Elyse Luray has never understood why toy collectors don't get the respect they deserve.
Whether they specialize in "Star Wars" action figures or Barbie dolls, superhero comic books or '70s TV-themed lunchboxes, pop-culture enthusiasts have as much passion, as much integrity and as much intelligence as serious art collectors.
Yet their treasure trove of toys is often dismissed as mere child's play.
"If you walk into somebody's house and they had thousands of art nouveau and deco vases and they were spending $3,000 to $5,000 on these pieces, people would be impressed," says Luray, who ran the Popular Arts Department at Christie's famous New York auction house for 11 years.
"People would say, 'Oh, you have such an incredible collection. You have a sophisticated eye.'
"But, at the end of the day, what's the difference between collecting vases and collecting Transformers?"
A great pop-culture collection can sometimes be more valuable than highfalutin art.
It certainly can be more fun.
Two fascinating new TV series about this oft-misunderstood pastime premiere this week: One, Travel Channel's Toy Hunter (9 p.m. Wednesday), celebrates the giddy joy of toy collecting. The other, Syfy's Collection Intervention (9 p.m. Tuesday), focuses on collections that become unhealthy obsessions.
It's easy to understand the appeal of collecting vintage and specialty toys, pristine comic book sets, rare animation cels and various other pop-culture items. These are pieces that tend to remind people of their childhoods, that conjure up happy and escapist memories.
"They're like hot chocolate, feetsy pajamas, bunny slippers and a warm blanket on a cold day," says Jordan Hembrough of Toy Hunter. "It's a connection to innocence, a connection to a simpler life."
Hembrough, who's based in New Jersey, has been in the toy collecting business for 25 years. He was bitten by the collecting bug at an early age. But unlike most kids, he quickly figured out that he could make more money selling toys to school peers than he could from a paper route or a summer job.
At age 16, he started buying and selling toys professionally. In 1998, he founded Hollywood Heroes, a vintage and modern collectibles company that not only sells collectible toys and film props, but also provides consulting services to toy and entertainment companies.
Today, he is widely considered to be one of the world's top experts on 1970s and '80s toys, the period he calls the "sweet spot" of toy collecting.
Toy Hunter follows Hembrough as he crisscrosses the country, searching through attics and garages for everything from classic G.I. Joes to original Teddy Ruxpin bears to vintage Colorforms adhesive toy sets.
"I think this genre of collecting has been somewhat overlooked in the last 10 or 20 years," Hembrough says. "It's not all that different from when someone collects antiques and fine art, but it's sort of this hidden culture that hasn't really been brought to light yet.
"But I'm really hoping and I definitely feel that after this show comes out, toy collecting is going to gain a lot more popularity and a lot more respect. People are going to start coming out of the woodwork talking about how great this pastime can be."
Pop culture memories can also cost big bucks -- as Luray knows so well, having organized auctions for archives ranging from Hanna-Barbera and Chuck Jones to The Simpsons and Lucasfilm.
Luray has 20 years of experience selling and appraising comic art, animation art, vintage toys, sports memorabilia and "anything pop culture." She has worked as an appraiser on TV's History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow.
But Collection Intervention puts a decidedly different spin on the pastime. The show follows Luray, who is based in New York, as she tries to help collectors whose habits have gotten out of control.
Some are people whose reckless spending has led to serious financial distress.
"When you're collecting pop culture, it's usually emotionally based," Luray says. "But at some point, it becomes financially based. I think the saddest situations are when somebody has to sell their collection because of what I call the three D's: death, divorce and debt."
There also are collectors who become so obsessive about completing an impossible-to-complete collection that their methods start to border on hoarding.
The Collection Intervention case files include a dining room stuffed with 30,000 comic books, a garage filled to the rafters with Catwoman memorabilia and an almost uninhabitable house teeming with Transformers.
"When you see this, it generally isn't somebody who is strategically setting out to amass this really big collection," Luray points out. "It's just that, when your emotions get involved, you sometimes stop thinking about where to draw the line.
"That's really a big premise of the show, teaching people how to curate their collections."
We've all heard tales about people who found long-forgotten treasures in their attics -- such as the Ohio man who found the century-old baseball card set that sold for more than $500,000 -- but Hembrough is quick to discourage people from getting into the toy collecting game merely to make a fast buck.
"If people are going to get into this just hoping to make a quick flip, they're going to find that they've got a lot to learn," Hembrough says. "It's harder than it looks. There are pitfalls. You've got to be willing to put in the time to know your craft and you've got to be willing to risk losing a lot of money."
After all, Luray adds, a collection might be extremely valuable on paper -- but it's really only truly valuable once somebody is willing to pony up the dough.
"I tell people this all the time," she says. "People go on eBay and they'll say, 'Oh, this is what the "Buy It Now" price is, so that's the going rate, right?' And I'll say, 'No, that's not what it's worth. That's just how much somebody hopes to sell it for. It's worth only what it sells for.'"