The Chinese counterfeiter was good, but not good enough to fool Charleen Fenick. "See this?" she inquires as half a dozen fellow collectors crowd her table at the Airport Hilton in Bloomington. She is holding a small white beanbag bear with a red heart embroidered on its chest. It's Valentino the White Bear with Heart, known to insiders simply as Val.
The spectators roll their eyes at the shoddy workmanship: "Look how stumpy the arms are," one says. "That one's so obvious. And it doesn't have the sheen." Fenick rubs her finger along the material to demonstrate how the bear's coat is too cottony, lacking the velvet luster of a true Beanie Baby. She places her finger under the red ribbon around Val's neck and lifts it up: "This is a pretty good ribbon," she explains to an uninitiated visitor, "but it's stitched right to the Beanie. Ty never does that."
"Ty" is Ty Warner, the prophet, grand master, and godfather of Beanie Baby collectors worldwide. After a long stint working for stuffed-animal maker Dakin Inc., he launched several unsuccessful product lines through his Oak Brook, Ill.-based company, Ty Inc., before creating his first Beanie in 1993. Now he's big enough to have his photo taken by Annie Leibovitz for the Vanity Fair 1998 Hall of Fame. The magazine estimated Ty Inc.'s sales this year at $2.5 billion.
Warner is said to be reclusive, and the secrecy with which he runs his company has been compared to the hush-hush aura of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. His stuffed animals have a suggested retail price of between $5 and $8, but in the collector's market, some fetch almost $5,000. An estimated 5 million people worldwide have taken up Beanie collecting since Warner released his first creature, and 600 of them made it to the November 23 Upper Midwest Beanie and Collectible Expo in Bloomington. (Similar shows, often organized by local collectors, have been staged in cities around the nation, drawing crowds of up to 8,000.)
Fenick--middle-aged, of average height and build, with auburn hair just long enough to show some curl--is fairly typical of the crowd at the Airport Hilton. Most of the exhibitors and visitors are women, though there's a substantial contingent of men, including Benjamin Latz, a 24-year-old second-grade teacher from the northern suburbs. His inventory of some 1,000 Beanie Babies and Disney Mini Bean Bag Plush creatures (one of several lines of Beanie competitors that includes such characters as Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh) sits neatly stacked in plastic boxes behind his table. Latz has cross-referenced his catalog on sheets of notebook paper; it takes him mere seconds to locate a Harley-Davidson Beanie at a customer's request.
Latz says he first saw Beanies when his students brought them to school; now he owns a vast collection, which he insists he has "no intention of selling." But in the process of hunting Beanies for himself, he has amassed a fair number of duplicates, some of which he hopes to unload at today's show to recoup his expenses.
Most of the other exhibitors say the same thing: They're collectors first and sellers second. Their tables brim with Beanies of all sorts and colors: Most of the 150-some Beanies released so far are represented, along with Disney beanies, a few Furbys (the computerized stuffed critters from Tiger Electronics that have set off a buying frenzy this holiday season), and Beanie accessories: tiny eyeglasses, Lilliputian furniture, minuscule high-top tennis shoes (red or blue, $3 per pair). Staff writers from Mary Beth's Beanie World, a year-old magazine that claims to have just passed the 1-million circulation mark, are on hand, drawing a nonstop line of autograph-seekers.
Fenick is not selling anything at the show. She's just here to hang out with her friend Patty McKasy and to enlighten those in attendance on the fine points of Beanie fakery. A collector she knows just returned from Beijing, she explains, where he acquired a load of imitation Beanies. They are being distributed for educational purposes only, Fenick hastens to point out: Her friend made sure that "no counterfeit Beanie went to anyone who's going to do anything icky with it."
"Icky," indeed, is a word rarely applied to the Beanie craze--though "bizarre," "mysterious," and "secretive" all seem to apply. No one ever knows how many of any Ty creature have been or will be made before it is "retired" or altered in some way that makes it a new version. Announcements of releases and retirements are officially made in the News Flash section of the official Ty Beanie Web site, www.ty.com; they come at random and without warning, leaving collectors constantly speculating about what Ty will do next. Fans are also on their own to discern the subtle variations among different "generations," and to discover the tiny manufacturing errors that can turn a run-of-the-mill critter into a priceless commodity.
One thing, however, is certain, and known to even the rookie Beanist: You do not cut the tags off your Beanies. The little sewn-in piece of cloth that hangs from the midsection of any Ty creature is called a tush tag (TT on price lists)--even if the toy is, say, Sting the Stingray, who doesn't have the anatomy to go with the tag. To keep its full value, a Beanie must have an intact tush tag and a hang tag or swing tag, a heart-shaped piece of cardboard that is attached to the Beanie with a plastic connector. Without either, a Beanie's value can plummet 50 percent to 75 percent; it is a mere toy then, not a mint-condition collectible.