John Coker’s Oct. 29-30 no-reserve auction features two fresh, long-held collections of toys, lunchboxes and folk art

October 5th, 2011 by

Beany and Cecil vinyl lunch kit. John W. Coker Auctions image.

NEW MARKET, Tenn. – John W. Coker is a Tennessee auctioneer better known for his sales of fine and decorative art, but when the opportunity arose to handle two outstanding toy and lunchbox collections – each from a collector of 40+ years – he jumped at the chance. More than 100 cardboard boxes later, Coker knew he had the makings of a terrific auction, and one that toy collectors “would go crazy over.”


Coker’s 1,000-lot Oct. 29-30 event, which will be held at the company’s gallery near Knoxville, is 100% unreserved. “Whatever the high bid is, that’s what the toy, lunchbox or folk art item will sell for,” Coker said.


The Saturday, Oct. 29 session, which commences at 10 a.m. Eastern time, contains more than 450 lots of toys and folk art from the collection of a prominent Eastern Tennessee businessman who began collecting in the 1950s. Many of the toys were displayed at the consignor’s place of business; he always bought and never sold.

Smith-Miller pressed-steel and wood Coca-Cola delivery truck, complete with wood Coke crates. John W. Coker Auctions image.


A featured highlight is the vast collection of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola advertising toys, many of them rare, early examples pictured in Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide. “There are more than 100 Coca-Cola toys, and all are different,” said Coker. “They’re across the board in terms of manufacturers – Metalcraft, Smith-Miller, Buddy ‘L’ – and there are many from foreign countries, including Spain (Paya), Germany, Mexico and Italy. There are also special-edition Christmas productions and wooden ones made during World War II. There are many that I have never seen before.”


Boxed Coca-Cola truck made for the Italian market. John W. Coker Auctions image.

The consignor recalled that the first toy he ever owned was a Metalcraft Shell Oil truck complete with wood barrels. “My daddy paid only one dollar – maybe less – for that toy. It made me appreciate the unusual, and that followed through in my collecting,” he said. The truck is included in the auction inventory.


The owner of the toys commented that the advertising trucks in the collection have never been polished, waxed or restored. “I kept them as original as possible, in ‘as-found’ condition,” he said. “Most of them have 85% or more of their original paint.”


The consignor’s brother-in-law once worked for Lionel, and through that connection, the collector was able to acquire several coveted train sets, including a rare Coca-Cola set and another branded for Ford Motor Co. that was available only to employees.


Handmade tableau consisting of a farmhouse, two-story barn, outbuildings, split-rail fence and dozens of miniature accessories. John W. Coker Auctions image.

Additionally, there are die-cast advertising toys, two matchstick ships and a carved Noah’s Ark with figures. A rustic log farmhouse that took 10 years to make is so highly detailed, it even includes a gun over the mantel and a dog on the porch. It opens up and is accompanied by many additional accessories and outbuildings.


The consignor explained that many of his best pieces purchased over some 40 years came from Northern or Eastern dealers who traveled to the Mt. Dora show in Florida to escape winter weather. “They would come to sell, then they’d go fishing. They knew what I wanted and would bring along their best for me,” he said.


Lanier Meaders face jug, from a collection of Southern pottery. John W. Coker Auctions image.

The consignor also built a sizable collection of folk art and unusual advertising items. The auction will include a Medders family stoneware vase adorned with a snake, leaves and grapes; and 20-25 face jugs, including around five from the fabled Medders family of potters. Other noteworthy items include two Nipper ‘His Master’s Voice’ chalk figures, and a 6-ft.-high Leland McNamee’s Minstrels poster.


The Sunday, Oct. 30 session features approximately 360 lunchboxes, 30+ loose Thermoses – some quite scarce and desirable – and box lots of Thermoses and lids.


The lunchbox collection came from the estate of a man who collected from the time he was 15 until the day of his passing last fall. “His collection reflected pleasant memories of the lunches his mother packed for him when he was a boy,” Coker said. “His family owned a grocery store that made local deliveries, and his mother, who worked at the store, was an excellent cook. She would fix unbelievable sandwiches for the children, and opening their lunchboxes at school each day was an eagerly anticipated event.”


Captain Kangaroo lunchbox and Thermos. John W. Coker Auctions image.

In his adult life, the collector traveled to shows far and wide, searching for lunchboxes. He bought metal, vinyl and plastic lunchboxes; and brunch bags, and he favored those that depicted robots/space, Western scenes and TV series of the 1950s and ’60s.


“There are many very rare lunchboxes in this collection, and they’re in absolutely beautiful condition,” said Coker. Among the highlights: Captain Kangaroo, Beany and Cecil, three or four Tom Corbett Space Cadet boxes in baby blue and red; five different Roy Rogers lunchboxes and many coveted dome-tops, including a Porky Pig model. An especially nice brunch bag promotes Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. It is finished in bright yellow and black, and emblazoned with the show’s best-known catch phrases.


1954 ADCO metal Superman vs. the robot lunchbox. John W. Coker Auctions image.

The rarest of all lunchboxes in the sale is the 1954 ADCO metal Superman box depicting the Man of Steel fighting an evil robot with eyes that can ignite anything in their path. With its colorful graphics and superhero theme, it is considered the ultimate prize to lunchbox collectors.


“There is so much to see in this sale. If I were a collector of toys or lunchboxes, I would make it my mission to view the contents of these collections, either in person or online,” said Coker. “Everyone loves fresh collections, and these are two of the freshest.”


John W. Coker’s Oct. 29-30 auction will take place at the Coker gallery at 1511 W. Hwy. 11 East in New Market, TN 37820. All forms of bidding will be available, including live via the Internet through Tel. 865-475-5163, e-mail Visit Coker’s online at