World's most expensive toy has a shady recent history

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December 29, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

The Charles, an antique painted tin and iron toy fireman's hose reel, is now the most expensive toy ever sold at auction. The record $230,100 was paid at Christie's in New York City on Dec. 16. Collectors and dealers watched the sale closely because for the past several months the Charles has been at the center of an international financial fraud of record proportions.

Alluding to the fact that the 2-foot-long hose reel currently is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's costliest toy, with a fantastic $1 million price tag, Christie's auctioneer Kathleen Guzman dropped her gavel, saying, "It can stay in the Guinness Book, but [now] the price will be right." Then she proclaimed, "Sold to the phone bidder."

The Guinness Book was misled along with the rest of the world by London toy dealer Jeffrey Levitt, proprietor of the English shop called Mint and Boxed. In September 1990 an elegant New York City branch of Mint and Boxed opened on Madison Avenue to market antique toys as fine art. Mr. Levitt announced in December 1990 that he had sold the Charles to an anonymous German collector for $1 million, adding cachet to his publicity-conscious business and injecting gusto into the antique toy market.

However, in May 1991, when Mr. Levitt and Mint and Boxed both were forced into bankruptcy and their assets inventoried, the Charles turned up among the shop's inventory. It had not been sold after all. Apparently the big-spending German collector and the $1 million price were fantasy.

As creditors, lawyers and bankers in the United States and England still try to unwind Mr. Levitt's dealings, the Charles and the rest of Mint and Boxed's U.S. inventory went to Christie's auction block this month in a 360-lot bankruptcy sale. The auction brought a total of $1.5 million, just a fraction of the estimated $40 million Mr. Levitt owes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Allegedly using forged letters and phony bills for bogus sales of toys to the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and to toy dealers and collectors, Mr. Levitt had reportedly borrowed money from a teachers' pension fund in Liverpool, England, and obtained credit from banks and from the British Government Export Office. In the process he even won the Queen's Award for Export Achievement on the strength of his export sales invoices.

The Christie's sale was unreserved, meaning that every lot was sold to the highest bidder with no minimum acceptable price. Although none of the toys brought anything close to the prices Mr. Levitt asked at his shop, the sale showed that there is resilience in the antique toy market despite the recession.

"The bidding was international. Buyers were American, British and German," said Joshua Arfer, who is in charge of collectibles at Christie's and had taken the collection to Germany and England for viewing by potential bidders.

"This sale showed where the toy market really is," said Wayne Pratt, a Marlboro, Mass., toy dealer, who was a major buyer at the auction and underbid the most expensive lots. "An unreserved sale brought out real competitive bidding. People knew it was a chance to buy at good prices."

Although the buyer of the Charles bid by phone and asked for anonymity, many of the 350 dealers and collectors attending the auction bid openly in the salesroom. There were bargains to be had, but some high prices were paid: $79,100 for a tin-plate fire station and three fire trucks made circa 1919 by Marklin, the Mercedes of German toy manufacturers; and $71,500 for a German 1890s tin-plate horse-drawn double-decker bus.

However, except for the Charles, none of the other prices at the Mint and Box auction topped the $90,200 paid on Dec. 5 for a rare 1870s American painted tin clockwork circus toy, the Hippodrome Chariot, at Richard Opfer Auctioneering Inc.'s antique toy sale in Timonium, Md.

"I've been a bridesmaid too often. I decided go for it," said the Chariot's buyer, Gary Smith, a Kansas banker. "I came late to toy collecting but I have been bitten and it's a strong virus. The aesthetics of early tin toys just blow me away," he said.

Mr. Smith said he likes toys that move and especially those that have to do with the circus. "The Hippodrome fits so well into my collection," he observed. "It must have been inspired by a chariot in P. T. Barnum's circus which spent winters in Bridgeport. The toy's maker, Edward R. Ives, lived nearby in Plymouth, Conn., and he must have seen it."

The Chariot is well documented, retaining its original paper labels with patent dates from the 1870s, and Ives' patent drawing dated Dec. 7, 1875, survives as well. Several other factors led to the Hippodrome Chariot's high price: its rarity, large size, good condition and detail.

Moreover, the way the Chariot was discovered and its freshness on the market both added a mystique absent from the Mint and Boxed auction, which was considered a picked-over collection. Auctioneer Rick Opfer said a Kentucky woman sent him a picture of the Chariot and asked if the toy she had been using as a bookend had any value. Mr. Opfer told her he thought she could get at least $15,000 to $20,000 for it. On hearing those figures she mailed the toy to him.

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