19th century toys fetch grown-up prices at auction


May 12, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

An American tin toy once owned by the late Rockville attorney Tom Anderson brought the highest price ever paid for an American toy at auction -- $104,500. The buyer Dr. Anthony Haradin, a Pittsburgh physician and toy collector, bought the toy and others April 7 at the Eagle Fire House in New Hope, Pa.

This Santa Claus toy is a miraculous survivor from the early 1800s. The Santa has a composition face and wooden body and is dressed in crepe paper. When the toy is wound, wheels are set in motion and Santa's goats move up and down, giving the impression they are pulling the sleigh. An attachment from the rear legs of the goats causes bells to jingle.

Anderson saw toys as folk art and he also saw folk art in country furniture, coin-operated machines, pop-up books, Crackerjack prizes, sulphide marbles, Christmas ornaments, Santa Claus figures, trade signs, syrup dispensers, figural lawn sprinklers, blinking eye clocks and masks -- all of which were included in his estate sale.

His favorite and the most valuable part of his collection was his assemblage of nearly 60 late 19th century clockwork toys. Auction promoter Noel Barrett wound them up and made a videotape of their action which he showed during the preview and as each of the toys came on the block for sale.

The very first lot -- the alphabet man -- zoomed to $60,500, more than double its high estimate, before the 10-inch-high cast-iron Yankee schoolmaster blinked his eyes and pointed to the letter that appeared under his bow tie. This extremely rare toy was patented in 1884 by E. A. Cooper and F. Sibley, but no one is sure who made it. Dr. Haradin, leaning against the far wall of the packed sales room, outbid half a dozen bidders for it.

The second lot, a rare and fragile souvenir from the Columbian Exposition in 1892, went for $8,350, more than double its high estimate, to a Massachusetts collector. The lithographed and painted toy has a tin boat with cloth sails which pops out of a red, white and blue tin barrel.

Though the sale started with two strong prices, not every lot fetched more than expected. While some toys brought surprising highs, others were good buys, according to Steven Weiss of Hillman Gemini, the New York dealer. Hillman Gemini was by far the biggest buyer in number of lots, sometimes bidding on behalf of clients and at other times for itself.

The sale was estimated to bring a little more than $750,000, and totaled $978,945 with the 10 percent buyer's premium added.

Among the rarities, a boy riding a velocipede with an iron horse's head -- the toy shown on the cover of "American Clockwork Toys," by Blair Whitton -- sold for $30,800, well over its $18,000 high estimate, to Dr. Haradin's son, Roy, a toy dealer. A similar toy, not pictured on the cover of a classic book, sold for $12,100.

One of the rarest of a dozen boxed toys in the sale was a circus rider made of wood, dressed in a red wool coat. The figure moves up and down on the back of a black painted tin prancing horse. It sold for $38,500, double its estimate, also to the doctor.

A boy on a rocking horse, a favorite of many collectors and truly a piece of folk sculpture in miniature, sold for $60,500 -- five times its estimate -- to another Pittsburgh collector who also bought a number of the walking figures made by E. R. Ives & Co. in Plymouth, Conn. The collector paid $9,900 for a Chinese figure, $4,000 for a likeness of Civil War Gen. Benjamin Butler and a whopping $22,000 for the ultra-rare jackass, the only one known and thought to have been inspired by one of Thomas Nast's political cartoons.

An Ives mechanical horse with an old lady driver and a small black boy hooking on behind sold for $35,500. Anderson had paid $40,000 for it at the Barenholtz tag sale in New York in 1989 and turned down a $5,000 profit at the time. Even the toy market is not immune to some cautionary buying now.

This was the kind of sale that offered something for many different kinds of collectors. A coin-operated bull's head perfume dispenser, estimated to bring $2,500 to $2,800, sold for $9,350. Two tin advertising signs patented by Silas West of Haverhill, Mass. in 1897, in the form of a man and a woman both bigger than life, each carrying satchels with the words "Meet Me At The Headquarters Dry Goods," sold on the phone -- $9,900 for the woman and $6,050 for the man.

Ever wonder what figural lawn sprinklers are worth? One in the shape of a turtle, with red paint, sold for $550. Two repainted alligators, one missing a spray head, sold for $330.

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