Masters of the Universe toys: fueled by ’80s nostalgia
NEW YORK — He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was one of the most popular cartoon shows of the 1980s, spawning several toy lines, comic books, movies and video games. The MOTU franchise, as fans call it, blends sci-fi, magic, fantasy and barbarians. It was revived on television in the 2000s and again in 2021.
Protagonist Prince Adam of planet Eternia transforms into He-Man by holding his sword aloft and saying, “By the Power of Grayskull! I have the power!” He is aided by allies such as Battle Cat, Teela and the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull. Their job is to protect the universe from the villain Skeletor, who seeks to take the castle’s power for himself.
This quintessential story of good vs. evil charmed kids in the 1980s and inevitably gave rise to merchandise. Mattel released its original Masters of the Universe toys in 1982. While the earliest examples are typically the most sought-after, the entire toy line remains popular with collectors, especially those who grew up with the original series.
Complete playsets of Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain are choice acquisitions, especially those that are still factory-sealed in their original boxes. An unopened Masters of the Universe Eternia series 5 playset from 1986 attained $13,369 including the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in March 2023. The set had three themed towers with three different battery-operated vehicles on a monorail. “Upon its release in 1986, Eternia was sold at an extremely high price for a toy at the time, which led to few being sold,” according to Hake’s. Consequently, this set has been dubbed the “holy grail” for MOTU collectors.
For fans of the villain or collectors who wanted all the playsets, Skeletor’s home of Snake Mountain was and remains desirable. Mattel is still making MOTU toys, and a new Snake Mountain playset became available for pre-order this spring ahead of its release in August. A vintage 1984 Snake Mountain series 3 playset made $4,153 including the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in March 2023. The folding playset includes a battery-operated wolf’s head microphone, trap door, bridges, a so-called “Demon’s Moving Jaw” and more.
Of course, the characters have been immortalized as action figures. Mattel’s MOTU figures debuted in a 5½in-tall size — nearly two inches larger than Kenner’s Star Wars figures or those in Hasbro’s G.I. Joe line — for good reasons. “MOTU figures’ larger scale helped them stand out, allowing for different action features as well as displaying the Herculean musculature that they’re now so commonly associated with,” said Mike Bollinger, senior cataloger at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania. In March 2020, the company sold a He-Man Series 1/8 Back figure on its blister card, with an AFA grade of 85 NM+, for $7,788. At the time, the AFA Population Report reflected no examples in a higher grade.
Besides unopened blister pack figures of lead characters, those with unusual color variants also command hefty sums. An AFA-graded and encapsulated Skeletor figure with blister card, known as the “peach cheeks” version of the toy, earned $9,440 including the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in November 2021. “One of the most recognized variants is what is colloquially known as ‘Peach Cheeks’ Skeletor, being an early version of the production figure, whose paint ‘mask’ on the toy’s face featured peach-colored highlights on its cheeks, as well as sporting purple trunks, as opposed to the more commonly seen black, and only having the front half of his boots painted,” Bollinger said.
Magazine artwork has gained favor with collectors looking to round out their collections as they display well alongside comics and toys. Earl Norem (1823-3015) illustrated many men’s adventure magazine covers and created an action scene for a 1987 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cover that depicts He-Man protecting Castle Grayskull with his friend Man-At-Arms while Skeletor and Webstor scale the castle walls. A framed acrylic on board of this scene, measuring 34¼ by 40½in, sold for $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in July 2022.
The Masters of the Universe franchise has been going strong for more than 40 years, and many toy lines have been released since the initial series ended in 1987-88. There was a She-Ra: Princess of Power toy series (showcasing He-Man’s twin sister) marketed towards girls, and He-Man was rebranded as a space hero for The New Adventures of He-Man. The latter saw a redesign of the characters and issued toys that drew fans, but not at the level of the original series.
“The present day is a great time to be a MOTU fan as there are new toys to be had wherever you look,” Bollinger said. “For the first time, there are/were three different MOTU toy lines on store shelves and in stock with online retailers – Mattel breathed new life into the property with the release of their Masters of the Universe: Origins line, which features updated toys in the classic style. This toy line continues to this day.” Toys were also made to tie-in with Kevin Smith’s Masters of the Universe: Revelation Netflix series, with more toys likely to accompany the upcoming sequel, Masters of the Universe: Revolution.
The market for these collectibles is strong thanks to a massive revival in interest in 70-80s toy lines, and the people who seek them have the disposable income and the desire to recapture childhood nostalgia. “There are those who look to these vintage toys as an investment and there are those looking to sell their childhood playthings for a profit,” Bollinger said. “As with all collectibles, the rarer, more valuable pieces are in short supply, with many rarely coming to market. The future looks bright for He-Man, both in vintage collectibles and in new content.”