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.
Tags, along with other small variations, can also set apart one generation of each Beanie from another. In an October 21 post on www.beaniephiles.com, someone using the handle "Geoffrey" announced that "I believe I might have found the 7th generation swing tag.... On the back, the bar code is smaller. Also, the writing where it says 'Please remove all tags before giving this to a child' and 'Surface washable' was much bolder. I think the 7th Gen. tag was on Pounce [the Brown Cat] and Prance [the Grey Cat]. I didn't get a chance to buy them."
To keep the precious creatures in top shape, collectors are advised to store them in glass cabinets. The living room in Fenick's east-suburban house is lined with glass-fronted floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, three of them filled with Beanie Babies. She has organized them by what might be called Beanie phyla: Amphibians, lizards, and frogs occupy one shelf, fantasy creatures--unicorns, pumpkins, dinosaurs--the next. Then it's on to bugs, farm animals, and jungle and range animals. One entire cabinet is dedicated to her absolute favorites, Beanie bears, which she dresses up in custom-made outfits. "I hate naked bears," she says with a shudder.
Fenick admits she's fortunate to have a friend who makes Beanie costumes, including those for the wedding party on one of her shelves. The groom wears a miniature tuxedo, the bride a crocheted and beaded white dress; one bear is clad as a rabbi, another is decked out in a pink bridesmaid's gown, and the guests packing two wooden pews are dressed to the nines. "These two are mothers of the bride and groom," Fenick says, pointing to the two bears in elegant long gowns.
Fenick also protects her collection with a sophisticated alarm system, installed when she she was breeding pricey Siberian cats. "I gave up that obsession for Beanie Babies," she confesses.
Extraordinary security measures are not unusual among collectors. A mint-condition Brownie the Brown Bear--predecessor to the less valuable Cubbie the Brown Bear--sells for around $3,600. The limited-edition Billionaire the Employee Bear, handed out September 26 to select Ty staffers to celebrate $1 billion worth of Beanies shipped so far this year, has already hit the auction boards with a starting bid of $1,000.
With those kinds of sums at stake, it's no wonder Beanie owners get a bit paranoid. At the Bloomington show, several vendors were skittish about giving out their last names or cities of residence, saying the information would just be too tempting to criminally minded Beanie addicts. Mary Beth's Beanie World carries a roundup of Beanie burglaries and scams around the nation; it includes the story of a woman in Salinas, Calif., who earlier this year pleaded guilty to four counts of commercial burglary after using stolen credit cards to rack up some $8,000 worth of Beanie purchases. At her November 20 sentencing, she told the judge her habit had started at the McDonald's where she worked, when she had to stuff Beanies into Happy Meals.
Like most collectors, Fenick, an independent insurance agent by trade, won't disclose how much she has spent on her Beanies, but over time her shelves have become home to a fair number of rare creatures. "Aren't these cute?" she asks, pointing to three rainbow-colored rabbits and a brown flop-eared bunny, all dressed in yellow rain slickers and hats.
None of the bunnies have been available in stores since May of '98, she explains. "After [Warner] retired the rabbit trio and the brown one, everyone expected that he would come out with a token Easter Beanie. But he didn't do anything for Easter."
Fenick says the Beanie rumor mill currently centers on Pumkin, the Halloween jack-o'-lantern, and other recent holiday issues, including a Beanie Santa. "Historically, those have been retired in January," she says. "But then there's Loosy, who's just a goose, but with a cranberry ribbon. Everyone is wondering, 'Is this a Christmas goose? Will it be retired after the holidays?' And there was Gobbles, the turkey released for Thanksgiving last year, which is still current. You never can tell."
If retirement can turn an ordinary Beanie into a hot item, manufacturing glitches will send prices into the ether. Currently, the Internet wires are running hot over a batch of Batty the Bats made with the fabric normally used for Claude the Tie-Dyed Crab. Fenick, who considers herself lucky to have gotten her hands on one of the misfits, speculates that the "error" could have been brought about deliberately to kickstart slow Batty sales. If collectors suspect that Batty is about to be redesigned or retired, she explains, they'll run out and snatch up both the old mauve and the new tie-dyed versions.
Ty Inc., by the way, will never comment on any of this. But in a recent "Open Letter" posted on the Mary Beth's Beanie World site, www.beanieworld.net, the company issued a sort of manifesto: "Many of you have wondered why we at Ty don't want rumored pictures of our new introductions on the Internet until we officially introduce them on our own Web site. We'd like to explain. If any Beanies appear on the Internet before our official Web site announcement, they are either stolen or counterfeit.
"But what's even more important to us at Ty," the letter continued, "[is that] the fun is taken out of the announcement when pictures and tags are shown before they become official. It's exciting for everyone to learn of the new Beanies, visit their favorite authorized Ty retailer, and then begin the hunt! And isn't the anticipation and the 'thrill of the find' what it's all about?"
Ty Inc. has a few other policies. From the start Warner stipulated that he would not sell to the big stores--Kmart, Wal-Mart, or Toys"R"Us. Only specialty retailers, from Hallmark and Cracker Barrel franchises to florists and gas stations, may sell his creations. For some of those small dealers, Beanie Babies mean nothing short of salvation, says Fenick. "My mom had a store, and she sold [stuffed animals], but it was what we call 'pre-Beanie,' and the store didn't survive. Stores like hers now--they mark up the price by $1 each, and with many stores that could be $30,000 a year. Beanies alone pay their rent."
Fenick says the Mall of America has 46 stores selling Beanies; she recently counted them for the members of a Beanie listserv run by a woman in Massachusetts. Some 50 of her listserv buddies--one from nearly every state--are scheduled to visit the Twin Cities in June, and they plan to spend an entire day at the Mall, prepped by Fenick's detailed notes on "good" and "bad" retailers. Good vendors, she explains, don't mark up Beanies too far beyond the suggested price, and they actually sell Beanies to the public rather than reserving them for an inside network or employees and friends.
Resisting the temptation of insider trading is hard, Fenick acknowledges, at a time when collectors line up to snag newly released Beanies before they can hit store shelves. A retailer who used to be a good Beanie source for her now tells her that his staff will inevitably buy up the first shipment of any new creations. Even the UPS guy who delivers to that store has started collecting, she says, and won't drop off a box until he gets one of each new Beanie.
But Ty keeps all of them guessing. Often a retailer won't know what the day's shipment will contain until he opens the box; orders may be placed for limited quantities of each Beanie, but there's no guarantee those will be fulfilled. Some store owners, Fenick says, jack up the prices to $100 for a new release. Ty strongly disapproves of this, and his wrath can be fearsome: Recently a retailer told Fenick that a disgruntled shopper was spreading rumors that he was selling Beanies out the back door. "And the retailer said to me: 'If Ty heard the rumors--which aren't true--he'd cut me off without a trial.'" The Ty Web site has asked Beanie fans to turn in names of disreputable dealers.
Not every Beanie is caught up in the price inflation, however. "Bears--no matter what type--are always snatched up right away," Fenick muses. "But see Early the Robin? You can find her easily. I don't know why--I thought she was cute. But she was sort of a dud. She and Mel [the koala] and Scoop [the pelican]. They're shelf sitters."
Fenick herself is not much of a fan of the secondary market; most of her Beanies were acquired the honest, old-fashioned way, in the hunt from retail store to retail store. But proud as she is of her authentic Tys, she's not above letting the Beijing counterfeits fill in the gaps. Her jungle-creature shelf holds a fake Peanut the Royal Blue Elephant for which she paid $3 rather than the $4,600 the real thing fetches at auctions. The swing tag is marked with an "F"--"so that my husband knows that it's fake when he sells them...If I die. I told him that I wanted to be cremated with them, and he said no, he was going to sell them. But this is my collection until they are pried out of my cold, dead hands."