Yesterday, I introduced you to tin toys as a rare, investible asset. And to my uncle Henry — a retired administrative law judge here in Maryland.
Today, you get to eavesdrop on the conversation Henry and I had about one of his greatest passions: turn-of-the-century tin toys.
I’ll let Henry take it from here…
Henry Abrams: I collect a series of things. I started by collecting, as you probably know, plastic puzzles. They were very inexpensive, and it was easy and fun to collect them. And the cards themselves are very attractive.
My first serious purchase was with my wife, Nancy. We were at an antique toy auction in Atlantic City. There was a space gun card, full display card, with 24 space gun puzzles on it. I bought it for $500.
To this day, that happens to be a very, very rare card. I have never seen another. I have a compendium of plastic puzzles put out by probably the premiere puzzle expert and collector in the world and it’s not in there.
HA: He asked me for permission if another edition comes out to include that and I said yes.
Then I got into what we’re here to talk about, which is turn-of-the-century tin toys, mostly out of Nuremberg, Germany, which was the tin toy capital of the world. I have a few non-Lehmann tin toys, but almost all of my collection is Lehmann.
RC: Around what time were they working?
HA: They were working from the 1880s–1930s. Now, Lehmann is still around today, but it’s been reconstituted. The company went bankrupt long ago, shut down and was reconstituted — I believe in the ’70s.
RC: What made that transition for you — from plastic puzzles to tin toys?
HA: Well, I’m a kid at heart. I love toys. I’ve always been fascinated by mechanical things. I wish I had an engineering mind, but I don’t. The tin toys are all clockwork toys.
I think these toys are works of art. You don’t find that anymore. You can’t recreate many of these toys in the same way because they are hand-painted. And they don’t make toys out of tin any longer. That’s what attracted me.
RC: About how many tin toys do you have at this point?
HA: Twenty-five. Maybe more. They’re very expensive.
RC: Now, when you say very expensive what’s the range?
HA: Well, there are two kinds of collectors. One who just collects the toy. And one who collects the toy for investment purposes — so you get the toy and the box it came in. If you’re doing that, your range is $1,000–250,000.
RC: Wow! What’s $250,000?
HA: That would be typically Marklin ships. They’re tin ships, clockwork and steam-powered. Marklin was the single greatest tin toy creator — one of the pioneers — and the finest manufacturer of toy trains in the world.
And these ships — by the way — they worked. They went in the water. One of the reasons there aren’t that many of them is because they rusted out. They were very expensive toys in the 1800s–1900s. They’re phenomenal.
I have two ships, actually. I have one I bought for $3,000 by a minor manufacturer. It’s a Carette. It was in terrible condition… I never thought I’d be able to afford a really good ship, so I bought that one and had it restored.
Once you have it restored, it diminishes the value enormously. I spent $3,000 buying it and $3,000 restoring it and probably it’s worth $6,000 — not worth a penny more. I’ve seen it sold since for that amount.
RC: And your other ship?
HA: The other ship is a Marklin and it’s 3 feet long. It’s a WWI battleship. I think it was made in 1930. They made a series of these battleships that they flagged and titled differently.
This one is called a Series 3 battleship and it happens to bear the flag of Bismarck. But there is an identical ship that is known as the USS Maryland and bears an American flag.
HA: This piece is from the Chinese. It’s called the Boxer Rebellion. I bought it for $12,000. Well, I saw it at one of the conventions for $22,000. And you can get it today for $18,000. So that’s gone way up.
RC: That’s a big jump. How long ago did you purchase that?
HA: Probably five years ago. I got a really good deal on it.
On the other hand, I paid $5,000 for what I considered a very rare piece — which is the Icarus airplane — and I’d be lucky to get $3,000 for it today.
The market is a very up and down, hard to predict. Over time, tin toys have done very well, but it’s over time like anything else.
As in the art world, condition is critical. Having the box is critical to value. With some things you just can’t get the box. I just saw the Boxer Rebellion sell for $20,000-plus with the box. I don’t have the box. But I’ve never seen another example with a box, ever.
RC: Tell me about Lehmann.
HA: I don’t have a complete collection of Lehmann, but I have a large collection of Lehmann. These toys — with the boxes — range anywhere from $1,000–250,000.
Lehmann started I think in the 1880s, making tin pots and canteens for the German army. I can’t remember why he turned to toys, but it became their principal business.
RC: It looks like he focused more on figures.
HA: Figures, vehicles… He has the drunken sailor, which I don’t have, but it’s a wonderful little toy. It’s a drunken sailor in a full sailor’s regalia and he sort of stumbles along and it’s wonderful.
RC: So you say that the prices can move quite a bit.
HA: They’re very volatile.
RC: Is that because it’s a small marketplace? Do you think there are a lot of people interested in this?
HA: There are a ton of people. This is a worldwide collector’s group. The ship that I bought, I bought from Germany.
RC: Oh, wow!
HA: There are a number of marquee auction houses in Germany. In America, we probably have four or five top-tier auction houses. Actually, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have auctioned tin toys. Sotheby’s auctioned Forbes’ collection of tin ships.
RC: I didn’t know Forbes had a collection.
HA: Malcolm Forbes had the greatest collection of tin toy ships in the world, and they were exhibited long after he died. There’s also a Forbes museum in New York. He had Fabergé eggs… famous signatures… the tin toy ships and other things.
Christie’s has occasionally sold premier toys, but it’s very rare. Bertoia, which is an auction house that I deal with a lot, is pretty much limited to toys, including Marklins. They also sell doorstops — Mrs. Bertoia happens to collect and sell doorstops — but mostly it’s toys.
Morphy Auctions — they were all toys and now they’ve expanded to firearms and automobiles, the classic automobiles. But those are very new lines for them.
Pook & Pook just absorbed probably the finest toy expert in the country, a guy named Noel Barrett who’s often on Antiques Roadshow as the toy expert. Pook & Pook just bought him and his auction house, so they’ve just joined the toy auction market.
There’s another one, this company RSL. It auctions toys, and that’s its primary business. But it’s super-specialized in toy banks.
RC: About how often do you get to participate in an auction? Or how often do they have them? A few times a year or is it…
HA: Bertoia has roughly four auctions a year. Typically, they have a big spring auction, a big summer auction, a big winter auction and one or two others thrown in.
RC: Do you have to be present for them?
HA: No — one of the problems with these auction houses is that collecting via the internet has really cut into their business. It closed down the toy convention in Atlantic City.
Now, there are still our toy conventions. One is in Chicago, and they have two big toy collector conventions a year, and one is in Philadelphia, but they’re relatively modest in comparison to what they used to be. Chicago is still big. Chicago is very big. Then there are these flea market auctions. I guess their auction field fills, their big fields filled with all kinds of collectibles, including toys.
They’re two big ones in Massachusetts, or one in Massachusetts. Or one in Arlington, Virginia. But the internet has really cut into it. You can bid by phone, you can bid by internet or you can bid live. And all of the big auction houses have now adopted that model.
Editor-in-chief, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. Interested in learning more about tin toy collecting? Or starting with something more affordable — like plastic puzzles? Join the forums at JustCollecting and connect with other collectors, investors and folks who are simply interested in these fascinating objects.
Ryan Cole is the editor-in-chief of Unconventional Wealth. He’s been covering the alternative investment space for nearly a decade and writing about finance and investment for almost 20 years.
Ryan has walked the walk for years, living a very unconventional life. He’s led snowmobile tours through the mountains of Colorado, settled in Japan for five...