Dargate toy and dollhouse sale

The mighty mortgage mess that has forced more than 400,000 U.S. homeowners into bankruptcy created some tall discounts for miniature dollhouse collectors at a recent Dargate Auction Gallery sale of antique toys.

The Pittsburgh-based auction house fielded a stampede of dollhouse and toy experts at its Nov. 7-9, 2008, sale of more than 100 vintage dollhouses. Dealers, collectors, mothers, grandmothers and first-time buyers jammed into the auction room to bid for a piece of childhood memorabilia.

Laura Reif, a dollhouse expert, purchased two pristine Gottschalk dollhouses at bargain basement prices.

“I was simply thrilled to get the 1910 Gottschalk blue roof dollhouse for $500 when it is valued at more than $1,500,’’ said Reif, whose Verona, Pa., shop specializes in vintage dollhouses, furniture and accessories made by European artisans. She purchased a second lithographed wood Gottschalk dollhouse valued at $1,300 for $400.

Reif said the prices are a reflection of the current economic climate as both collectors and investors seek bargains on high-end toys and memorabilia.

Margaret Ryan, a dollhouse collector from Murrysville, Pa., said she has been waiting for more than five years for the right price to pay for Gottschalk furniture. “When I got three pieces of Gottschalk furniture for $50, I jumped for joy,’’ said Ryan, who started collecting as a child.

The bevy of collectors at Dargate’s sale had a specific game plan.

“We came, we saw what we wanted, and we went after our dream dollhouses with grace and gusto,’’ said Julie Cecutti of Pittsburgh, Pa. She spent $1,200 for a Gottschalk gabled house with a bay front window, port columns and a notched and painted gallery.

 “I had one like this as a child and I wanted to try and get something similar,’’ said Cecutti. “These Gottschalk houses are real forerunners to our modern dollhouses today.’’

In fact, the forerunners of the modern dollhouse were 17th and 18th century cabinets that opened to reveal beautifully furnished rooms. Some historians speculate that these cabinets were originally made to teach housekeeping skills to little girls. But whatever their initial function, such rooms had to be furnished with rich, finely crafted miniature furnishing, each piece carefully carved to scale.

A number of collectible dollhouses were handmade by doting fathers for Christmas or birthday gifts, which means they are sometimes clumsy and crude. Commercially made dollhouses, however, are still very sought after by collectors. Toy companies like Tynie Toy, R. Bliss Manufacturing Co., McLoughlin Brothers and A. Schoenhut Co., all made popular dollhouses that were sold at Dargate’s recent auction.

“Antique dollhouses and toys have always held value, and continue to reach even greater popularity as collectors see increased safety in investing in antiques rather than the stock market these days,’’ said Ed Gills, operations manager of Dargate Auction Gallery LLC.

Large, detailed dollhouses with brilliantly lithographed paper exteriors were first made in the United States by R. Bliss, founded in 1832. Between 1889 and 1914, Bliss created almost 50 types of dollhouses – some quite tiny, some more than two feet tall.

From 1917 to 1925, toy manufacturer Schoenhut marketed a popular one-and-a-half story bungalow of fiberwood with stenciled details and embossed brick elements and corner posts. Early in the century, McLoughlin Brothers – better known for their gorgeously lithographed games – manufactured a highly successful folding dollhouse.

But Renni Cooper of Cleveland, Ohio, came to purchase the McLoughlin Brothers block puzzle game. “I only had to spend $60 and the block game was mine,’’ said Cooper, who plans to give the toy to his grandson now recovering from leukemia. The game has been valued at more than $150.

Jim Paine, a custom frame builder, was elated to spend less than $100 for two Built-Rite dollhouse sets from the late 1930s. “I can still remember my parents putting one of these together and listening to the radio about the big 1929 stock crash,’’ said Paine. “It’s a little scary to think that we may face the same kind of hard times, but I can always take refuge in my toy collecting,’’ he said.

Barbara and Robert Pierce, who own 45 dollhouses, came to the show to snare the Schoenhut Humpty Dumpty Circus which sold for $1,400. It was valued at $3,000.

“We’ve been collecting for more than 30 years, and we’ve found that toys and dollhouses remain hot items,’’ said Robert Pierce of Greensburg, Pa. “There is still a child in all of us and we will spend what we need to spend to get what we want,’’ Pierce said.

Still, some folks just came for the bargain basement prices. Margot Stafford spent $125 for a large 20th century modular Victorian dollhouse. “My daughter is only three and I want her to get started in something a little less fragile,’’ said Stafford, who dreams of owning a Bliss dollhouse.

“I just got outbid on a couple of the ones I wanted,” she said. “I was amazed at the auction crowd.’’

As the sale rolled on, collectors haggled over some rare 1840 puppet sets featuring Punch and Judy for $275.

“I’m just getting into elementary teaching and I want to use the puppets to teach basic social etiquette,’’ said Judy Rush of Morgantown, W.V.

Then there was Gravely Pine who spent $80 to purchase the Ringling Brothers Circus poster to give to his great great grandfather who worked as a circus hand for the past 50 years at the show. The poster had been valued between $150 and $200.

“I’m pleased that so much of my mother’s collection will find renewed life with new collectors,’’ said Andrew Clack, who is studying in Canada to be a molecular biologist. “It was hard to see many of my old toys auctioned off, but I know they now begin a new adventure to make others smile and laugh as I did when I played with them,’’ he said. “The memories are really priceless.’’

With a chuckle, Clack said his mother’s home was so cluttered with antique toys that they had to forego Thanksgiving dinner one year because they simply had no room to make the fixings.

Susan Grine, who unsuccessfully bid for the Humpty Dumpty Circus, said her toy collection is beginning to get out of control. “I may have to pass on my Christmas tree this year to save the space for more of my antique toy collection,” said Grine, a retired secretary from Washington, Pa. She collects McLoughlin folding dollhouses valued at more than $950 apiece.

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