Friday, January 6, 2012

Atari 2600 Air Raid and the Relative Value of Collector`s Holy Grails

A couple of months ago I was browsing Ebay for Atari 2600 stuff. I was interested in buying a console (very hard to find in Japan) as it is one of those iconic classics that I have wanted to add to my collection for a long time.

Unfortunately it is also a really really heavy classic console, so the cost of shipping one across the Pacific made me drop the idea. My time spent searching wasn`t entirely wasted, however, as coincidentally at that time someone had put up a copy of Air Raid for auction.

The Ebay listing was quite interesting. The seller (see here) noted:

LinkBased on research I have conducted, this is only the 14th known copy of Air Raid by Menavision. I bought this game new in Texas in 83 or 84. It has been boxed up and following me around the country for decades...

The game, which was cart only, ended up selling for $3,575. It seems to have been completely legit, including his assertion that there are only 14 known copies of the game in existence.

Air Raid is one of the holy grails of retro video game collecting. Along with Stadium Events for the NES and a couple of others it is probably the most valuable retro game out there. If you want to have a complete set of Atari 2600 games, and a lot of people do, you need this game. This has made the lone known CIB copy of it the most valuable Atari game out there, selling for $31,600 in 2010. The only game that has sold for more as far as I can tell was a sealed copy of NES Stadium Events which sold for $41,300.

Now I really hate it when people talk about video games primarily as an investment. I don`t view them as such myself. They are fun games to be played and enjoyed for what they are.

At the same time though, as a collector, this sort of thing does intrigue me. While I hate the way money can infect a hobby and strip it of its fun, I also like the fact that these holy grails are floating around out there with people chasing after them and putting a high price on them. Given their prominence, historical importance and rarity some of these things actually do deserve to be worth something.

Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) the Famicom doesn`t have any holy grails. Well, it has some of course but they don`t really count in the same way that Air Raid does. There are gold versions of some games (Punchout, Hot Scramble, Rockman 4) and special giveaways for contests (Recca Summer Carnival 92), but I don`t count those as part of the regular set. Those are more the type of contrived rarity that is way less interesting than actual rarity caused by things like, as in Air Raid`s case, the game being massively unpopular.

Anyway, what interests me most about that Air Raid game, and particularly the complete copy that sold for $31, 600, isn`t how much it sold for but how little.

$31,600 might sound like a lot, but when you compare it with what the holy grails in other collecting hobbies it is almost like they were giving it away. Supply and demand being the main determinants of the value of a collectible I thought it might be interesting here to look at the prices of those other holy grails and their relative scarcity (supply) and popular appeal (demand). Lets start with comics.

Comic books

The holy grail of comic book collecting is probably Action Comics number 1, which features the first appearance of Superman:
There are estimated to be about 100 of these in existence, so it is quite rare though there are fewer copies of Air Raid. It is also an icon, given Superman`s place in 20th century pop culture. This gives it a big edge over Air Raid, which is basically a game nobody has ever heard of whose only fame is attributable to the console it was made for. Still though, the difference in price is startling. The best known copy of this sold a couple of months ago for $2.16 million.

Baseball Cards

This is the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner. The T-206 is a very popular set of Tobacco cards among collectors, but this card is extremely rare due to the fact that Wagner (for reasons that are disputed) refused permission for them to use his likeness. This forced the American Tobacco Company to remove the card from distribution, but somewhere between 60 and 200 copies of it made it into the market and are now far and away the most valuable sports card in existence.

In comparison to Air Raid, there are more copies of this card out there so Air Raid wins in terms of supply. In terms of demand Honus Wagner was one of the best players of his generation, though that was about 100 years ago and were it not for this card most people who aren`t baseball fans would have no idea who he was. So it isn`t anywhere near as significant in cultural terms as Action Comics 1. At any rate, the best copy of this card out there sold for $2.8 million in 2007, which is about 90 times more than what the most expensive copy of Air Raid fetched.


The above is an envelope with two stamps from Mauritius which were produced in 1847. These stamps are extremely rare as only 500 of each were ever produced. This envelope (called the Bordeaux cover) is a one of a kind item of particular note because it has both of them on it. It sold for $4 million in 1993 the last time it changed hands and is probably the most valuable stamp related item in the world.

As a one of a kind item it is basically equal in scarcity to the complete in box copy of Air Raid. In terms of its appeal - stamps from Mauritius? An obscure British colony in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Outside of stamp collectors I think it is safe to say that this is of no interest to anyone so I give Air Raid a win on that count.


I could probably draw on examples from other collector`s hobbies but I think you get the drift. Holy grails in other hobbies, even ones that are not as rare as Air Raid, all sell for millions of dollars. The video game collector`s holy grail only sells for $31, 600. If you think about it, this doesn`t really make much sense. In terms of popular appeal, video games easily rank up there with comic books and probably beat baseball cards (only popular to baseball fans) and stamps (almost nobody under 40 collects those). The only reason I can think for the relatively low value of Air Raid is that the video game collecting market is much newer than the market for those other things and most people who would buy them are probably in their 20s or 30s. That is an age bracket which doesn`t have anywhere near as much spending power as the baby boomers who drove up the prices of comics and baseball cards in the 1980s. Twenty years from now though when the first generation who played Atari as kids are in their 50s and 60s and are the CEOs of major companies with craploads of disposable income this thing will probably be selling for obscene amounts too.

Related Posts:
- Opinion: On the Economics of Retro Game Collecting


  1. You also have to factor in how old these 'collectables' are. Air Raid is probably at most what, 30 years old? While the comic is over 70 years old, the baseball card is over a hundred years old and the stamps are over 160 years old!
    This is just the beginning though for Air Raid, as every decade pasts it's value will go substantially up!

  2. True, I alluded to that a bit in the conclusion. There seems to be a bit of a curve with age in collectibles markets. Stamps are the oldest, but their value has actually gone way down in recent years (same with baseball cards). Video game collecting will probably go up for the next 20 years or so and then go through a similar decline. Or maybe not, who knows:)

  3. I'm sure prices for retro video games will rise in the next 20 years(I better start collecting at a faster rate). But I buy games specifically for my collection, not for a value that I hope they attain, or even what the current market value is. For older systems, I try to buy the games I loved as a kid, then the ones I wanted when I was a kid. Then of course, the ones I've never heard of, that usually only run me a couple of bucks(I just recently bought The Adventures of Dino-Riki[NES], which I've heard of & know about, but have never played, and it only ran me 4 bucks). For newer systems, I have to get a feel for the games I think I'll like, or just buy them if they're at a decent price.

    As for your Atari should try to look for an Atari 2600 Junior. They're smaller and lighter that the original 2600. But I believe they are also rarer, so they might cost a bit more. Mine was given to me last year, so I really don't know. Here's the link to my blog for a pic(it's not a great shot, but I could get you others if you need them).

  4. I`m like that too, Jason. I only buy games because I actually want them and not because I think they will be valuable. Actually I`m pretty sure that most games won`t be valuable, only these holy grails might be (and I can`t afford them so....)

    I remember your post about the Atari 2600 Jr, I was so jealous!!! Somebody actually gave that to you for free? So lucky!!

  5. Interesting article, and a subject I've definitely thought over a lot. I definitely think time is what's going to tell here, as obvious as that sounds. Like, I have a sealed Mario Bros. Dixie Cup dispenser, and last offer I got for it was a lowball $25 or something like that. Needless to say, it's still marinating.

    Is your Fami sale list still up to date? I may be looking to send some money your way soon, if so.

  6. mercatfat - thanks! I have been unfortunately neglecting my Famicom sales thread recently, partially because I`ve been too busy with things and partially becaue I`ve been having some paypal issues. I hope to update it sometime this month though!

  7. I just hope that the video game collecting market crashes just like the baseball card and comic book market crashed, so I can SNES for less than $30 for a loose cart.

  8. Wow, 30$ for a loose SNES cart? A market crash is pretty much inevitable if that is what people are charging. With comics and baseball cards the price of pretty much everything (except for the holy grails) completely collapsed after they got into that `completely ridiculous` price range.

  9. I was interested in the status of your Famicom sales thread as well. I was thinking about maybe getting some more games, but I might just hold off a few months until I'm back in Japan.

  10. Cool, are you moving back or just coming back for a visit? Either way, I hope you get some good stuff!

  11. Moving back. I'll be teaching English at a 高専 in Kanazawa. Luckily, I found at least two stores that seem to sell Famicom games (one being a secondhand store like Hard-Off) but yeah, I'll definitely be interested in buying games from you too.

  12. Cool! I`ve never been to Kanazawa but I hear good things, especially about the garden. Its big enough too so you`ll probably find quite a few places once you get settled!

  13. Very interesting post sir, you're right - I can imagine video games being worth a lot more in the years to come, and more of them will be valuable too as the number of copies of each title will gradually decrease. Plus, video games are electronic too so their working life-span is much more limited... :|

  14. Thanks Simon. I think some of the holy grails will probably become insanely expensive. Fortunately for those of us on tight budgets though I think most games will remain affordable.

    It is a shame that the games won`t last forever though:( Mind you I don`t think anyone has actually read an original copy of Action Comics 1 in decades so....