Prototype G.I. Joes Fail to Sell (Again) at Auction

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The original, one-of-a-kind GIjOE prototype action figure stands 12-inches tall and was completely hand-crafted by Hasbro artisans to “pitch” the idea as a new toy line for introduction at the 1964 Toy Fair. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

History For Sale on the Auction Block

The three old warriors stood proudly, almost defiantly, in the bright glare of the auctioneer’s spotlight, their provenance and authenticity emphatically declared to be “impeccable and unassailable.” GIjOE fans and collectors around the world concurred and waited anxiously for the proceedings to unfold “live” over the internet on their computer screens. Auction and GIjOE history was to be made that day. And the next few minutes would be decisive and final.

The three figures in question were hand-crafted “prototype” action figures from the earliest halcyon days of GIjoe’s long and storied history. But on August 10th, 2013, during an eagerly anticipated Heritage Auction held in Dallas, TX, those same hallowed collectibles were being put up for auction, and then just as quickly, would be summarily taken down from the auction block due to (get this)—a lack of bids.

No bids? For the ULTIMATE GIjOE collectibles? How could that be? Surely not for a lack of interest or money. Stunned observers pointed out that a strapless gown “possibly” worn by Marilyn Monroe sold easily for $30,000 at the same auction. And a “heavily repaired” coffee mug and movie script autographed by John Wayne sold for well over $40,000! Clearly, there was money to be spent, but none of the three original, 12-inch prototype GIjOEs, created (and authenticated) by the “Father of GIjOE” himself, Don Levine, attracted even a single buyer willing to meet the minimum bid amounts required to participate. The silence in the auction hall must’ve been deafening.

Were Fans Trying to Send a Message?

Some GIjOE experts believe they understand why the one-of-a-kind figures were so conspicuously “ignored” at an auction. Many collectors believe public auctions to be beneath or “unworthy” of such famous and iconic artifacts. As they watched each unsold prototype GIjOE being sent ingloriously “back to base,” fans attending the auction that day were seen to be both nodding and shaking their heads. But why? What exactly was going through their minds? Hmm…

Is he sad? Angry? Or just relieved? The enigmatic face of the original 1964 hand-crafted GIJoe prototype offers no reaction to his recent non-sale at the Dallas auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Despite a sluggish world economy, there are still a lot of deep-pocketed, “investment artifact collectors” out there; individuals who are always eager to take advantage of rare purchase opportunities. So it must’ve been something else —something unusual— happening that day. Something bigger than any one person’s collection, bank account or retirement plan. One observer to the auction summed up his own conflicted feelings about the non-sale this way:

“Actually, I’m kinda glad they didn’t sell any of those Joes. They’re all irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind prototypes. In my opinion, they should never be hidden away in any one guy’s basement collection or locked up in a safe deposit box. They’re part of American toy and pop-culture history now. They belong in the biggest and best museum —the Smithsonian Institution— permanently on display so everyone can see, enjoy and appreciate them for generations to come!”

This prototype is a little further along the design "chain" and features a raw, unpainted headsculpt, rubber ball hip sockets, and early versions of the chest and hip sections. Much would change before this figure would be accepted and go into actual mass-production. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This second prototype is a little further along the design chain than the initial “pitch” version. It features a raw, unpainted headsculpt, rubber balls for hip sockets, and early versions of the chest and hip sections. There were many refinements still to be made before the figure could be put into mass-production. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

For Those Who May Not Recall…

After storing the prototype GIjOEs, molds and accessories in an ordinary box in his closet at home (for four decades), Don Levine finally decided to sell the items at auction in 2003. Interestingly, the rarest item, the very same hand-crafted GIjOE (shown above) failed to sell at that first auction as well. But Baltimore-based businessman and pop-culture collector, Steve Geppi, eventually offered Levine a whopping $200,000 for the figure and the sale was made. At the time, Geppi explained the reasons behind his expensive purchase with a belief that it was about something “more” than just enhancing his own personal collection:

“While GIjOE is an integral part of American pop culture, he has always stood for something MORE. He is a hero who represents all of the American servicemen who made—and continue to make—great sacrifices to ensure the triumph of liberty and democracy. I am honored to own this unique part of Americana.”

Flash Forward to 2013

Mr. Geppi is now willing to relinquish ownership of the world’s most famous action figure—but only at the right price. Unfortunately (for Geppi), his minimum bid requirement was set too high and the iconic one-of-a-kind original (plus two other prototypes) remained unsold as of press time for this article. Will another deep-pocketed collector step up and approach Geppi outside of the auction venue? What happens next remains to be seen. Until then, take a look at these…

This view of the original figure's sergeant rank chevrons and 3rd infantry division patch, taken closer up than any previously released photo, clearly reveals they are made not of fabric, but rather, some sort of metallic and relective plastic. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This view of the original figure’s sergeant chevrons and 3rd ID patch, taken closer up than any previously released photo, clearly reveals they are made not of fabric, but rather, some sort of reflective plastic or metal. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Auction Photos Provide Unexpected Resource Boon To GIjOE Historians

If there’s any “good news” to be gleaned from this story, it’s that the wonderful closeup photos taken by Heritage Auctions for their sale have proven to be an unexpected resource boon for GIjOE fans, collectors and “historians” who may never get to see the aforementioned, historic prototypes in person.

Indeed, the photos were taken at so close a distance, that they provide incredible new insights and details regarding the figure’s construction and specific use of materials. For example…

This superb closeup, a 3/4 view of the prototype's backpack and bedroll reveal exactly how it was constructed, sewn and then 'packed." (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This superb closeup 3/4 view of the prototype’s backpack and bedroll reveal exactly how it was all constructed, sewn and then packed into a simple shoulder harness. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

The first-ever GIjOE canteen is hand carved out of...what is that? Metal? Plastic? It's hard to tell. But notice it's being crudely held together with a piece of scotch tape! (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

The first-ever GIjOE canteen is hand carved out of…what is that? Metal? Plastic? It’s hard to tell. But notice it’s being crudely held together with a piece of scotch tape! (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This closeup of the original prototype scuba diver reveals a superbly hand-painted headsculpt, covered with a rather crudely hand-cut scuba hood, clearly made from a bicycle innertube. WOW! (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This closeup of the original prototype scuba diver reveals a superbly hand-painted headsculpt, covered with a rather crudely hand-cut scuba hood, clearly made from a bicycle innertube. WOW! (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

A rarely-ever seen 3/4 back-of-the-head view, revealing that the original Joe's hair paint has been seriously worn away. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

A rarely ever seen 3/4 back-of-the-head view, revealing that the original Joe’s hair paint has been seriously worn away. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This closeup yielded yet another mystery for GIJoe historians to solve. Scrawled with a pen on the back of the dungaree shirt of Levine's prototype Talking Action Sailor, it clearly reads, "TO MEN 8/3/67" But what else does it say above that? And what does it all mean? Was it some sort of Hasbro "company-only" codetalk or...? (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

This closeup yielded yet another mystery for GIJoe historians to solve. Scrawled with a pen on the back of the dungaree shirt of Levine’s prototype Talking Action Sailor, it clearly reads, “TO MEN 8/3/67” But what else does it say above that? And what does it all mean? Was it some sort of Hasbro “company-only” codetalking or…? (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

More Joe trivia revealed! This ultra-closeup (back view) of the prototype scuba diver reveals that his suit was originally intended to connect front to back between the legs, just like an actual suit. Apparently, that feature proved unworkable or too expensive to make and was dropped in favor of the simpler zip-up jacket production version. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

More Joe trivia revealed! This ultra-closeup (back view) of the prototype scuba diver reveals that his suit was originally intended to connect front to back between the legs, just like an actual suit. Apparently, that feature proved unworkable or too expensive to make and was dropped in favor of the simpler zip-up jacket production version. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Here's something you probably didn't know: GIjOE's original prototype boots actually weren't boots at all! As this new closeup clearly reveals, they were constructed out of some sort of tennis shoe (Ken's maybe?) with additional black material sewn on to cover the ankles and resemble the higher cut appearance of black combat boots. It must've been "just" good enough to sell the concept of 1:6 scale combat boots to the Hasbro brass, because they ended up making MILLIONS of them. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: GIjOE’s original prototype boots actually weren’t boots at all. They were more like tennis shoes with leggings. As this new closeup clearly shows, they were constructed out of some sort of black tennis shoe (Ken’s maybe?) with additional black material sewn on to cover up the ankles and resemble the higher cut style of black combat boots. As we now know, it must’ve been good enough to sell the concept to Hasbro execs, because they ended up making MILLIONS of pairs. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Previous photos have only shown GIJoe's prototype helmet from the front, making it appear to be in good condition. This unique, rarely seen "top-down view" reveals it has much more damage than previously known. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Previous photos have only shown GIJoe’s prototype helmet from the front, making it appear to be in good condition. This unique, rarely seen “top-down view” reveals it has much more damage than previously believed. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Bottom Line: Whether or not GIjOE fans were “sending a message” about the sale of their beloved icons is uncertain, but with Don Levine’s prototype now commanding over $200,000, it’s clear that any future sale of the figure will be BIG news. Currently, the coveted and “first” GIjOE remains in the possession of Steve Geppi in his personal collection, housed in the Geppi Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, MD. If you’d like to see “the figure that started it all,” then that’s the place to go. And you may want to hurry. Because who knows? If he is eventually sold to some foreign investor, “America’s Movable Fighting Man” could find himself locked up in a bank vault somewhere with no way out—as just another “retirement investment.” Sadly, on that day, it’d be “Mission over FOREVER, Joe.”

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3 thoughts on “Prototype G.I. Joes Fail to Sell (Again) at Auction

  1. John Michlig says:

    I’m going from memory here, but I believe the handwriting on the back of the Action Soldier actually says “To Nien,” referring to an associate in Hong Kong to whom it was shipped.

    Again, I’m going by memory – – I have a vague recollection of Don Levine mentioning that.

  2. Daniel says:

    This is a FANTASTIC insight, a wonder and a pleasure to read even for a UK Action Man collector 🙂

    Fascinating information and Thank you so much for sharing with the “WORLD”

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