The story behind 'Golden Rod': The most notorious 'Star Wars' error card

Whether caused by lighting or practical joke, suggestive image caused card to be pulled

Cover Image for The story behind 'Golden Rod': The most notorious 'Star Wars' error card
Bidding has already topped $6,800 at Heritage for a PSA 10 copy of the rare error card. (Credit: Heritage Auctions)

The 1977 Topps "Star Wars" cards were a massive hit among collectors and remain among the most significant non-sports cards ever produced.

The set also is known for featuring what might just be the most notorious error card in history.

While character cards of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia were the big names, C-3PO was featured on what has become one of the set's most valuable cards, thanks to an unfortunately placed appendage on the droid that created the legend of the “Golden Rod.”

The card, which preceded the 1989 Billy Ripken "F--- F---" error card by a decade, produced immediate double takes.

To put it plainly, C-3PO appears to have a shockingly large metallic penis. This was decidedly not the intention of Topps, which chalked it up to a “trick of timing and light.”

Theories abound about how the card reached production lines in 1977. (Credit: Heritage)
Theories abound about how the card reached production lines in 1977. (Credit: Heritage)

Snopes wrote in 2007, quoting the official Star Wars site that “the current theory is that at the exact instant the photo was snapped, a piece fell off the Threepio costume, and just happened to line up in such a way as to suggest a bawdy image."

Another theory is offered up by Gary Genari, who worked at Topps at the time overseeing image selection.

"Apparently, someone on set strapped a long metallic appendage to the droid's lower half," he wrote in the book "Star Wars: The original Topps Trading Card Series: Volume One."

"Was this an off-screen practical joke? And how, exactly, did the image make it into the photo archive? No one knows for sure, but once this curious anomaly was brought to light post-printing, some form of correction was required."

Anthony Daniels, the actor behind the droid, told Mental Floss in 2019 that both explanations were “nonsense,” instead saying the incident occurred while filming the scene in which the droid was lowered into an oil bath.

“The oil permeated the inner spaces between me and the costume legs as I chatted with my new master, Luke Skywalker [Mark Hamill]. I eventually rose again, dripping but without incident. Or so I thought.”

It wasn’t until years later when Daniels actually realized what had occurred. According to the actor, the oil dissolved adhesive holding his costume together. “At the same time, Threepio’s left leg dropped down over the shoe. The combination led to an over-exposure of plastic in that region. It left a bulging crease.”

Daniels still believes the photo was edited further to exaggerate the phallic-looking rod.

Regardless of how the mishap occurred, parents were not happy. Topps soon replaced the card with a reproduction version, this time depicting the droid without the discernible member.

But not before thousands of the error card could make it out into the world.

Today, the #207 C-3PO error card is the second most-graded card from the set by PSA with 1,612 examples in its census, second only to Skywalker. The corrected C-3PO card has been graded less than half as many times, with 691 in PSA’s database.

PSA has only deemed five examples of the error card PSA 10s, one of which will be auctioned off this week at Heritage as part of the auction house's "Star Wars" Signature Auction.

Since 2014, there have been just six public comparable sales, most recently in May 2020 for $4,999. Bidding has reached $6,875 (with buyer’s premium) as of Wednesday morning.

While the card is a certified classic, Daniels still doesn’t quite find it as funny as most card collectors.

“If you see one signed on the surface by me, it is a forgery,” Daniels told Mental Floss. “I would never autograph it. Call me humorless, but, clever though the artwork was, I find it an insult to a good friend of mine who cannot speak for himself on this planet.”

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.