NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It's the perfect gift: Head over the to local drugstore and for a couple of bucks you can treat your kid (or boyfriend or girlfriend) to some PEZ. After all, who doesn't get a kick out of PEZ?
Spiderman and Star Wars dispensers are the current big sellers. But if you want to make a really big splash, try the classic Make-A-Face PEZ, with 17 pieces that you can arrange to make, well, a face.
Find one in good condition and it will set you back only... $4,000 or $5,000.
That's right: these days PEZ is about much more than just candy. For the thousands of "Pezheads" who collect them, it's real money.
PEZ started in 1927 in Vienna as a breath mint ("PEZ" comes from pfefferminz, German for peppermint). The line was imported to the United States in 1952, when the company decided it could do better with fruit candy dispensed by plastic toys.
No one knows what character graced the first dispenser. "People say it might have been a full-bodied Santa Claus," said Scott McWhinnie, CEO and self-described "pezident" of PEZ Candy, Inc. "Others say it was Mickey Mouse. Still others believe it was Popeye...but nobody really knows."
Also in the PEZ X-files: the World's Fair Astronaut dispenser, made for the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, La. They may have been designed for a promotion or giveaway that never happened. Only two are known to exist -- but nobody knows for sure that there aren't any more.
|Mr. Potato Head's cousin? It's Make-a-face PEZ.
Prized and rare PEZ dispensers don't come cheap. The Make-A-Face dispenser gets its value because the product was quickly discontinued after its release in 1972 due to the choking hazard the tiny parts posed. And because they came with so many pieces, even fewer of the remaining dispensers actually have a complete set of parts, explained Shawn Peterson, author of "A Collector's Guide to PEZ." (Peterson is one lucky owner.)
On at least two instances, PEZ insiders were able to score models inaccessible to ordinary Pezheads. Take the "Bride" and "Groom" dispenser set, for example: PEZ made 700 of each in the late 1960s as favors for the wedding of an employee.
The set would now sell for about $3,500, estimated Gary Doss, a spokesperson for the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, a museum in Burlingame, Calif. that is unaffiliated with PEZ Candy, Inc.
Even more valuable is the Rare Lemon Crazy Fruit dispenser -- only one is known to exist, and it is in the hands of a former PEZ treasurer.
|Bride and Groom dispensers at the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, Burligame, Calif.
"[The owner of the Rare Lemon Crazy Fruit PEZ] doesn't even remember much about how she got it; it was 30 years ago and a sample that never went into production," said Peterson, who is writing his second book for PEZ collectors. "How can you put a price on something like that? Even if she tried to sell it on eBay, she wouldn't be able to get a proper estimate of its value."
Speaking of eBay, its founder, Pierre Omidyar, dated a PEZ collector who used the site in its earliest incarnation to buy and sell rare dispensers.
"Pam Omidyar, the fianc馥 and now wife of the gentleman who started eBay, was a PEZ collector, and she still is," said Kevin Pursglove, a spokesperson for eBay.
The PEZ company, based in Orange, Connecticut, has a steady stream of new designs coming this year, McWhinnie said: in the lineup are glow-in-the-dark Halloween dispensers for October 2002, Winnie the Pooh and friends dispensers (on sale now), and a PEZ-dispensing rocket-shaped pen that writes, lights up and has a secret compartment.
For its 50th anniversary, PEZ developed a limited edition "Golden Glow" dispenser for collectors, which will soon be available for $19.50 on its Web site. It comes with a stand and is a replica of the first headless dispenser, designed to dispense the old pfefferminz in 1948, McWhinnie said.
Buy one and who knows -- in a few years a Pezhead may make you an offer for it you can't refuse. But by then, of course, you too may have become a Pezhead.