There's no question that reading a mental_floss story can pay off during Trivial Pursuit, or when you're trying to impress someone at a cocktail party. But for one lucky reader, it meant a whole lot more.
My last article, 9 Very Rare (and Very Expensive) Video Games, was reprinted by CNN.com (mental_floss has an agreement with CNN). While reading the story over there, one of the games stood out for Tanner Sandlin of Austin, Texas—Air Raid for the Atari 2600. Thanks to the cartridge's distinct blue case and "T-Handle" top, he remembered owning it when he was a kid. So he started digging through boxes of old stuff in the garage and, lo and behold, he found it—the thirteenth known copy of the game in existence. He put it up on eBay and the bids started rolling in.
Sandlin bought the game when he was 11 or 12 years old at a store called Tuesday Morning in Arlington, Texas. Tuesday Morning bought overstocked or undersold goods from other retailers and sold the items at a discount. Sandlin paid less than $10.00, possibly as low as $5.00, for Air Raid in 1984 or 1985. This is important because none of the other twelve people who have Air Raid cartridges were the original owners—they bought them at auction, secondhand stores, or through private collectors. Learning a collectible item's "provenance," or owner history, is key to proving its authenticity. Since Sandlin was the original owner, his cartridge had more street cred than one found in a box at the local thrift store.
Oddly enough, Sandlin remembered that this much sought after game wasn't really all that great. In fact, the only reason he still had it was because it was so bad. He and his friends used to borrow games from each other all the time—sometimes you'd get your game back, sometimes you wouldn't, and that was OK. But no one wanted to keep Air Raid, so it kept coming back to him. He's not complaining now.
While it's impressive that Sandlin had the thirteenth known copy of Air Raid, he later found that he still had the original packaging for the game as well. This changed everything. Why? Because his was the only known Air Raid box in the world, making it the only known complete copy of the game in existence. Tanner Sandlin had just become a part of video gaming history.
But he couldn't start counting his fortune just yet. If you're willing to pay thousands of dollars for a video game, you're going to make sure it's legitimate. Sandlin knew this, so he went straight to an expert, Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, a forum for fans of anything Atari, to get his professional opinion on the authenticity of the find. The two both live in Austin, so Yarusso met with Sandlin and examined both the game and the box in person. After some thorough research, Yarusso declared everything was real (or the most impressive forgery he'd ever seen). With expert confirmation behind him, Sandlin pulled his stand-alone cartridge auction on eBay and replaced it with the complete game package. The starting price was $.50.
Unfortunately, Yarusso's announcement came on April 1, 2010. He's been known for pulling some pretty elaborate and convincing April Fool's Day pranks on the website in the past, so at first the retrogamers on AtariAge were skeptical. They cited spelling errors on the box that seemed "too perfect" and the fact that it said it was the debut game from Men-A-Vision seemed sketchy at best. While the timing was bad, Yarusso and Sandlin stuck to their guns. When there was no big reveal of a hoax in the subsequent days, collectors swarmed to Sandlin's eBay auction. The first bid alone jumped the price from $.50 to $3,000.
Sandlin's eBay auction ended on April 10, 2010 at about 10:15PM (EST). With only 5 minutes to go, the highest bid was $14,600. It sat at this price until the very last few seconds, when it jumped to $17,528, and then made a giant leap to $31,500. The final bid was $31,600.
This sets a new record price for the game, blowing away the previous record of $3,000. That also makes it the second-highest price ever paid for a video game cartridge, just behind the $43,300 paid for a factory-sealed copy of Stadium Events for the Nintendo back in February.
I asked Sandlin what he intended to do with the money and he wasn't quite sure yet. He did know that he wanted to buy something tangible; something he could point at it and say, "I bought that with a video game!" You can buy a whole lot of mental_floss magazine gift subscriptions for $31,600.
We here at mental_floss are incredibly excited to have been a part of this amazing, somewhat crazy moment. Thanks for reading, Tanner, and congratulations on your record-breaking sale!