Value is nothing to toy with

Collector: Noel Barrett knows his stuff. That's why he'll be appraising gadgets and gizmos at a Baltimore antiques show tomorrow.

October 13, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If you've got an old Felix the Cat toy carousel gathering dust in your attic, Noel Barrett wants to hear about it.

Barrett has been a toy collector/dealer for nearly 40 years. He's been a regular on PBS' Antiques Roadshow since its first season, poring over toys brought in by people with little or no idea what they're worth, then watching their faces light up when told the old cast-iron bank they've had on a shelf all these years is worth a few thousand dollars. He knows toys.

Tomorrow, he'll bring that knowledge to Baltimore. As part of the 23rd annual Maryland Historical Society Antiques Show, he'll talk about toys and toy collecting at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. He'll attempt to rationalize why grown men and women shell out hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for toys they played with as kids. He'll talk about what makes a collectible toy.

And if someone happens to bring along one of those Felix carousels, here's betting he'll talk plenty about that, too.

"Yeah, that one has eluded a lot of people," Barrett says somewhat wistfully over the phone from Carversville, Pa., where he runs an auction house specializing in antiques. "There's only one or two known to exist."

In the course of nearly three decades as a dealer, Barrett has never come across one of these 1920s-era lithograph tins. Over six seasons as a regular on the Roadshow, no one has ever brought one in for him to appraise. He's only known of one that came on the market, and that was several years ago. He remembers it was in rough condition, but doesn't remember how much it went for.

It was probably a lot. When you're talking tin lithograph toys, Barrett's specialty, that carousel is the holy grail.

Barrett, 61, remembers when the toy-collecting bug first bit him. He was in his early 20s, back in his hometown of Alexandria, Va., after graduating from Columbia University. One of the local antique stores had a Lil' Abner Band, a tin toy from the '40s he'd owned as a kid. He plunked down five bucks, and the toy was his.

"I just bought it because I'd had one as a kid, and I really liked it. The neat thing was, I found that toy in an antique shop just three blocks from the dime store where I'd bought it as a kid."

Ah, the good old days. That same toy would fetch about $800 today.

But value is only the most easily noted reason people collect toys; the others are far more elusive. Barrett prefers not to even hazard a guess, except to speak from personal experience. For him, collecting toys started as a way to connect with the days gone by.

"When I was a kid, I always liked old stuff," he says. "My cousins always used to say, `Noel likes neat stuff to have.' I always had an affinity for old stuff from the past, tangible objects that could take you into the past."

Toy collecting, he notes, is nothing new; an issue of Antiques magazine from 1926 featured a cast-iron bank on the cover. What is new, he says, is that people in general are beginning to realize toys could be valuable someday - a change in perception that's leading to intriguing changes in the toy marketplace.

"When people buy toys for their kids today," he notes, "they'll buy two, one to play with and one to put away for future value."

Of course, there's a downside to such speculation. One of the main reasons old toys are valuable is because they're so scarce. With so many toys being stored away in pristine condition, it's unlikely they'll ever achieve much in the way of value.

That, undoubtedly, will be a topic of discussion for toy experts in 2050.

History of Toy Collecting

Where: The Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, 11 W. Mount Vernon Place

When: 11:30 a.m. tomorrow

Admission: $40 (includes brunch)

Call: 410-685-3750, ext. 321, or www.mdhs.org

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