VINELAND, N.J. – Bertoia’s March 23-24 ‘Made to Be Played’ auction, a 1,400-lot offering highlighted by the Grover Van Dexter European tin toy collection, closed the books at an impressive $1.3 million (inclusive of 15% buyer’s premium). An extensive variety of early toys crossed the auction block. A Hubley cast-iron Popeye Patrol depicting the popular cartoon sailor on a motorcycle had been estimated at $10,000-$12,000 and rode off as top lot after hammering $19,550.
“It was a well-attended event, and the phones and Internet were very busy,” said Bertoia Auctions associate Rich Bertoia. “We’ve noticed that with each successive sale there are more and more serious bidders using alternative bidding methods. We’re reached a point with the electronic crowd where they’re 100% trusting of the catalog descriptions. A bidder will call ahead of time and ask, ‘Is this toy really excellent?’ Then after the sale they’ll call me and say it was actually better than described.”
The aforementioned Popeye on Motorcycle had an association with Bertoia’s that went way back, Rich Bertoia said. “My brother Bill bought that toy years ago after visiting the Hubley showroom in New York. It was a big deal for a small company like Hubley (of Lancaster, Pa.) to make it to the big trade show. Bill resold the toy, which was in unplayed-with condition, to collector Bob Brady. In turn, Bob sold it at auction a few years ago. The person who bought it at that particular auction, consigned it to our March 23-24 sale.”
Before the auction, Rich Bertoia was asked how he thought the toy would fare. “I said that cast iron has made a comeback, that there are a few more collectors in the mix now, and that you won’t find another one in that condition,” Bertoia said. “It ended up nearly doubling its low estimate at $19,550.”
Steam toys from the collection of the late Klaus Grutzka, who taught art at the prestigious Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., put in a strong performance. A fine Marklin rolling steam engine with foldable stack, double flywheel and other nice details topped the steam-toy group at $8,050.
There was interest from both sides of the Atlantic in European tin toys from the personal collection of Grover Van Dexter, who owned a legendary Greenwich village toy shop called Second Childhood. Van Dexter’s shop – like his personal collection – was laden with rare Lehmanns and Martins.
Van Dexter’s Lehmann Coco, a weighted-string pull toy that depicts an African native climbing a palm tree to retrieve a coconut, not only retained its paper tree leaves but also its rare pictorial box. Estimated at $1,500-$1,800, it was bid to $8,625.
A French Fernand Martin wind-up toy depicting an English soldier was made of tin and outfitted in a cloth uniform with metal helmet and gun. An unquestionably rare toy, it soared to $6,325 against an estimate of $1,000-$1,200.
Collectors love oddities, Bertoia said, and that described the German-made tinplate Deep Sea Diver of unknown manufacture. Examples of this nicely detailed tin-litho character in a primitive diving suit and domed helmet seldom appear at auction. Against an estimate of $1,200-$1,500, it claimed a winning bid of $5,750.
Depicting a character from the early newspaper comic strip “Toonerville Folks,” a Powerful Katrinka wind-up toy by Nifty swept past its $900-$1,100 estimate to realize $2,588.
“This is the type of toy that keeps comic character buyers interested. There were fewer Powerful Katrinkas made than other comic character toys. When one of them comes out of the woodwork, it gives the market a bump,” Bertoia said. “The Toonerville toys had more of a regional than national distribution. The comic strip had a rural theme, so the toys were only sent to certain pockets of the country. As a result, the toys are rare.”
A selection of antique still and mechanical banks – many in superior condition – was led by a hand-painted spelter bank depicting Santa Claus with a staff in one hand and a bag slung over his shoulder. Prices for spelter banks have continued to escalate, as the Santa bank proved when it sold for $8,625 against an estimate of $1,000-$1,500.
Perhaps the most unusual entry in the auction was a cast-iron figural hand, painted red and weighing more than 100 lbs. The 32-inch-tall trade sign was originally a display piece in a York, Pa., glove factory. Bertoia said he had seen only one other like it, in an Architectural Digest spread of several years ago. Bertoia’s sold the example in their sale for $6,325 – more than six times its high estimate.
Bertoia’s is known for its record prices on figural cast-iron doorstops, a collecting category in which Bertoia’s owner, Jeanne Bertoia, is an acknowledged expert.
“In this sale we included the complete range of Hubley Art Deco doorstops designed by Anne Fish, a popular English cartoonist and illustrator in the 1920s,” said Jeanne Bertoia. “Each was in beautiful condition. The Parlour Maid, which depicts a French maid serving cocktails, was in even better condition than the book example.” Estimated at $1,800-$2,500, the Parlour Maid achieved a top bid of $5,463.
Bertoia’s will present its annual Fall Sale on Sept. 21-22. On Nov. 10, the company will auction part II of the Dick Claus collection of nautical toys and boats. To contact Bertoia Auctions, call 856-692-1881 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Bertoia’s online at www.bertoiaauctions.com.