Toy Story

Baltimore collector strives to keep her unique museum whole, long after she’s gone

April 25, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

Behind an unassuming storefront on West Read Street, clowns and animals cavort freely while prim and proper Victorian ladies and gentlemen look on. A '50s Chevy sits ready to pull its silver trailer cross-country, while music school benefactor George Peabody gazes sternly from a darkened corner. And a game of ping-pong waits to get started.

For eight years, Anne Smith's Antique Toy Museum has sat quietly at 222 W. Read St. on the outer fringes of Mount Vernon, housing a vast trove of mostly late-19th- and early 20th-century playthings. But Smith, who has decided the time has come to sell off her collection and move to Florida, considers it more than a museum. To her, it's a work of art she labored over for years, one she's trying to sell as such. True, she'd probably make more money by breaking up the museum and selling it piecemeal at auction. But turning a profit, she says, has never been the point.

"It's definitely a work of art," says Smith, who also operates an antiques shop and fine-arts gallery out of the Civil War-era building. "When I see it go out of here, it's definitely going to be very hard. If someone takes the whole collection, it won't be as hard as if it has to go to auction. If it ends up going to auction, that'll be … "

Smith, who politely declines to give her age but acknowledges having been in the antiques business since the early 1970s, pauses a moment to look around her museum, at the smiling clowns, serious-looking dolls and frisky animals that have been her charges all these years. She spent decades collecting the toys the museum houses, two years assembling the museum after moving to Baltimore in 2000. For her, breaking it up would be beyond hard to do.

"I'll be torn apart," she says simply.

In truth, the museum has never been much of a moneymaker. In a good month, maybe 20 people would drop in, pay the $5 admission charge ($4 for children and seniors) and gaze over the toys their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents might have played with. Some weeks, no one would come by at all. Maybe a few curious folks would walk in to see what antiques Smith had for sale in the front part of the building, and maybe they'd notice the red curtain separating the shop from the museum. But few would bother to pay the admission charge and peer behind it.

It's been their loss. For just those few bucks, visitors are instantly transported back a few generations. Punch and Judy dolls sit on shelves or hang suspended from strings. Tiny cardboard tuba players huff away silently on their instruments. Century-old jacks-in-the-box grin impishly. An oilcloth World War II-era panda, retired after spending who-knows-how-many years on some child's shelf, smiles contentedly.

"The toys are charming, and they're wonderful," says Smith, whose favorite visitors are the children who seem both astonished and delighted by what their grandparents did for fun. "Toys like this no longer exist in modern society, and what they have now, most of it is, quite frankly, ugly."

True, ugly may be too strong a word. But compared with the vibrant graphics that seem to leap off the toys of yesteryear Smith has collected in her museum — the luminous clown faces, the toy seals with yellow, orange and blue beach balls balanced carefully upon their noses, the "Tom Thumb Toy Town," with its multicolored and intricately designed box alluring in a way no computer printer could ever match — maybe "bland" would be more appropriate.

The lion's share of Smith's toy museum — and rest assured, there are more than a few lions — consists of some 40 dollhouses, all old, all carefully restored and decorated by Smith. There are plenty of other toys in the museum, including circus animals (hence the lions), board games and miniature cars and trucks. But, clearly, the dollhouses and their contents are Smith's first love.

"I always wanted a dollhouse," says Smith, adding she never had one as a child growing up in the Midwest. "But a friend of mine had a wonderful one, one of the early European ones, filled with treasures. I always was very intrigued."

Intrigued enough to spend much of her adult life trying to catch up. She bought her first true dollhouse back in 1970, a gabled Victorian-era beauty, about 5 feet tall by nearly 6 feet wide, that remains the centerpiece of her collection and a highlight of the museum.

"And it did not look like that when I bought it," she says with discernible pride. "It had been in an orphanage, and the kids had climbed all over it, broke the windows. I had to have it totally restored, by a retired New York jeweler who had designed for Cartier and Tiffany. Then I wallpapered it and furnished it, piece by piece."

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