The kindest rewind: VHS tapes have been rediscovered
NEW YORK — VHS tapes revolutionized home entertainment when they debuted in the late 1970s, bringing the magic of movies from theaters into homes. They were initially expensive to produce so most people rented copies at Blockbuster and mom-and-pop video stores. They had a good run for close to 30 years as the dominant media, after knocking out its competitor, Betamax. Today, long after the last brick-and-mortar video stores have shuttered, sealed VHS tapes are enjoying new life as a collectible.
VHS tapes only became affordable in the late 1980s, and the last commercial Hollywood releases on VHS appeared around 2006. After that time, video tape players and video store culture at large, symbolized by the now-quaint phrase “Be kind, rewind,” began its decline.
“Rental copies were extremely expensive, which is why back then if you lost one, it was a pretty big deal,” said Kelly John McClain, Senior Consignment Manager at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania. “That’s sort of what makes rental copies today, sealed or unsealed, almost impossible to find. Buying VHS tapes didn’t become popular until the late ’80s and ’90s when they became more affordable.”
The most sought-after VHS tapes are in fact those that date from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. That timespan was a big era for cinephiles, who witnessed the debuts of several popular blockbuster film series. There was also scarcity. Due to the high production costs of VHS tapes, not many copies were issued for a movie’s first VHS release; later re-releases were typically released in higher quantities. Much like collecting rare books, first releases of VHS tapes, akin to a book’s first edition, are highly desirable.
Signed and actor-owned VHS tapes can perform well at auction. A 1986 copy of the Back to the Future VHS tape sold at Heritage Auctions in June 2022 for $75,000 including the buyer’s premium. The tape had wraparound MCA Home Video watermarks and was double stamped. The copy also had a strong pedigree, as the movie studio had presented it to actor Tom Wilson, who played the villainous Biff Tannen in the film.
VHS tape collecting is a broad-enough market segment to be accessible to all. There is a hierarchy, however, and factory-sealed VHS tapes with their cellophane packaging intact and inner box in good condition are the most desirable examples of the form, owing to their scarcity. When these tapes were originally sold, they were not cheap. Some titles cost $80 to $100 each. Chances are if you bought one new then, you removed the wrapper and watched the movie again and again to wring the most value out of your purchase.
Of all movie genres, horror has the most robust cult following. A sealed 1982 first release of The Thing on VHS, having its wraparound MCA watermarks, achieved $37,500 including the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Heritage Auctions.
Jay Carlson, Consignment Director, VHS at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas, says that in the last few years, interest in VHS tape collecting has ballooned. “It took off, I think, when people got nostalgic for tapes,” he said. “It kind of follows the path of video games. People have been collecting video games for a long time, but the sealed and graded video games really skyrocketed around 2017-2018.” Heritage held its second dedicated auction for VHS collecting in February 2023.
Serious collectors look for sealed tapes that are intact, retain their studio watermarks, and qualify as high grade, with as few rubs, dings, scratch or wear marks as possible. When it comes to collecting sealed VHS tapes, McClain said, locating a particular title can take a two months, six months, a year or longer. “But for a collector, the excitement finally comes in finding a sealed copy of the movie you’ve been waiting for.”
Both McClain and Carlson agree that while every collector’s taste is unique, 1980s-era blockbuster films such as Ghostbusters, Jaws, Rocky, Terminator, Goonies, Star Wars, Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark are among the most coveted tapes for many. “The biggest are always going to be the most popular films from that era that were released in that sweet spot [of VHS releases],” Carlson said.
Owing to their universality, movies have huge crossover interest. Not everyone has a favorite game, but most people have a favorite movie. Titles such as Rocky or Top Gun also appeal to collectors of sports memorabilia and aviation enthusiasts, respectively. “Movies touch a lot more people than many other pop culture collectibles like comic books, sports cards, coins or action figures,” McClain said. “For some, those things wouldn’t matter to them but movies matter to most people. They can reach many more people than some other collecting categories, which is why it’s exciting.”
The VHS market’s breadth extends way beyond major movie studio releases. Collectors pursue workout videos as well as music, documentaries, how-to videos, cartoons, and significant sporting events such as the Super Bowl. “There are so many different types of VHS tapes out there – there is literally something for everybody,” Carlson said. “They are not all thousands of dollars. You can find some cool fun tapes at any price range, and that makes it a fun hobby that is accessible to anyone with an interest.”