Jeffrey Levy brims with enthusiasm as he examines one of the antique piggy banks on display at his gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue.
“You might say these are the hottest bank investments in the U.S,” says Mr. Levy. “Only don’t be put off by their size.”
In his hand is the “Girl Jumping Rope Bank,” an intricately rendered cast-iron girl with a face painted gold and a yellow dress. She is attached to a crank mechanism and holds a jumping rope that dangles under her feet.
Mr. Levy inserts a quarter into the paws of a sculpted squirrel preched on a coin box. “Character, charm, motion,” marvels Mr. Levy as the toy bank creaks into operation. The girl’s legs oscillate, her head turns, and the rope coasts over her body.
The mechanical ballet may seem like child’s play, but it’s actually a hot investment.
About 80 years ago, the toy could be picked up for a mere $18 from a New York street vendor. Ten years ago, versions of the toy were auctioned off for $8,000 to $10,000 apiece. Mr. Levy sells it for $55,000.
Fun and Capital Gains
Cheer up bank investors. At the very time when bank securities are getting pounded, prices on toy mechanical banks – handsomely crafted, antique wrought-iron devices made roughly 100 years ago – are soaring.
And Mr. Levy, 34, has put them in the reach of American investors through his New York gallery Mint & Boxed, which opened in September. And it’s not just toy collectors who are taking notice.
“As buy-and-hold investments, I recommend them. They beat the pants off bank stocks – at least at the moment,” says Charles Peabosy, an analyst for Kidder Peabody & Co. in New York. “Bank stocks are below their 10- and 12-year lows. Yet over a 10-year period, mechanical banks have risen steadily.”
Buy a Frog, Not a Blue Chip
Looking for a long-term investment in a blue-chip bank? Better invest in “Frog on an Arched Track,” a creation of James Fallows and sons, Philadelphia, circa 1880, says Mr. Levy. This sought-after toy stands about eight inches high, weighs two pounds, and retails for $225,000. That’s up 1,400% in ten years. In 1980, it had a market value of $15,000.
Prices on mechanical banks have tripled in the same period, averaging a 20% increase each year, according to antique experts.
By comparison, shares of J.P Morgan Co. historically one of the better performing bank stocks, are trading some 280% above their average 1980 price of 13.
Analyst Raphael Soifer of Brown Brothers Harriman Co., New York, estimates the company’s stock has grown at a rate of 11% per year, excluding dividends. Following the trend of other banks, Morgan has dropped 21% since last year’s third quarter.
First Retail Market
The opening of Mr. Levy’s gallery, which he says is the largest showcase of collectible toys in America, marks the first time collectible mechanical banks are being offered over the counter in this country. In the past, they were usually snapped up by wealthy enthusiasts at Sunday morning auctions or after the deaths of avid collectors.
About 35 American banks between 1869 and 1920, most of them in Pennsylvania. They are made from a number of different materials, such as wood, tin, and lead. The most valuable mechanical banks are made from intricate cast iron, and, according to Mr. Levy, “Offered a creative outlet for the pioneers of industrial production.”
Frequently, they are baroque throw-backs to a far-off era, in which frivolity of design went hand-in-hand with images of saving and thrift. Most collectible toys hail from Europe, or have a strong European influence, says Mr. Levy. But mechanical banks are basically an American phenomenon – a quirky by-product of the new art of industrial design in the years after the Civil War.
Interest from Japan
Foreign collectors have been making a beeline for this uniquely American trove. Mr. Levy, a Briton and considered the world’s foremost antique toy expert, is negotiating to sell several “top-ranked” mechanical banks to Japanese buyers.
The negotiations are typically hush-hush, and Mr. Levy mechanical bank aide de camp, Ray Haradin, wouldn’t disclose details of the deal.
Mr. Levy says his company earned some $28 million last year.
British buyers, too, are cashing in on the booming market.
Sir Anthony Jolliss, a former Lord Mayor of London who runs an accounting firm, is an investor in antique toys. This month, he bought two mechanical banks. “The Magician,” made by J.M Stevens in Cromwell, Conn., in 1901, for $18,000. He also acquired the more mechanically complex “Professor Pug Frog’s Great Bicycle Feat,” circa 1892, for $30,000.
“Without doubt, they’re the best investments I’ve ever made,” says Sir Anthony. “I invest in stock and bonds. My toys have outpaced them all. I am glad that Jeffrey has introduced me to toy banks.”
Mr. Levy is a bit of a storybook character. A man of inherited wealth, he says he has invested a good portion of his family fortune in his business. His face deadpan, Mr. Levy bears a fleeting resemblance to comedian Pee Wee Herman.
Mr. Levy fascination with toys began at the age of 24 when was laid up in a London hospital. A get-well present from a friend – a toy 1950s London city bus – evoked memories of his childhood and buoyed his spirits.
It also interested him in toys as collectibles. He soon discovered that there is a small world of avid collectors who would cross the Gobi desert to secure a good deal on an antique toy.
What was lacking, he found, was a retail establishment that could cater to the need of these buyers.
He used inherited funds to open his first gallery in London in 1988. Last year, he opened a branch in Tokyo.
With the opening of the American Branch, he plans to corner the market on mechanical banks.
Mr. Levy will go to great lengths to purchase a mechanical bank. Take the caper of the East German merchant and the Mercedes. Mr. Levy caught wind of an East German merchant who had a stash of valuable toys.
One Toy for Another
Mr. Levy negotiated and negotiated – but the owner wouldn’t agree on a price. It turned out he wanted a Mercedes – the most expensive Mercedes, a 560SEC sedan. With the help of a West German official, the paperwork was cut for the transaction.
Mr. Levy purchased the car, down to the leather appointments and the African burl on the dash and drove it through Checkpoint Charley, and returned on foot, with a suitcase full of toys, including a mechanical bank.
Now, buyers can enter the three-story gallery on Madison Avenue in New York. The lower-priced toys, from $100 to $1,500, are on the bottom floor. Follow a blue-carpeted staircase to the third floor, where a conference table lords over a large room with cases full of toys in old shining oak cabinets.
“It looks like a bank board room,” says Mr. Levy as he examines the details of the “Perfection Registering Bank,” a J. & E. Stevens opus, circa 1893. About six inches high, the bank represents Dorothy from the classic “Wizard of Oz.”
This bank is Mr. Levy personal favourite. Put a dime in the bank, and Dorothy with Toto in tow, advances along a register.
When she reaches the $5 mark, a door at the side of the bank opens, and the dimes come pouring out.
“It’s a run on deposits, as you say in America,” says Mr. Levy.