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THE WORD IS . . . PLASTICS : Find Out How Much That Strombecker Moonliner Is Really Worth at the Buena Park Model Kit Collectors Expo

August 13, 1992|KEN WILLIAMS | Ken Williams is a member of the staff of The Times Orange County Edition.

It may be a great big world, but for Bob Keller, the best things in life are measured to scale.

Keller, 46 of Stanton, has spent the better part of the last two decades immersed in the miniaturized world of plastic model kits. His semiannual kit collectors shows, including one slated for Sunday in Buena Park, have made him an authority on what is becoming one of the nation's fastest-growing collectibles crazes.

Keller expects at least 2,000 people to attend the daylong exposition where 250 collectors will buy, sell, trade and exhibit more than 25,000 rare model kits dating back as far as the late 1940s.

"The idea of collecting old models is kind of strange," Keller said recently by phone. "When we were kids we would build the kits, play with them and eventually they'd crash and burn. Finding unbuilt kits today from the '50s and '60s is difficult."

And to the collector, there's money in that plastic. According to Keller, kits that sold for pennies 30 years ago will fetch as much as $500 today. The secret is in knowing which kits are genuine originals and which are reissues.

"The modeling companies really hit their zenith in the late '50s and early '60s, and you could find kits of just about everything, from nuclear reactors to see-through trout. Some of them were only offered one time, but others that may have originally been issued in 1955 are still available today," he explained.

The real gold is in finding the rare and unique. For instance, back in the late '50s Strombecker released a series of kits based on attractions at the newly built Disneyland. According to Keller, one of the rarest finds is an original Strombecker Moonliner, a model of the first spaceship ride at the park's Tomorrowland. In 1960 the kit sold for about $1; today it's worth a cool $500.

Another find is the extremely rare Dodgers airliner, which sold at ballgames in the early '60s for 98 cents and is valued today at more than $250.

According to Keller, some of the best values are models taken from TV shows and movies. Aurora's original 1964 bat mobile kit will easily fetch $300 today, and if you're a fan of the old "My Mother the Car" series, expect to spend at least $125 for a replica of the show's namesake.

"Anything related to a TV show or movie has potential for increasing in value," Keller said.

" 'Battlestar Galactica' was canceled in 1979 and at about that same time Monogram released some kits from the series. They were really cheap, containing only a few parts, but today they are worth $50 to $100."

Collectors look at the model market with the discerning eye of a wine merchant assessing the coming Beaujolais crop; buying in quantity when they smell a potential windfall.

"You have to kind of look ahead and see what people are collecting now and look into the future and see what will be rare somewhere down the line," he explained. "It's like buying penny stocks: You don't know what's going to take off and what isn't."

One kit that Keller recently banked on is the bat wing model from the first Batman film.

"I bought a case of the bat plane kits because the plane was destroyed in the movie and they're not likely to bring it back in a future film. If I'm right, it could be worth something in a few years," he said.

Other kits that Keller believes could strike pay dirt are the new bat missile, a replica of the bat mobile that compresses into a missile, like the one seen in "Batman Returns," and kits of aircraft flown in the Persian Gulf War.

"Revelle and Monogram introduced some gift-set kits (those which include more than one model) a while back labeled as Desert Storm sets. They'll probably go into a discount phase, so if you buy one or two now and store them in the garage, in about 10 years they'll probably be worth something," Keller said.

Keller, who has invested about $20,000 in models over the years, looks at his collection as "part of my retirement plan." The more than 4,000 kits that clutter every room of his house have an estimated net worth of $40,000.

Most collectors fight the impulse to build their models and instead leave them in their original boxes.

"As with any type of collecting, the idea is to get the best specimen you can, so if its factory seal is still intact, you want to keep it that way," Keller explained. "Most of the kits I've bought I've intended to build, but usually I try to buy two; one to save, and one to build."

Keller a former computer programmer for General Dynamics Corp.'s Convair Division, traces his interest in model building back to the early '50s when he built his first model from a '32 Ford roadster kit. But it wasn't until 1974 that he got a real taste of model collecting.

"Back in '74, when I first moved to Orange County, I started looking for old model kits of aircraft built by Convair/General Dynamics. I had a desire to get some plastic model kits of aircraft made by the company I worked for," he recalled.

His hunt for the out-of-production kits put him in touch with other model enthusiasts and spawned the idea for the first show, which was held in August, 1975. He now holds three shows each year in Orange County.

"It's been a profit-making venture from the start," Keller said. "It was supposed to be a onetime thing, but our sellers prompted us to do another one and it's just grown since then."

What: The Kit Collectors Exposition and Sale.

When: Sunday, Aug. 16, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: Sequoia Conference Center, 7530 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park.

Whereabouts: Exit the Riverside (91) Freeway at Beach Boulevard. Go north to Orangethorpe and turn right.

Wherewithal: $3; kids under age 12 and accompanied by their parents are admitted free.

Where to call: (714) 826-5218.

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