was able to turn about a dozen pieces in her collection into $15,000 for the occasion. “When you can do things like that, it’s worth it.” (In gratitude, the bride and groom allowed her to decorate their table with a pair of Love Birds Beanies.)
Boeker has a self-effacing nature that’s disarming in conversation. She delivers some of her commentary with a metaphorical eye-roll, even though she clearly cares and has encyclopedic knowledge about Beanie Babies. “I know, shoot me,” she says when we first talk about her decision to start buying Beanies again after first selling her collection. Weeks later, she told me having to sell off her collection was probably one of the best things that ever happened to her because of the relationships she’s built over the years upon rebuilding it. “If you would have told me 25 years ago that I’d still be doing Beanies, I’d have called you crazy,” she says. She has no intention of getting out of the hobby anytime soon.
The most important Beanie to her is, unsurprisingly, one I’ve never heard of: Billionaire Bear No. 3. According to the price guide, just 650 of those No. 3 bears were given out, and only to Ty employees. Boeker thinks she knows which employee hers went to. It’s worth an estimated $400 to $800, which is money, but not Chef Robuchon money. So why that one? In part, because Boeker bought it from the other Karen, Karen Holmes, who is her friend. “It’s special to me because it was owned by her.”