No, Your VHS Tapes Probably Aren't Worth Thousands of Dollars

News stories hype up high-value VHS tapes as the future of collecting -- but few sell for more than $50 or so.

Not too long ago, Back to the Future star Tom Wilson found an original, sealed VHS copy of the movie in his personal collection. He sold it for $75,000, setting a record for the movie and leading people around the world to wonder whether their copy of Back to the Future might also be worth thousands of dollars. The answer, unfortunately, is that it probably isn't -- it's more likely you'd get around $10. Leaving aside the fact that Wilson's was the personal property of a principal cast member,the value of VHS tapes is often wildly overstated by media outlets looking for a good story.

On Reddit's r/VHS subreddit, a fan this week posted a link with the caption "Oh, for f--k's sake." The link was to a USA Today story breathlessly reporting that eBay users were selling VHS tapes of popular movies for thousands of dollars.

More accurately, they're listing those movies for thousands. Actually making hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a rare VHS isn't unheard of, but it's very, very uncommon. Still, sellers can set their price to whatever they want, so it's not uncommon for sellers to set unreasonably high prices in the hopes that somebody bites and buys it. 

This is something that has long been common with Disney movies, because during the days of the "Disney vault," popular movies would sell for high prices when they were unavailable on the shelves at Blockbuster. It led to a myth that, years after the "vaulting" policy had largely ended, certain print runs of Disney VHS tapes were incredibly valuable. Like the USA Today article, there have been dozens of stories over the years reporting the highest price tags online, but relatively few that dig into what those big-ticket movies actually sell for.

Let's interrogate some of the claims from the USA Today story. According to the report:

  • "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – The 20th anniversary limited edition VHS tape released in 2002 is currently being sold for $39,000.
  • "Back to the Future" – A VHS tape for the 1985 classic film is for sale on eBay for $14,080.
  • "The Fast and the Furious" – A tape for the 2001 movie that starred the iconic action franchise in brand condition sealed with the watermark is being sold on eBay for $1,250.
  • "Twister"- A graded sealed VHS for the 1996 Oscar-nominated movie is being sold for $1,999.99.
  • "A Nightmare on Elm Street" – This sealed VHS tape for the 1984 American supernatural slasher film is selling for $37,500.
  • Batman Forever – A tape for the 1995 comic book film starring Jim Carey and Nicole Kidman in brand new condition is selling for 1,999.99.

Again: this isn't technically false. The listings cited above really do exist for the asking prices stated. But if you go into the advanced search options, you can get a sense for how much things actually sell for on eBay, and it paints a different picture. Bearing in mind that eBay may flush these numbers at some point, so we are looking at only the available information and not all the historical information since the website launched, let's dig in a little.

That 20th anniversary edition of E.T. is asking for $39,000 -- but there are also several copies of the same version selling for $10 or less. One of them is as cheap as $3.50. What's the most that particular tape has sold for recently? It looks like $15.88. That's the Blockbuster Video version, which has a white clamshell rather than blue. If you have to sync up the EXACT product that's going for $39,000, the top price seems to be $10. That one sold yesterday, after the article had already run.

The first printing of Back to the Future is indeed a very in-demand tape, with one having sold for $1,600. The prices for that tape seem to have jumped following the sale of Wilson's copy and the stories that followed after that. There's also the fact that the $14,000 tape is graded, which throws the math a little. The reason you get it graded is to boost the resale price, and there are relatively few things to compare it to. One graded copy did sell for $400 last month, though.

The Fast and the Furious tape is also graded, and the only other one that was graded sold -- probably for a lot of money, but we don't know, because they were asking for $2,000, and accepted a best offer. That said, the same version of the same movie was purchased last week for $17.99, and while not graded, that one looks pretty close to mint condition at first glance.

There's no record of a graded Twister tape selling, but unless we're missing something, there also doesn't appear to be any sign that a VHS copy of Twister has ever sold for more than $20. One copy recently seems to have sold as part of a 13-tape lot -- all the tapes sealed! -- for $25.

Similarly, there are no records of this specific version of A Nightmare on Elm Street selling with a grade, but the most any Elm Street movie has ever sold for as a graded VHS was $424. This same printing of the first movie went for $100 sealed recently, and maxed out at somewhere presumably between $400 and $600 (it was a Best Offer sale).

Batman Forever has sold a couple of graded VHS tapes, but nothing for more than $120. Without a grade, the highest recent sale is a "for your consideration" copy provided to Oscar voters, which was sealed and sold for $125. One recent, sealed version sold for $1.49.

So, the point here isn't just to make fun of this one article. The practice of charging self-evidently outrageous prices, and then getting the media to cover the apparent market boom, is increasingly common, and it can impact collectors in big ways. Items that used to sell for $5 will now sell for $50, because somebody thinks they can flip it for $1,000 later. 

In fact, they'll be lucky to make their $50 back, because once those articles are a little bit more distant in people's memories, the price point will go back to normal. 

Just like all those 1990s comics that people hoarded to pay for their kids' education, there are occasional outliers. You can sell the first appearance of Deadpool or that 1986 version of Back to the Future for a few hundred bucks! But for the most part, it's cover price or less on both '90s superhero books and VHS tapes.