Assembling a Legacy: Collecting Playmobil Toys

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Playmobil has been producing elaborate sets for nearly half a century. Collectors and Playmobil-enthusiasts will often take kits and customize them to create unique toys, like this haunted house set, which is a customized version of a hotel set.

I find vintage toys fascinating. As someone who lived through POGs, Furbies, and Beanie Babies, toys that have remained popular for generations are of particular interest to me. Why has the Easy-Bake Oven lingered on store shelves for nearly 60 years while demand for other popular toys like Tamagatchis died out within a few years? What does the Rubix Cube have over Tickle Me Elmo? One such toy line that has consistently piqued my interest is Playmobil.

I never had Playmobil toys. I spent the ideal Playmobil years—from four to twelve—with a chip on my shoulder, considering the toys too immature for my taste. I have no memory of when I formed this bias against Playmobil, nor from what incident it must have sprung. Until recently, I had forgotten they existed until a friend mentioned in passing that they were hoping to snag a Playmobil Star Trek Enterprise set. I immediately jumped on my phone to search for the ship. A massive set, the Enterprise is over three feet long and comes fully stocked with the original crew. It also retails for a cool $500. Instantly, I realized I had misjudged Playmobil. This was not some rinky-dink set for toddlers but a bonafide collector’s item. I needed to learn more.

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The original Playmobil releases focused on three themes: knights, construction workers, and indigenous peoples, like this lot of figures from 1974.

The Origins of Playmobil

In the early 1970s, Hans Beck was a cabinet maker wanting to expand his design prowess into toys. After unsuccessfully pitching a line of model airplanes to Horst Brandstätter, who owned the German company Brandstätter Group, Horst suggested designing a line of toy figurines instead. Brandstätter had seen the rising popularity of other character-based toys and hoped to expand further into the children’s plastic toy market. His company already produced items like hula hoops.

Beck’s toys were meant to be Brandstätter’s answer to LEGOs. Developed over three years, Beck came up with a 1:24 scale human figurine, roughly 3 inches tall, intended to fit perfectly into a child’s hand. This character, sometimes referred to as Klicky (a phonetic moniker that references the toys sound when assembled), has an exaggerated appearance with an oversized head and simplified facial features. The design was meant to be simple enough for children to weave the toys into any narrative they might conjure.

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The design of the Klicky characters has subtly changed over the years, including the introduction of female characters in 1976. They have slightly different hair than the original Klicky and wear skirt-like apparel, like these toys.

The original Playmobil release featured three variations of this human-like figure: knights, construction workers, and Indigenous Peoples. While thoughtfully designed, Playmobil initially struggled to find an audience. It was not until the 1974 International Toy Fair that Playmobil’s fortunes changed when firms placed large orders for units. Within a year, the company experienced explosive growth. By the end of 1975, Playmobil toys were sold internationally.

The rest is, as they say, history. Playmobil toys have been sold in nearly every country and have been a childhood staple for generations. This success is by design. Playmobil’s approach to toy making might seem, well, foreign to American consumers. That’s because Playmobil produces toys that will last for decades and, hopefully, are passed through generations.

This approach has worked. Playmobil has carefully expanded its offerings since 1974. Now, Playmobil produces limited edition sets, like the Star Trek bundle, appealing to adult collectors and children alike. In addition, the entire line of Klicky-related toys has expanded to include vehicles, buildings, animals, and accessories. Currently, Playmobil has licensing agreements that include brands like Back to the Future and Scooby-Doo. Also, there are a few unexpected pairings, like the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Transportation Security Administration (yes, that TSA—as in airport security).

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One of the more strange themes explored by Playmobil, they offered this airport security set based on TSA in 2009.

Collecting & Selling Playmobil

I was surprised to learn in my research that adults are building massive Playmobil collections and using them to tell stories and build worlds. I was delighted to see Playmobil dioramas that use playsets as the basis for creating incredibly elaborate and detailed worlds. In addition, Playmobil now offers historically accurate figures from various eras so that people might make dioramas of particular battles or events using appropriately outfitted toys.

As you can guess, there is a lively collector base for Playmobil toys. According to Playmobil’s website, over three billion Playmobil character units have sold since their introduction. In addition, hundreds of figures and playsets were released during that time. Playmobil knows it has an active collector base and thus often produces limited edition sets and selectively retires sets periodically. Playmobil has also expanded into a bevy of toy-related releases, including video games, movies, comic books, pop-up books (that create interactive worlds for characters to inhabit physically), and even themed amusement parks called FunParks.

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Playmobil was set to release five different toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1982. Unfortunately, only the Sheriff and Native American toys (like these) made it to market, as McDonald’s quickly reversed course on their distribution after concerns were raised that the toys did not comply with regulations regarding toy safety for children.

Playmobil collectors focus on collecting unusual, groundbreaking, and early items. Collectors also rejoice in completing old sets. Several online Playmobil communities find great joy in identifying even the tiniest of Playmobil parts. Building a Playmobil collection is a matter of taste and preference, with so many options available. It might be worth collecting sets that align with a favorite theme, like dinosaurs, or building a collection of toys exclusively from the early days of Playmobil.

If, on the other hand, you want to sell Playmobil sets, I would recommend studying the market and looking for trends in what is consistently in demand. Large buildings and sets from the past are often in high demand, as are those produced in limited quantities. I recommend that you do a quick internet search when considering any purchase. Check past sales to get an idea of what an item might be worth and what price you might command upon resale.

With hundreds of thousands of Playmobil items to consider, it can be challenging to understand what is worth collecting and what is best left to the kids. While I did not purchase any rare sets, I stumbled across a Back to the Future 2021 Advent Calendar during my research for this article. Unfortunately, nostalgia got the best of me, and I quickly hit “add to cart.” I still maintain that I am too mature to play with Playmobil toys, but that does not mean I cannot have a little fun with them.

Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art, she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum. 

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