Toys speak to their owners in a way few other collectibles can.
Consider “Teddy Girl,” an 18-inch/46-centimeter tall jointed bear made of cinnamon-colored mohair with a seam running down the middle of her face. This stuffed animal holds the record for the greatest sum ever commanded by a teddy bear at auction, but she began as an ordinary infant’s toy 110 years ago.
“The value of Teddy Girl had a lot to do with provenance,” says teddy bear connoisseur Daniel Agnew. “At the time it was double the previous world record—the bear was only estimated in the catalog at $10,000 to $13,000.”
But Teddy Girl belonged to British Army Col. Bob Henderson, who had her all his life, Agnew says.
“Bob was one of the world’s first teddy bear collectors; he started collecting in the 1950s, long before anyone else,” says Agnew, who helped organize the Christie’s auction at which Teddy Girl sold in 1994. “He also started a charity, called Good Bears of the World, which gave teddy bears to the poor and disaster victims. So the bear was important in the teddy bear world.”
Important enough that Japanese collector Yoshihiro Sekiguchi paid JPY$17,561,191 (about US$172,000) for her and put Teddy Girl on display in the Izu Teddy Bear Museum in Japan, where she remains today.
The sale was featured in newspapers and TV news programs around the world, says Agnew, who organizes a biannual toy auction with Special Auction Services, a British auction house. Teddy Girl’s story may have been embellished in the retelling with one oft-repeated account having her accompany Henderson during his service as an adviser to Gen. Bernard Montgomery on the D-Day landings.
It’s more likely she stayed home, Agnew says, though the catalog noted he kept a small bear in his pocket during the war.
“If you tried to buy this much advertising, you would have needed to add another zero to the figure,” Agnew says. “Suddenly it doesn’t seem like so much money.”
To Agnew, the son of an antiques dealer, who has been collecting since he was a child, even bears with less of a history than Teddy Girl have a kind of magnetism.
“Teddy bears have personalities; there is something a bit human about them,” he says. “Or maybe, like a pet, there is eye contact that often draws you in.”
With other toys, it’s more like “I” contact, putting owners back in touch with their younger selves.
“With all our problems as adults and all the issues we have on a constant basis, it’s a relief, I think, when you can walk into your room and look up and see a robot you played with as a kid,” says Mark Leinberger, an antique and vintage toy dealer based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Leinberger, 50, isn’t speaking in hypotheticals. As he chats he’s surrounded by his US$40,000 collection of toys, many reminiscent of Leinberger’s own childhood in Pennsylvania and Florida, including a pristine set of “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” and a pushmi-pullyu stuffed animal of Dr. Doolittle fame.
“I have pictures of me ripping a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots box apart to get at the toy when I was 6 or 7 years old so I could play with it,” he says. “My original is lost to time, but I obtained a pretty well-preserved ‘mint-in-the-box’ one not too long ago.”
Toy specialist Jaynes “Jim” Friedman of the British auction house Bonhams agrees toys bring their grown-up owners back to an easier time of “baseball, Coca-Cola and playfulness.” But some toys, especially transportation-themed ones, also offer a way to further savor adult indulgences.
“If you own an Austin-Healey you want a reproduction tin car of the same model,” says the California-based Friedman. Similarly, he’s found that pilots often seek the model version of planes they’ve flown.
Earlier this year Bonhams auctioned a collection of Japanese-made tin toy automobiles produced after World War II. Many of the Japanese toy cars of this era were American models made for export, such as a black 1962 Chrysler Imperial, built at a 1/16 scale by the Asahi Toy Company with impeccable detail including side mirrors and whitewall tires. It auctioned for US$17,500, in part because of its color.
“Black was a rare color,” Friedman says. “Most boys wanted bright colors, never black and white. They’re boring colors.”
The Chrysler Imperial was also valuable for its nearly pristine cardboard box on which the gleaming car is pictured driven by a chauffeur.
“It came in its original box. That’s like getting two toys,” says Friedman. “Collectors want it mint and in the box.”
Singaporean collector Chang Yang Fa took that ideal of “mint” and ran with it, creating what he bills as “The world’s first purpose-built toy museum” in Singapore in 2007. Dubbed the Mint Museum of Toys, the name reflects a double meaning, says curator Richard Tan.
“As we all need to relive our happy childhood memories, ‘Mint’ stands for ‘Moment of Imagination and Nostalgia with Toys,’” Tan says. “Also, most of the toys in this museum are in mint condition and have never been played with.”
Museum founder Chang, an electrical engineer, collected toys for more than three decades before opening the four-level museum, which houses just 10 percent of his more than 50,000 toys. Visitors ogle treasures ranging from historic “Door-Of-Hope” missionary dolls, whose traditional ethnic wardrobes were handcrafted by homeless Chinese girls from 1901 until the late 1940s, to “Star Wars” toys mass-produced for a global audience in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Playing with toys is a universally happy experience, says Tan, making a visit to the museum a “journey of rediscovery.”
Toy experts are frequently asked, “What should I be collecting?” in terms of value. As with other collectibles, rarity, condition and provenance all factor into a toy’s price tag.
Leinberger notes that toys evolve in 40-year cycles, tracking the maturity of the people who played with them.
“Forty years after initial production is when toys are at the peak of their popularity, collectability, and for the most part, value,” says Leinberger, who runs FX Vintage Toy Roadshow, a traveling market based on the concept of U.S. public television’s “Antiques Roadshow,” where toy owners can buy, sell, or just get an appraisal.
“Forty years after initial production is when toys are at the peak of their popularity, collectability, and for the most part, value,” says Leinberger.
“After that, the prices level off and the interest wanes because people fill up their collections, stop collecting or, in some cases, pass on and their collections become available again. That’s how the life cycle of a toy or doll works.”
Toy collecting is not about the money—it’s about the memories. Toys don’t typically provide anything approaching a secure asset, according to Friedman. But if you want a valuable trip back in time, toys might be just the ticket.
“Toy collectors are normally very nostalgic; they are trying to recapture their childhood,” Agnew says. “Often adults will start collecting toys when they discover a toy they had as a child, in a junk shop or at an antique fair. That experience can open to them a whole world of toy collecting.”
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