WHEN COVID-19 shuttered flea markets nationwide, Chris Fernandez, a vintage clothing dealer, filled the void. On Instagram—where he boasts an impressive 73,000-plus followers—Mr. Fernandez started “the Virtual Flea,” a recurring, weekend-long livestream where vendors book slots and hawk their wares. On August 3, Corbin Smith, a 27-year-old dealer from Arizona, took command of the livestream. Mr. Smith had a special T-shirt on offer, promoting the 1992 Disney animated classic “Aladdin” with a gigundo print of the Genie character (voiced by the late Robin Williams) grinning his pearly whites.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Smith teased the shirt on his Instagram page to great interest. “CRAZY GRAIL,” wrote one user. Another speculated it would garner at least $1,200. Mr. Smith hoped for $2,000—a princely return for a shirt he’d bought for $500 in December. The sale started at $1, but climbed rapidly, as viewers posted their bids into the chat. It passed $1,200. Then $2,000. Over 1,000 people were watching as the winning bid came in: $6,000, offered by @ShirtCheck, a shadowy buyer with a growing reputation in the vintage tee community.
Mr. Smith burst into tears on the livestream when he saw the winning bid. “Before that moment happened, I’ve never had more than like $4,800 to my name,” said Mr. Smith a few weeks later as he recounted the heartracing auction. “And I made more than that off one piece of cloth.”
Why would a shirt from a 28-year-old movie be as pricey as a used Camry? Because the vintage movie T-shirt market is mushrooming like never before. Just a year or two ago, “people would struggle to sell [movie tees] for 30 bucks, 40 bucks,” said Taylor Mickal, 29, a photographer in Washington, D.C., who operates a vintage clothing business on the side. In recent months, interest in movie tees skyrocketed and Mr. Mickal lately sold three movie promo shirts for over $1,000 each. His biggest return to date was on a tee from 1998’s “Rounders,” the Matt Damon-led poker film, which he bought for $80 and flipped for $2,200.
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Scarcity lifts the market. Vintage movie merch is in shorter supply than vintage band T-shirts, which were peddled en masse at concerts around America. In some cases, movie merch never even hit stores. It was doled out at a few theaters to drum up excitement or given as a crew memento. Mike Page, 33, a landscaper and dedicated movie merch collector in Narragansett, R.I., owns what he thinks is a production-team hat from the 1995 Martin Scorcese crime film “Casino.” “There’s only one other person in the vintage community who has it,” said Mr. Page. “People send me offers for it all the time, but I’m never going to sell it.”
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