The amazing rise and terrible fall of the “Steve Jobs of plush”
In the closets and attics of countless American households, they’re there still. Rubbermaid containers full of adorable toys, dust-collecting remnants of the 90s craze that built the greatest plush fortune ever—and destroyed plenty more in the process.
Today, surviving Beanie Babies are worth about 50 cents apiece, says Zac Bissonnette, author of the recently published The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute. The chances that any long-neglected collection secretly contains a toy that could sell for more than $10 are extremely low. (And no, the $400,000 eBay price tags on the Princess Diana bears don’t actually reflect their going rate.)
But in light of the many bubbles and crazes that consistently beset even the smartest investors, it’s worth looking back at the over-the-top euphoria that greeted the Beanie Babies in the 90s. At one point, Beanie Babies accounted for 10% of eBay’s sales. And their wild success made Ty Inc. the first billion-dollar plush company ever. It also helped make their creator, Ty Warner, one of the richest men in the world, with an estimated current net worth of $2.4 billion.
To get a sense of Beanie-mania, look no further than this 1999 photo of a divorcing couple on the floor of a courtroom painstakingly parceling out their plush collection.
That’s not even the worst of it: one West Virginia man murdered a coworker over a Beanie Baby debt. More than 60% of American households in the 1990s owned at least one of these babies. “It took over people’s lives,” Bissonnette told Fortune in a video interview. “It was something really adorable that brought out the worst in people.”
The first signs of the crash came in 1999. One night, when the company announced which set of toys it would “retire,” hordes of Beanie Baby-loving eBay-watchers sat in front of their computers hitting refresh on the auction site, waiting for the attendant rise in prices that greeted previous toys’ retirements. When nothing happened, it triggered the equivalent of a market selloff. The situation was not dissimilar to the dot-com bubble or the housing crash, Bissonnette says. Except the prices never recovered.
Warner emerged relatively unscathed. He’s still a billionaire, and he still owns the Four Seasons in New York, which he bought at the toy company’s peak. But the entrepreneur’s obsessive attention to detail (he personally brushed and trimmed the stuffed animals’ eyelashes before shows or sales because he believed in the power of eye contact) has had tragic consequences. Warner is estranged from his family, has dabbled in bizarre cosmetic treatments, and is under government scrutiny for tax evasion.
But his company isn’t totally dead. You can still find Beanie Baby equivalents in most stores, albeit a more wide-eyed version called Beanie Boos. “Some people think they’re creepy,” Bissonnette says. “I think they’re cute.” They’re worth about $5.