Even a volcanic eruption couldn’t dampen interest – or prices – at Bertoia’s April 16-17 Kaufman III sessions

May 18th, 2010 by

Comic character buyers helped boost total to $2.38M

VINELAND, N.J. – Auctioneers have learned to cope with a myriad of meteorological challenges year round, from bone-chilling blizzards to terrifying tornados, but the last thing Jeanne Bertoia and her team expected to deal with over the weekend of April 16-17 was a volcanic eruption.

A cloud of ash drifting from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, which had erupted twice in less than a month, enshrouded much of Europe in the 48 hours prior to Bertoia’s sale of the Donald Kaufman collection, part III. The volcanic ash forced the cancellation of many flights and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, stranding thousands of passengers. Among them were toy collectors with plans to attend the 3,700-lot sale at Bertoia’s Vineland, N.J., gallery.

“Most of the Euros made it out just before the cancellations, although David Pressland was one of the travelers stranded in London,” said Jeanne Bertoia. “Fortunately, we were able to move quickly to accommodate anyone who requested a last-minute phone line. Many others bid live via the Internet, so no one was left out.” The auction went on to gross $2.38 million; all prices quoted in this report include 15% buyer’s premium.

This was the first Kaufman auction to feature comic character toys, a category that has been somewhat soft in recent years. Buyers reacted to the introduction of fresh, top-quality comic character toys from a long-held collection with unbridled enthusiasm. Europeans bidding remotely on German examples from the collection gave new impetus to the comic toys, especially those made by Distler, Gunthermann, Eberl and Tippco, the latter being the company that produced a circa-1932 Mickey and Minnie Mouse motorcycle that sold for $65,550. “That’s almost as much as the one that sold with a box!” a voice in the audience piped up after the hammer fell on the lot.

A collector favorite, a circa-1932 Distler Mickey Mouse organ grinder with a miniature Minnie that “dances” atop the barrel organ was presented with its original, profusely illustrated box. Estimated at $10,000-$12,000, it easily scampered to $19,550 and into the hands of a bidder in the room.

Early automotive toys continued the winning streak evident in previous Kaufman sales. A rare circa-1920 clockwork fire pumper made by Germany’s premier toymaker, Marklin, sped past its estimate to settle at $48,587.50; while a boxed 1896 Faivre (French) rendition of a Panhard Levassor, nearly doubled its high estimate at $26,450. An exceptional example of a four-seat tourer, a Bing tinplate double phaeton, 13 inches long with composition chauffeur, rolled serenely to $25,300.

A circa-1900, 12-inch French tourer with robin’s-egg-blue racer-style body, two bisque-head figures and original box fetched $27,600; but the top lot of the early European tin category was another Marklin production – a circa-1903 hand-painted four-seat tourer with white body and mango-colored, faux-tufted seats. Against a high estimate of $35,000, it earned its bragging rights at $55,200.

A circa-1924 American National Packard coupe pedal car with wicker-style door panels and a fancy eagle hood ornament was the subject of considerable interest at the preview. It ended up selling over the phone for $38,000. A 1920s American National pedal fire truck with full rack of original ladders garnered an above-estimate price of $32,200.

Choice examples of figural biscuit tins from the Kaufman collection included a very rare Gray Dunn blue motorcycle with red sidecar. Against an estimate of $8,000-$10,000, it soared to $18,400.

There is no underestimating the role this auction series has played in reigniting camaraderie within the international toy community. In the cafe adjacent to the main gallery, collectors engaged in animated conversations over sandwiches and soft drinks. Ray Cassatta, a former concert promoter from Chicago who now manufactures replacement headlights for toy autos, commented: “It’s a good hobby to be in. I love that you can make new friends at auctions like this one. It beats babysitting rock stars.”

Sally Kaufman, wife of the late Donald Kaufman (co-founder of K-B Toys, who passed away on Oct. 12, 2009), attended the sale together with members of her family, and graciously chatted with bidders. After the auction, she was guest of honor at the fete Bertoia’s hosted to pay tribute to Donald Kaufman. “There was a hospitality bar, wonderful food, and a special video about Don, plus everyone had a chance to share toy-collecting memories of him. We wanted it to be a celebration of Don’s life, and everyone must have thoroughly enjoyed it, because it ran quite late,” said Jeanne Bertoia.

“Sally was delighted to see a 14-year-old toy collector bidding from the front row,” Jeanne continued. The boy’s father had taken him to the first Kaufman sessions in spring 2009, purely as an observer. There he was able to speak personally with Don Kaufman, which inspired him to return as a buyer. “It was bittersweet that he had written a letter to Don, which he was going to present to him at this sale. He didn’t realize that Don had died. He did have his picture taken with Sally and even bought a lot containing two Hubley toys. He was the youngest collector at the sale, and Sally was intrigued by him,” Jeanne said with a smile.

After the auction, Jeanne turned her attention to helping the Europeans who had attended the event but now found themselves unable to secure a return flight home. Among them were Swiss airline pilots Markus and Uta Staub; and a trio of friends who had attended all three Kaufman sales: Paul Lang and Peter Stierli, both from Switzerland; and their German friend Georg Kaul.

“They didn’t care where in Europe they got a flight to because they knew they could get a rental car or train home from just about anywhere on the Continent,” Jeanne said. “I invited them all to my house to use my computer, my speakerphone and anything else they needed to try to book a flight and extend their car rentals.’

“We also kept them entertained by taking them out to dinner and an antique show in Philadelphia,” Jeanne continued. “On Monday we had an impromptu birthday celebration for Georg, who had missed his own party that was supposed to take place in Germany.”

Fortunately, everyone was eventually able to secure a flight home. Lang, Stierli and Kaul were able to book seats on a plane out of JFK a few days after the auction. No doubt they had plenty to tell their families and fellow collectors in the days that followed.

“We had estimated the sale would do $2 million, which it well exceeded, and even though it wasn’t a $4 million sale like the Kaufman debut, line by line and item by item, it was the best sale we’ve ever had,” Bertoia Auctions associate Rich Bertoia summarized. “Sometimes in an auction there are high and low fluctuations from one lot to the next. This was a very smooth, steady sale with interest in every single item. The auctioneers didn’t have to work to get the opening bids they wanted. One very advanced cast iron collector came up to me and said, ‘Can I leave some bids for you to execute?’ I said to him, ‘Why would you want to leave now?’ and he replied, ‘I can’t buy a thing.’”

On the other hand, Rich said there were several absentee bidders who left what they felt were very competitive bids, but who also asked him to reserve a phone line for them, “just in case.” In the end, Rich said, it was the in-house bidders who claimed the majority of the auction’s contents. “After the sale, the showcases were bare,” he remarked.

As statistics go, the auction earned its place in the record books. Combined with the gross figures from Kaufman I and II, the April 2010 sessions pushed the cumulative total for the Kaufman series so far to $9.3 million – easily the highest amount ever achieved at auction by a single-owner antique toy collection. And there’s still more to come.

Bertoia Auctions will present the fourth sessions featuring the Donald Kaufman collection on Sept. 24-25, 2010. Additional details will be available soon at  www.bertoiaauctions.com. Tel. 856-692-1881 or email toys@bertoiaauctions.com.