Star Wars Trading Cards
Star Wars’ impact on culture, storytelling, science fiction and filmmaking is unprecedented. Beginning with the first film’s debut in 1977, fans across the globe immediately embraced the franchise, and Star Wars merchandise and memorabilia quickly followed. Topps secured the license to produce Star Wars trading cards that year. More than four decades later, the appetite for collectible Star Wars cards is stronger than ever.
Cultural Significance of Star Wars Collector Cards
The nine Star Wars movies released between 1977 and 2019 earned a combined $10 billion at the box office. Estimates put the total value of the franchise at more than $25 billion. Phrases like “May the Force be with you” and “I am your father” are deeply embedded expressions that transcend language and Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, R2D2 and C-3PO seem like old friends.
When they first appeared, the excitement around Star Wars Trading Cards rivaled the movies themselves. The cards distilled the essence of Star Wars by providing movie details and character information; most importantly, they were fun and unique, which greatly appealed to waves of young fans who flocked to the theaters. Today, the nostalgia of the vintage 1977 cards lets those who were there relive the thrill of discovering what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
The Star Wars Trading Card Origin Story
When Topps acquired the rights to produce Star Wars toys, it initially decided to focus on producing other Star Wars merchandise before adding trading cards to the mix. That decision proved to be the right one—Topps Star Wars Trading Cards created and drove the growth of the collectible non-sports card genre. The cards hit the market in 1977, shortly after the film premiered. Around the same time, Wonder Bread and General Mills produced cards that were included in their products. In an era where merchandising around movies was still emerging, all of the cards were immediately popular.
The first Topps series featured the primary characters, along with an assortment of other faces and scenes from the movie, each framed by a blue border. Like each subsequent Star Wars series, Series 1 included 66 numbered cards and 11 stickers. Topps released four additional sets of cards over the course of the next year that filled in the gaps from Series 1. Cards included supporting characters, recognizable scenes from the film and some behind-the-scenes shots. Some cards displayed movie facts on the back while others were puzzle pieces that came together to form a movie poster.
Each series featured a different color border that made them easy to identify and collect. The five Star Wars trading card series, along with three sets released in 1980 for The Empire Strikes Back and two sets of Return of the Jedi cards (1983), comprise the vintage era of Topps cards.
Evolution of the Star Wars Trading Card
After a dark period with no new releases that lasted ten years, the Star Wars Galaxy Topps Trading Cards appeared in 1993 and ushered in the modern era of Star Wars collector cards. Galaxy Series were art cards featuring illustrations and artist interpretations of classic Star Wars characters and scenes. Card sets included promotional and chase cards, both of which were special cards inserted into select packs to drive sales.
The modern era also saw the introduction of Widevision cards, an oversized format with expanded graphics on the front plus storyboards and expanded content on the reverse.
The Modern Era: 1993-1999, 17 sets that expanded the design and materials pallet established earlier
Prequel Era: 1999-2005, 10 sets released in support of The Prequel Trilogy – Episode I - The Phantom Menace; Episode II - Attack of the Clones; Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Post-Saga Era: 2006-2015, 17 sets including Clone Wars cards and several new Galaxy Series cards, the most infamous of which was the error-riddled Series 4 set
Sequel Era: 2016-2019, 17 sets based on the Sequel Trilogy, Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story
Closely associated with the Star Wars movie franchise is The Mandalorian, a TV series that debuted on Disney+ in November 2019. Topps released a base set of 100 Mandalorian trading cards in 2020 and several parallels, autograph, relic and sketch cards.
Collectable Star Wars Card Design and Packaging
Vintage Star Wars Trading Cards were produced on grey cardstock in a 2.5” x 3.5” standard size. The images were often blurry and lacked the crispness of modern printing methods.
Series 1 featured a blue border and came packaged with a sticker and a stick of bubble gum in a wax wrapper. Series 2 through 5 had red, yellow, green and orange borders, respectively. The Star Wars Sugar-Free Gum series was finished with a paper wrapper that is highly collectable. Over time, the card style, size, design and production process changed dramatically. Highlights include:
Art cards with illustrations and comic book-like renderings found on the Galaxy series
Oversized Widevision cards measuring 4 7/8” x 2 ¾”
Use of new materials including steel, chrome, etched foil and a clear card
Printing and production methods that expanded the visual appeal, such as holograms, 3-D cards, multi-motion lenticular and cutaway view cards
Discreet boxed sets for collectors (available through hobby shops) and consumers (available through mass-market retailers)
Insertion of limited run Chase Cards and Promotional Cards that appear in a fraction of the total number of card packs available
Autograph, sketch and costume relic cards
Star Wars Trading Card Value and Collectability
Some Star Wars trading cards are more valuable than others. The original Series 1 set produced in 1977 are the most collectible cards in circulation.
Cards 1-8 in the blue Series 1 are the rookie card-equivalent for collectors. The Empire Strikes Back Topps cards produced in 1980 are also at the top of many collectors’ lists. In all cases, the condition of the cards is important and the disparity in value between pristine and more flawed examples is wide. A PSA GEM MT 10 Star Wars Luke Skywalker #1 sold for $6,877 on eBay in January 2020 while the most recent PSA 8 sold on eBay in October 2020 fetched $175. The population of cards 1-8 in GEM MT 10 or PSA 9 condition is low so collectors chase every available card. Recent prices on other 1977 Star Wars Topps GEM MT 10 cards in the set include:
Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi #6 sold for the highly civilized price of $817 in February 2019 on eBay;
The Villainous Darth Vader #7 proved the Dark Side to be worth $910 in January 2018;
Grand Moff Tarkin #8 confirmed that the fire has not gone out of the Star Wars trading card universe with a $2,076 sale in January 2019.
Considering the huge volume of cards produced, any folds, creases, blemishes, tears or abrasions will drastically reduce the value. Look for complete Star Wars Trading Card sets, especially hobby boxes with chase and promo cards included. Of course, there are grail cards and sets that collectors pursue, including the controversial vintage C-3PO #207 from Series 4, the 2007 Star Wars 30th Anniversary set and the first Galaxy (1993) and Widevision (1995) sets. Stickers in original condition that have been stored properly are rare and valuable as well. For some collectors, the Star Wars Trading Card Game is popular, as are the collectable cards released by manufacturers other than Topps.