Like most children of the 1970s and 1980s, I had a period when I adored Lego. The iconic multi-coloured blocks could be found scattered across the floor of my bedroom and cleaning up after a building session was a regular source of argument with my parents.
However, also like most people I grew out it. Computer games, sports, secondary school and, later, girls came into my world and my Lego collection was left to gather dust. A familiar story around the world you might think, but not in Michael Finan’s house.
Michael is the proud owner of an enormous Lego collection – 459 separate sets with a total of over 286,000 bricks – and like celebrities such as Ed Sheeran, Brad Pitt, David Beckham and will.i.am, he gets just as much enjoyment out of playing with Lego as a 29-year-old as he did when he was nine. Probably more in fact.
“I was five when I got my first Lego set, back in 1994. It was a Flame Fighters Lego system, basically a fire station that had little shuttered doors and a fire engine. I was blown away and spent hours with it. From then on, I became obsessed and I was basically a very easy kid to buy for at Christmas and at birthdays – any Lego set would do the trick,” he says.
This week, Michael’s collection went on display for the second year in a row in an exhibition entitled The Big Brick Exhibition and Building Experience at Castletown House in Celbridge, Co Kildare. Last year, the collection attracted over 10,000 visitors and showcased his collection of construction toys and three-dimensional puzzles. “There’s something for everyone at the exhibition. The newest addition to my collection is a working rollercoaster. There’s a mechanism that sets it off and it brings a lot of joy to people that see it. Kids often are really surprised that it actually works,” he says.
Born and raised in Banbridge, Co Down, at the age of 10 Michael started collecting a little more seriously, but when he became a teenager social pressures pushed him away from his favourite toy. Today Michael, whose day job is in marketing, is a member of an active community of adult Lego aficionados around the world. They call themselves AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) – but most go through what Michael describes as a “dark age” in their collecting and building lives. This is when they drop the hobby as teenagers before rediscovering it as adults.
“At around 11 or 12, games consoles were getting big in my school and I realised it wasn’t very cool to be still playing with bricks. I channelled my interest instead into three-dimensional puzzles – my first was of Big Ben and for a while that scratched the itch,” he says. “But I was about 18 when I rediscovered it. I got a Lego set as a birthday present, a one-ninth scale Technical Lego Ferrari Formula One car. I was hooked again. It was just like the old times and I was immediately back in. At the same time, I couldn’t get over how much Lego had developed since I had played with it as a kid. There were so many intricate parts and extra details.”
After this a second Lego Ferrari set was acquired and his adult collecting life was off to a good start. Today, he sources his sets from the internet, Smyths Toys and until it closed down recently, from Toys R Us.
For any adult not in the habit of playing with what is basically a toy designed for children, the big question is what is the appeal? What is it about sticking small coloured plastic bricks together that can hold an adult’s attention to the degree that they start collecting it? “It’s very rewarding,” Michael says. “You start out with a box of chaos, literally hundreds or thousands of mixed blocks in lots of different colours, and you slowly put order on that chaos. It’s a really enjoyable way to spend time.
“Often it’s not clear what you’re actually building as you go along but then you follow the instructions and something emerges from the chaos and there’s a eureka moment.”
Michael finds it a champion stress-reliever and claims it’s therapeutic. His message? If you’ve never tried it, don’t knock it. There are many examples of similar activities offering real benefits to people, above and beyond just kids playing with blocks. People do jigsaws, he argues, play solitaire and solve crossword puzzles. What’s the difference? “I even got my girlfriend Kerri to do a set with me. We put together a 300-piece model of the Knight Bus from Harry Potter and she found it much harder than she thought it would be. I think she thought it would be done in a few minutes – it actually took ages,” he says.
It’s at this point that casual observers are often caught out. It’s tempting to think of Lego as purely a children’s toy but some sets are extremely complex to build, take a lot of time and cost a lot of money to purchase. The biggest Lego set currently on sale, for example, is the Ultimate Collector’s Edition Star Wars Millennium Falcon.
It comes with a thick bound manual, 7,500 pieces and costs €800 to buy. The finished model weighs 17kg, is nearly three foot long and can take weeks to build. “That’s obviously not aimed at kids, it’s one for the adult collectors. YouTube is full of people unboxing and assembling sets like it. The record for assembling that Millennium Falcon is around 12 hours by a team of three people,” says Michael.
Lego sets are normally produced in a production run that lasts between one and two years and after that, in-demand sets that are scarce can command high price tags. “Not many people realise that Lego can be a better investment than gold because there is a great market for it and it goes up in value a lot. Some sets have increased in value by as much as 10 times,” says Michael.
“While rare mint-condition unassembled sets are in most demand, I’ve also paid for used sets that had missing pieces and I’ve paid quite a bit for them.”
The most expensive set Michael owns is featured in the Castletown exhibition and is an extremely rare model of the original Lego House, itself a replica of the building where Lego was started by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1949.
“It’s a set that was made just for Lego employees and was never for sale to the public but I got one on eBay. The actual set is less than 1,000 pieces and is quite small compared to others I have but I think I paid around €380 for it,” says Michael.
The one that got away for this collector is an exceptionally rare set of the Statue of Liberty. “It’s very expensive but I won’t be happy until I have one. A used one goes for at least €1,700 online but it’s so rare that they don’t come up for sale very often. After that, there’s also a set of an old-style Volkswagen Beetle that I’d love to have.”
Lego is not Michael’s only hobby – he also enjoys playing football and watching Formula One – and he is a passionate traveller who has visited 38 countries. Since last year’s exhibition, however, Michael has added many new pieces to his collection such as the Lego City Area which now showcases a high-speed passenger train, airport, cargo plane and Lego City sets such as the fire station, police station, airport cargo terminal and more.
Visitors will also get a first look at the Lego Winter Village Train Station along with the NASA Apollo Saturn V and the BMW R1200 GS. “I’ve also added a Lego London Routemaster Bus, which is a beautiful scale model with lots of detail including ripped seats, chewing gum stuck to the seat and used tickets. It’s very authentic and matches the original very closely. It will look great with the London sets such as the House of Parliament and Big Ben,” he says.
What makes Michael’s collection unique is the sheer number of sets he has, some of which are extremely rare and very collectable, including The Taj Mahal – a replica of one the world’s most iconic buildings. Other rarities include a 1:300 scale model of the Eiffel Tower and a Vestas Wind Turbine, which was an exclusive set distributed to employees of the company in Scandinavia. The exhibition also features 3D puzzles.
“I own nearly all the Wrebbit Puzzles ever made. The puzzles are inherently complex, but I love the high-quality designs and that the puzzles are durable. I have puzzles which glow in the dark, to-scale towers from all over the world, and a working grandfather clock standing 6 feet tall,” he says.
“I’ve also added The Burrow, the Weasley family home from the Harry Potter movies and also the triple-decker Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Lego is just a classic toy, and in 100 years’ time, kids will still play with it. It’s a fabulous toy that fires the imagination.”
The Big Brick exhibition runs at Castletown House until August 31. Tickets are €3 for children and €6 for adults. See castletown.ie