Mechanical banks draw money from collectors at auction


October 13, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen HTC

Bidders at the auction of mechanical banks last month in Philadelphia seemed anxious to put their money, and lots of it, into cast- iron toy money boxes.

A collection of 365 mechanical banks in pristine condition and another of 34 trade cards, advertisements and documents sold for $2.2 million and change.

Nearly 300 collectors, from all parts of the country and one fellow from London, examined the banks on Friday, and on Saturday they bid five banks to over $50,000 each and another 17 banks to more than $20,000 each. A trade card advertising a Watchdog Safe bank circa 1890 sold for $5,775, which was more than the bank itself, which sold for $1,045.

None of the banks topped the $250,000 paid for the Freedmen's bank at the tag sale that dispersed the Perelman Toy Museum in Philadelphia in September 1988. However, a 10 percent buyer's premium pushed two banks past the previous auction record, $55,000 paid for a Circus bank in its box sold in May at Mike Clum's auction near Columbus, Ohio. (Mr. Clum does not charge a buyer's premium.)

The sale at the Airport Hilton on Sept. 14 was a benchmark sale of banks in superb condition. Banks this fine rarely come up for auction. They are usually sold privately.

"There is no recession here," proclaimed Steve Steckbeck, a bank collector from Fort Wayne, Ind., who is now president of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. "I don't think prices are high in terms of other folk art," he said. "Just look at that Fowler bank. Put a coin in the slot, cock the trap, place the pheasant on the wire, pull the trigger and the hunter's body turns, the pheasant flies up and the penny drops. It's, like, you can't believe it."

Bill Bertoia, a Vineland, N.J., toy and bank dealer and collector, and Bob Brady, a Lancaster, Pa., collector and sometimes dealer, owned the whole collection. They made sure records were set. Mr. Bertoia bought back the Fowler bank for $60,500, including buyer's premium, and he got Little Red Riding Hood for $57,200. Four months ago Mr. Bertoia and Mr. Brady bought the banks and paper memorabilia from Burbank, Calif., collector Bill Norman and decided to hold an auction.

Bill Norman spent the last 12 years immersed in banks. He traded up until he had banks in the finest condition and in every variation of color and casting. More than a dozen were in their original boxes. In 1984 Mr. Norman published "The Bank Book, the Encyclopedia of Mechanical Banks," so the collection was well-known. He also served as president of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America.

Mr. Norman recently turned 50, and said that that milestone made him decide it was time to move on to other pursuits. "I was right in the middle of putting together a price list of all the mechanical banks for our club when I got a call from Bob Brady asking if I knew anyone who had a collection of toys and banks for sale and I said 'Me,' " Mr. Norman recalled two days before the sale. "I didn't know at the time that Brady was a front man for Bertoia but I set the price and they came out and paid it."

Mr. Norman admitted his banks had been a very good investment. Before the sale he predicted Mr. Brady and Mr. Bertoia would make money on their auction, too. They did and they spent a good part of their winnings on major banks for their personal collections. Mr. Brady, using paddle No. 2, paid $42,000 for the Picture Gallery bank, an educational toy, made by Shepard Hardware Co. in Buffalo, N.Y. It shows all the letters of the alphabet and numbers from 1 to 26 as well as 26 different animals or objects with a short word for each letter.

The Mikado, at $55,000, was considered the bargain of the sale. A lot of people predicted it would go for at least $65,000. It is a magic bank: place a coin in the recess in the top of the blue cabinet under the hat in the Mikado's right hand and turn the lever. The coin disappears and reappears under the hat in his left hand, where it remains until another coin is deposited; then it drops into the bank. It was made by Philadelphia hardware manufacturers Kyser and Rex, and designed by Alfred C. Rex himself in 1886.

Jonah and the Whale, on a Pedestal bank, another great rarity, sold for $55,000 with buyer's premium to London dealer John Halley. A young man from Massachusetts paid $55,000 for the Girl Skipping Rope bank. "In 1958 this bank sold for $8,000 and everyone was shocked. I guess some day down the road $50,000 will sound like a bargain too," he remarked as he left the salesroom with his fiancee.

The crowd applauded when the rare banks went for more than $50,000 and they applauded when common banks brought astonishing prices. Darktown Battery, the well-known baseball bank, sold for $17,000. None had ever sold for more than $5,200. Two collectors had to have the very best example.

There were three Tammany Banks -- put a coin in the fat man's hand and see how fast the politician pockets it. One in mint condition sold for $6,050. Another Tammany, only "pristine," made $1,650 and another in merely "fine" condition went for $770. You can probably find one at the next toy show for $600.

A priced catalog is available for $25 postpaid from Bill Bertoia, 1217 Glenwood Drive, Vineland, N.J. 08360.

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