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For robot fans, Transformers are hot, broken or not

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***Please note small file size: 1600 pixels by 1200 pixels*** Curt Fignar, 30, of Chicago repairs battery corrosion on Omega Supreme, part of the 1980's Transformers toy line. The toys have become hot sellers to grown-up fans. (Courtesy of Curt Fignar)

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***Please note small file size: 1600 pixels by 1200 pixels*** Transformers toys from a collection purchased by Curt Fignar, owner of TFsource.com. Fignar plans to resell the toys individually for a total of between $5,000 and $10,000. (Courtesy of Curt Fignar)

Curt Fignar is a 30-year-old corporate retail executive in Chicago with a good day job.

But Fignar is a robot dealer in disguise. He’s one of the top three dealers in the world of Transformers, a line of robot toys.

Fignar owns TFSource.com, which imports foreign-made Transformers. He’s reluctant to disclose his company’s earnings, but he estimates that individual dealers can earn up to several hundred thousand dollars a year.

“It’s a small business in the technical sense, but financially it’s bigger than what you might think,” Fignar said.

Baby boomers collect lunch boxes from the 1950s, and now their children are eagerly snapping up toys from the 1980s. As one of the biggest toy lines of that period, Transformers have attracted large numbers of fans and collectors. The toy line and cartoons of the cars and trucks that turn into robots captured children’s imaginations, and the figures still entice now-grown fans.

A live-action Transformers movie is set to open July 4, and toy experts say it should drive up interest in an already hot property.

But a handful of dealers are going to new lengths in search of profits. From bins of damaged robots picked up for little money at toy shows and eBay auctions, they’re buying broken Transformers, repairing and rebuilding them, and selling the completed toy to eager collectors. In effect, they are selling fans the reassembled pieces of their childhoods.

“Transformers was a very exciting concept when it was first introduced,” said Zach Oat, editor of ToyFare magazine, which covers the toy industry. “It’s a concept that’s stuck around.”

Many buyers rediscover their old toys in an attic or old box, and the find reignites their interest in the figures they once loved so much. From there, it’s just a short trip to the Internet to try to find the missing gun for the heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime or the complete set of six evil Decepticons that combined to form the towering Devastator.

To fill the new demand, a few online dealers have mastered the art of fixing Transformers to resell as completed toys. The ability to do so comes from the modular nature of the toys and the widespread access to all the screws and bits that make up the robot. Also, Fignar said, toys tend to break in similar but easily repairable ways; if you can fix one, you can fix most of them.

Take, for example, Omega Supreme, one of the bigger Transformers. The toy transforms into a space rocket and originally came with battery-powered electronics and the ability to walk. Over the years, however, many of the toys suffer from battery corrosion that damages the electronics. Fignar says he has figured out how to correct the damage in minutes, turning a piece with limited value into a hot collectible.

“If it doesn’t walk, they don’t want it,” he said. “Well, we know how to fix that. There you have something that no one wants, now they want it." "If it’s complete," he added, "it’ll sell for upward of $150.”

One of the biggest dealers on the Internet is an individual who goes by the name Wheeljack’s Lab, an homage to one of the original Transformers. Wheeljack Lab did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but his eBay stores cite listings of more than 2,500 Transformers a month, and sales of 7,500 in the last 12 months.

“It is certainly a way to make money if you have the time and skill to repair them,” Oat said, “and the contacts to buy them up.”

According to a ToyFare price guide, the top Transformer is the Fortress Maximus, an oversize robot that turns into a city playset. In its original box, a condition that is extremely rare, the piece is valued at $1,000. Even without the box, Transformers can be worth several hundred dollars if they’re complete--whether in their original form or after being repaired.

The trend might not carry on to the newer Transformers, however. Oat says those toys now must meet higher safety standards. As a result they’re tougher to break but almost impossible to repair. Collectors are also more conscious of the added value of keeping the toy in its box.

“It’s a trend that I don’t think we’ll see repeat itself again,” Oat said. “Most toy lines today are being taken care of a lot better.”

As dealers prepare for the coming movie, Fignar says he thinks a new wave of collectors will rediscover the robots in disguise. And he’ll be waiting.

“I think for a lot of people it’s piece of mind; they want to buy something that’s complete and working,” he said. “It’s a lot of work for one toy.”

E-mail: aac2127@columbia.edu