Children move aside — vintage lead soldiers and wind-up Popeyes are for grownups only
by Rita Reif
Publisher Malcom Forbes collects toy soldiers. Producer Joshua Logan adores automatons. Bill Blass has a passion for toy frogs; Woody Allen is wild about wind-up comic-character toys, and artist Maurice Sendak has a mania for Mickey Mouse toys and acquires them in whatever form he can find.
Toy collecting is at an all-time high today, nationwide and around the world. Old toys that once enchanted small children today keep thousands of adults searching at shops, antiques fairs, auctions, and flea markets for possible acquisitions. Virtually every kind of toy made from the 19th century through the 1950s — tin wagons and robots, dolls with china heads and Shirley Temple face, Popeye windups and Uncle Remus banks — is climbing in price and rarities grow rarer each year. When it comes to their playthings, collectors are a very serious breed.
Mr Forbes, for one, is extremely serious about his toy soldiers. The Forbes Magazine Museum of Military Miniatures in Palais Mendoub, Tangier, Morocco, numbers 70,000 soldierly toys. Recently at auction at Phillips in London, he added to his collection a vintage 1916 battalion. This set of 666 soldiers of the London Scottish Regiment went to Forbes for $12,339, making it the most expensive ever auctioned.
Mr Forbes was also active in the bidding in August for the toy soldiers that British bank clerk Leonard W Richards collected until his death at 75 a year ago. The 17,000 lead miniatures, the largest toy-soldier collection ever gaveled, totaled $124,890 in the two-day Phillips auction, an all-time high for such a specialty sale. The event also rewrote the record for a single toy soldier to $512.20 with the sale to a British collector of a British Camel Corps soldier manufactured by William Britains in 1910. When it was new, that palm-sized lead figure cost two pennies.
One of the most active areas of collecting is the windup comic-character toys that were all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s. Robert Lesser, a New York collector who owns hundreds of these tin windups, recently purchased for $3,000 one of the rarest of them, a Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse on a motorcycle, made in Germany by Tipp around 1930. Another German-made Mickey and Minnie with a barrel organ sold four years ago for $3,600.
“If it appeared today, who knows how much it would sell for, maybe $10,000,” Lesser said. “If you find it, you name your own price.” The rarity of, and thus the demand for, these early Mickey and Minnie Mouse toys is due in part to the fact that they have five fingers; this error reportedly so angered Walt Disney that the producers changed the design to four fingers.