Holy Lodestone, Batman, those Legos are outta sight!

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It was May 2011, and I was hesitating to click the "buy" tab on a toy site and pay almost $2 for each of 99 pieces of Lego plastic.

If I did, that meant I was about to pay more than $200 (counting shipping) for Dragster: Catwoman's Pursuit -- the cheapest Lego Batman set I could find on the Internet after looking at dozens of sites such as eBay, Amazon, ToyWiz and others.

How had it come to this? Paying $200 for a Lego set made just five years earlier that was $10 retail when it was new? How is that even rational? Do they throw in a Bob Kane autograph? Christian Bale? Or at least Adam West?

Would any sane middle-class parent pay $200 for 99 pieces of plastic that probably will never go up in value because you know your son is going to rip open the box and then shortly thereafter lose several -- or more -- pieces that will make rebuilding or reselling it nearly impossible?

It was going to be the big birthday present for my soon-to-be 6-year-old son, Declan. But $200? I could buy three of the biggest sets of Lego Ninjago (another series he desired) and have money left over for a family lunch at Primanti's.

I didn't buy him that Lego Batman set, but it was one of those mildly humiliating parental financial moments where you find yourself saying irrational things like: "Dang! Why didn't I buy Apple at $6 before Steve Jobs came back? I'd be able to buy that without thinking about it.' "

In the end, Declan got a $60 Ninjago set that he was overjoyed with.

But while he at least temporarily forgot his Lego Batman craving, his father could not forget not getting his son what he wanted.

It wasn't just the $200 Catwoman set, the 267-piece Batcycle ($250), or the 386-piece Batmobile ($350) or the 1,075-piece Batcave set going for -- Holy Financial Nightmares, Batman! -- up to $1,000 on some sites. I even quashed my backup plan: buying just a Batman figurine. It couldn't be that expensive, right?

The cheapest version I could find was $40. For Batman. By himself. A 2-inch-tall superhero made up of four tiny colored Lego pieces, plus a Batarang. I could afford $40. But if I paid $40 for something that little, it was going in a glass case, not allowed to be covered in Klondike stickiness from a 6-year-old's hands or to get lost under the couch.

Even after Lego earlier this year came out with a new set of Lego Batman as part of its DC Super Heroes series, allowing me to finally pay retail for the coveted playthings, my experience last year continued to befuddle me, particularly since the release has done little to lower prices of older sets.

How does a $10 toy suddenly cost $200? I'd heard of that before with the Christmas toy crazes: the Cabbage Patch calamity of 1983, the Furby furor of 1998 and others. But Lego Batman hysteria wasn't a Christmas craze, and the company says it didn't purposely limit supply to drive up demand, as some of those other toymakers were accused of doing.

"That's not a strategy we employ," said Michael McNally, Lego's brand relations director. "We try to supply the demand that's out there."

The 13 Lego Batman sets came out in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and sold for retail and, eventually, clearance prices for almost three years before they were discontinued. The Catwoman set could be found for $5.

So what happened?

In what some might consider a preview of what's to come this year -- the equivalent of a stock tip, given the money we are talking about -- it turns out Lego Batman benefited from an unexpected boost from both a video game and a movie.

"It looked for a long time that Lego Batman had been overproduced and under-demanded," said John Kotso, owner of an online Lego seller called Little Av's Legos. "But after that movie came out all of a sudden they jumped in value like some people had hidden them in their basements and then everyone wanted them."

"That movie" was the phenomenally successful July 2008 release of "The Dark Knight," the second part of the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy that concludes with the release of "The Dark Knight Rises" on Friday.

Two months later, the equally successful Lego Batman video game -- which my wife and I bought for Declan two years later, beginning his affection for all things Lego Batman -- was released.

"I would say the video game brought it back," said Ryan Davis, co-owner of DBoyToys, an online seller of Lego sets and pieces and other toys. "Before that, it was like they weren't selling that well; they were on clearance; buy one get one free."

The final boost came in 2009, when Lego discontinued the Batman series.

"Any time a Lego set is retired -- like Star Wars was, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, it doesn't matter -- it goes up in value," Mr. Davis said."I think there's just something about that [Batman] property that has a rabid fan base."

Mr. Kotso said, "I'm not sure. But these Batman sets seem to skip that period where it has to sit and appreciate in value. It took people by surprise."

So, is another perfect storm building for an Apple stock-like increase in value when the new sets are retired? With the new "Lego Batman 2" video game released last month and "The Dark Knight Rises" debuting Friday, history seems to indicate it will rise in value, Mr. Kotso said. But as much as last time?

"If we knew the answers to these questions," he said, "we'd be billionaires, right?"

Yup. Just like Steve Jobs -- or Bruce Wayne.


Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579. First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM


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