Toy Stories With Six-Figure Endings

By MARK YOST

Michael Bertoia got a somewhat unusual edict about many of the toys his father brought home in the 1980s and ’90s: Don’t touch. “I quickly learned what rooms I was allowed to play in,” he says.

His father, the late Bill Bertoia, was working with his family to build up a business that became one of the toy-collecting world’s major auction houses. In today’s vintage-toy market, the most sought-after items sell for six figures, and collections can go for many times that. A 2009 auction of partToy boat of a collection held by Donald Kaufman, founder of K-B Toys, brought in $4.2 million.

The rarest—and most expensive—toys sell through major auction houses such as Bertoia Auctions, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. There are also a handful of major toy fairs, like the one held in Allentown, Pa., every November. Morphy Auctions, another major seller, will hold a doll auction Tuesday and expects to sell a French Bisque Bébé Doll from 1885 for at least $10,000. (The dolls are highly sought after because of their hand-painted eyes, lifelike features and custom-made clothing.)

The serious money has flocked to rare toys in pristine condition. At an auction on Nov. 10, the Bertoias sold a circa-1900 paddle-wheeler for $264,500. Eric Alberta, who has appraised toy collections for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other high-end auction houses, sold the same boat in the early 1990s for $108,000. The toy was made by Märklin, a German toy company whose pre-World War II products are highly sought after by collectors.

Praising the Märklin family’s rare “pride of craft,” Mr. Alberta noted “the individual threads in the curtains that hang in the windows of the first-class cabins.” Other sought-after brands include the 1930s and ’40s tin toys of Hubley and Lionel and American Flyer trains.

The paddle-wheeler was discovered in an estate sale in upstate New York. A dealer offered the family $10,000 on the spot. Suspicious, family members contacted Mr. Alberta at Sotheby’s for an appraisal. “We think it was bought at F.A.O. Schwartz at the turn of the [20th] century,” said Mr. Alberta. At a Nov. 17 auction in New Hope, Pa., Noel Barrett Antique Toy Auctions sold a 1920s Märklin train set, in the original box, for $40,000. A wealthy Buenos Aires family owned it. “It was given to a little girl, she didn’t like it, the family put it in the attic and it was never played with,” Mr. Barrett said.

Another Märklin piece, a toy carousel from an estate in Phoenix, sold at the same auction for $190,000, almost double pre-auction estimates.

One of the most impressive toy collections belongs to Jerry Greene, whose company, Oldies, acquires and sells records, movies, TV shows and books. Over 45 years, he’s amassed 35,000 pieces, mostly rare European toy trains, stations and other accessories that will be on display at the New-York Historical Society through Jan. 6. The collection has an estimated value of tens of millions, people in the field say. There’s an elevated-train station and a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Many dealers start out as buyers. “My toy collection was my college fund, so my dad wouldn’t just give them to me,” Michael Bertoia said of the penny toys that would become his passion. “He’d wait until we were going to a show, give the piece to a dealer he knew, and then steer me toward that table or booth. It was a total setup, but it taught me how to talk to dealers and how to negotiate.”

Messrs. Alberta and Barrett started collecting when they were about 10. Even as a kid, Mr. Alberta understood the toys never played with often fetch the highest prices. So when he acquired his most prize possessions, he says, they stayed in their box.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

One Response to Toy Stories With Six-Figure Endings

  1. mmwelshofer says:

    Maybe I better dig out the Marklin train set? I enjoy your writing. Good luck with the next book.

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