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Acute hysteria, ugly reality of Beanie Babies

H. Ty Warner created the Beanie Babies craze in the 1990s, convincing collectors that mint-condition toys would appreciate wildly. They didn’t, and Warner faces his own not-so-precious reality: a $53 million IRS tab.
Time Life Pictures  /  Getty Images (1996)

H. Ty Warner created the Beanie Babies craze in the 1990s, convincing collectors that mint-condition toys would appreciate wildly. They didn’t, and Warner faces his own not-so-precious reality: a $53 million IRS tab. Time Life Pictures / Getty Images (1996)

My first Beanie Baby was Snort the Bull. He perched on my Chicago grandparents' television in 1997, a wee homage to Michael Jordan's then-untouchable basketball team.

He was, to 8-year-old me, a symbol of hometown and family and comfort. He was there when we gathered to watch NBA championships and Space Jam. He was there to greet me when, years later, I visited from Indianapolis. He was a memory I could cuddle.

Was he also a collector's item I could cash in?

Like hundreds of his Beanie Baby brethren, Snort was only plush and bead eyes and plastic guts. He cost about $6 at Hallmark stores. You could nap with him, play catch with him, dress him up in tissue togas …

"But not too much," my stepmother said. "He's going to be worth something someday."

When miniature Beanie Babies appeared in Happy Meals, my McDonald's was crammed with people ordering three, four, five of those grease-flecked packages.

"Why is the line so long?" I asked my grandpa.

A woman in front of us turned around, crouched down and breathed in my face.

"Because," she said, a bit aggressively, "these are going to be worth a whole lot of money."

As legend goes, Beanie Baby creator H. Ty Warner mortgaged his home and used his life savings to launch what arguably became the strangest craze of the '90s.

Somehow this man (who had no children) convinced the world that these toys, when kept in "mint condition," would someday be worth thousands to some collector somewhere. Ty Inc. "retired" the older models, creating scarcity and, purportedly, boundless value.

Now we know Warner was the only one to get Beanie Baby rich. His net worth, according to Forbes: $2.5 billion.

The value today of the Princess Diana bear, among the rarest catches at the peak of Beanie Baby mania — $2.99 on eBay. (With zero bids.)

My first writing gig was a labor of Beanie Baby love: unpaid, with crayons and construction paper, during recess in the St. Susanna elementary school cafeteria. I called it Beanie Baby Monthly and passed it out to my equally obsessed friends.

I drew Snort and scribbled a quick bio: Age: 2, Favorite game: Basketball, Worth: Priceless

I didn't care about money yet. I collected Beanie Babies because I loved them. My brother and I invented make-believe worlds with them, tiny soap operas, furry re-enactments of Power Rangers and The Lion King.

Every holiday, every special chore, resulted in a new Beanie Baby: Floppity the Bunny came in my Easter basket. Sly the Fox on my 10th birthday.

In my heart, I knew: They were my little friends, not my college savings.

During this time, federal prosecutors say, Warner was hiding millions of dollars in a secret Swiss bank account.

Turns out he was tricking us and the federal government. Warner recently agreed to plead guilty to tax evasion and pay a penalty of $53 million. He could also face up to five years in prison for his alleged Beanie Baby greed.

Prosecutors said he went to "great lengths" to hide money from the IRS.

Did he suspect we'd outgrow his toys?

By 13, when I became more interested in lip gloss and the unfortunate resurgence of bell-bottoms, I packed my Beanie Babies in two plastic bins and slid them under my bed.

Sometimes, nostalgia struck. I would pull them out, pop the lid and breathe that familiar, flowery Hallmark aroma. Even then, it was evident my Beanie Babies were fiscally worthless.

But they were just as special to me. I planned to give them to my future kids. Teach them how to make tissue togas.

One summer, after a stay in Virginia with my cousins, I came home to find the bins missing.

My stepmom had sold my Beanie Babies in a garage sale. I don't know how much money she made. I can't imagine it was a good haul.

Looks like Warner and I are back to where we started: I have no Beanie Babies. He's all out of magic (and a lot less cash).

Danielle Paquette can be reached at paquette@tampabay.com.

Acute hysteria, ugly reality of Beanie Babies 10/02/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 1:27pm]

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