There is gazumping going on in toyland. Apart from the customary competition between the band of bankers and accountants who collect Dinky toys and hold regular “swap meets” at country fairgrounds, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips are contending with two threats to their supremacy.
First is Boyes, the young Danish auctioneers which entered the scene last week with a small army of tiny, gesturing Nazi soldiers, and achieved a record for Rudolf Hess figure at £3,375. “It is a dream to come to London,” says 28-year-old Frank Boyes, who was pleased with the performance of the Nazi nasties, but disappointed with their blander British counterparts, such as Royal Scots guards, for which bids stopped at £30.
The auction also offered the spectator sport of bidding duel between two leading collectors of Elastolin figures, made by the German company of that name from a composite of pearl-glue, resin and wood pulp – the mustachioed German dealer George Shultz, and sleek Bertel Brunn, an American/Danish doctor.
Such toys, along with all Nazi memorabilia, are banned by Sotheby’s, whose chairman, Alfred Taubman, is Jewish. Christie’s and Phillips occasionally relax their non-Nazi rule for toys on the grounds of their supposed innocuity.
The toys are only a fraction of the golden seam of supplies Mr Boyes says is waiting in the attics of Danish homes, the market not having gained a foothold, Mr Boyes plans to return to Britain and consolidate.
The second challenge to the auction houses comes from Jeffrey Levy, an entrepreneurial British dealer in toys in his mid-thirties who, having prefixed the word “executive” before the more prosaic “toys”, hovers outside the playpen, spying out the best on offer. He then scoops them and, he says, sells them for much more to the rich (Japanese businessman) and famous (the Sultan of Selangor, Frank Sinatra and Steven Spielberg).
Mr Levy says that within eight years he has raised his turnover from £350,000 to £14 million in the year to June 1990. This year, after opening a shop on Madison Avenue, New York, he expects to exceed £27 million. No wonder his company, Mint & Boxed, was given a Queen’s award for export achievement this week.
“Potential investors are beginning to realise that antique toys are works of art and, as such, are as collectable as dine paintings, sculpture or ceramics,” he says.
Mr Levy claims the big auction houses missed their chance to take toy collecting seriously in the late Eighties, adding: “My network of agents and contacts is scouring the world. We have seen prices increase 20 to 25 per cent each year.”
He cites the example of a German Marklin clockwork gauge tramcar made for the Dutch market in 1902 which he sold for £28,000 two weeks ago, compared with the £19,000 he gained last year from an almost identical example made for the Belgian market. He expects a place in the Guinness book of records for his biggest price, the $1 million paid by a Japanese collector last September for a Charles hose reel pump — an early American tin toy depicting a fire engine and named Charles.
The toy collecting field is distinct in a number of respects. First, it is short on dealers — Mr Badeley estimates only 100 throughout the world – but enjoyed by thousands of amateurs. Also, the interest in toys over the past ten years has inevitably resulted in much re-evaluation of what is and is not rare, making for some reversals in prices.
Another characteristic is that toys become antiques more quickly than objects in other fields, where the qualifying rule often demands 50 years of existence. One new area, for example, is electric Japanese robots from the Fifties.
The latest emergent strand, as witnessed by the Bonhams auction of Dr Who memorabilia scheduled for May 11, is television-related toys, although, as Mr Badeley says, they have not reached “the prices which make it interesting for us”.
“Boldly going” into this new field, as the captain of another starship might say, Bonhams has omitted printed estimates for the “three baskets of assorted armour” and “Tractator – a large worm-like alien with gravity-controlling powers”.
When toys were toys, and not computer games, it was the German manufacturers who always led the field, from their tin-plate toys to their 19th century Kammer and Reinhardt dolls. (A Kammer and Reinhardt 1909 bisque character doll sold for £90,200, a world record price for a doll, at Sotheby’s in February 1989: a windfall for Ann Challen, a nurse, who found it in her attic.)
Britain came second, particularly after the second world war, says an expert, when the banning of German products proved the making of companies such as Hornby and Dinky.
A rare Dinky Heinz van which originally cost 8s 6d (42½p) sold for £2,800 in March last year, but there is still scope for the relatively impecunious collector in this British market, particularly in lesser-known makers such as Bassett Lowke, a British producer of train sets which, some collectors claim, were superior in quality to those of Hornby. According to Hugo Marsh of Christie’s a 1940 Hornby Princess Elizabeth engine might fetch up to £3,000 while a Bassett Lowke equivalent would be £2,000.
Teddy bears, having scaled the heights following publicity surrounding a series of records — have now slumped to about half their value.