Antique toy ship brings $37,400 at Timonium auction

JACQUES KELLY

December 04, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

It took less than two minutes for a Timonium auctioneer to ge $37,400 for a toy battleship that probably sat under some youngster's Christmas tree 90 years ago.

The auctioning of the battleship was typical of the fast and furious bidding last evening at a large sale of antique toys that was attended by about 220 collectors and dealers.

The centerpiece of the sale was the early-1900s, German-made battleship designed to cruise an outdoor pond. It carries the name Gefion.

A bidder on the phone from Paris stalled at $33,000. The next bid was $34,000. That bidder -- No. 936 -- will end up paying that amount plus 10 percent more. The winner was not even in the room but had left instructions with auctioneer Richard Opfer as to what he would spend to get the toy.

That the buyer wasn't present is representative of the secrecy in the world of antique toy buying and selling. The battleship was consigned to the auction house by an Essex couple who declined to release their name.

The toy is not a scale model but a 25-inch-long approximation of a battleship. It was in good condition for the most part. A few cannon are missing, as are the lifeboats. Nevertheless, its original paint was judged to be in very good condition.

"Look at the condition of the hand painting. There is very little deterioration. You can even see the grain of the wood on the deck," said Opfer, whose auctioneering firm on Greenspring Drive in Timonium has made a name for itself in the highly competitive field of antique toys.

"With its clockwork motor," Opfer said, "it would run for a long time." He pointed to a large metal key used to wind the vessel's motor.

It was doubtful, however, that its buyer will ever launch the battleship in water. That might damage the paint job.

The toy was manufactured in Germany by the renowned Marklin firm between 1902 and 1907. It was meant to be sailed in artificial ponds or in small lakes in parks. Its hull is filled with lead ballast to keep it upright in the water. The large motor is attached to the propeller.

"They're scarce because there are a lot of them sitting on the bottom of a pond," said John Harling, a Felton, Del., antique toy collector who attended the 5 1/2 -hour sale.

The Marklin firm is still turning out thousands of toys a year, chiefly electric trains, in Germany.

At the time it made this battleship, its wares were being marketed all over Europe and the Americas. For the British trade, it made a duplicate of the Gefion and called it the H.M.S. Terrible.

Marklin's toys were expensive when new and sold in only a few Baltimore toy stores. One collector estimated the battleship would have cost about $100 in 1900 dollars.

Opfer said collectors had been dropping by to inspect the battleship for weeks before the sale, which was well publicized in antique toy collecting circles.

Other collectors from the Middle Atlantic region traveled to bid on other toys, such as papier mache Santas -- many of which fetched $200 and $300 each -- and circus toys made by the Schoenhut company of Philadelphia.

Collectors and dealers also bid on small -- only 3- or 4-inch -- German metal horse-and-wagons, autos and sailboats called "penny toys."

These lithographed toys, which once routinely sold for 1 cent, commanded prices of $220 to $1,500. There were occasional bidding wars, with two customers going at it until one of them dropped out.

When it was all added up, 553 lots of toys had been sold at an average price of $550 each.

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