European toys are homeward bound after Noel Barrett’s $980,000 Toys of Summer auction

NEW HOPE, Pa. – Noel Barrett’s June 19-20 Toys of Summer auction recalled the simple charm of village life in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe with a parade of predominantly German-made tinplate characters and scale-model marvels that grossed nearly $1 million.

It wasn’t just the toys that came from Europe; so did many of the successful bidders. “Three of the four top European toy lots in the sale will be going back to the Continent,” said auctioneer Noel Barrett. “The priciest lot, a Marklin Iowa battleship, was purchased in-house, but the runner-up lots went to a German bidder on the Internet, an absentee bidder from Holland and an absentee bidder in Switzerland. That gives you some idea of how much international attention there was. It followed throughout the sale.”

Measuring 22 inches long and in flawless condition, the circa-1903 Iowa battleship was the smaller of two sizes produced by Germany’s premier toy manufacturer, Marklin. Estimated at $20,000-$25,000, it glided through a wave of bids to drop anchor at $46,000. A Marklin first-series Battleship Baltimore, larger than the Iowa at 29 inches long but exhibiting some restoration, followed closely behind at $43,125.

A Gunthermann clockwork toy depicting a lady pushing her baby in a spoke-wheeled pram easily exceeded estimate at $5,175; while a perennially popular Vielmetter Clown Artist sold to a Swiss bidder for $10,350. Considered one of the most ingenious tin toys ever produced, the crank-operated Clown Artist is seated at an easel and can “draw” various pictures according to the cam, or template, inserted into the toy’s base. The example in the June sale came equipped with cams capable of drawing Gladstone, Napoleon, a monkey, or a profile of the character “Punch.” The five-figure price realized by Barrett’s is believed to be a world auction record.

French-made Martin toys ran the gamut of professions, with an extremely rare Black Waiter earning a big tip for himself at $16,100. “Overall, the Martins were very strong,” said Barrett, “and it was mostly Europeans who were pursuing them. Our total high estimate on all the Martins was $72,800; they brought in $96,600.”

A superb collection of antique optical toys drew global interest and “eye-opening” prices. A Spanish collector secured two premium pieces by Ernst Plank: an especially rare hot-air-powered Praxinoscope with 12 full-color animation strips, $8,050; and a boxed Kinematofor Theater, described in the catalog as a “persistence of memory” toy. It brought $5,750.

European trains achieved stellar prices, with the entire category earning $180,000 against an overall high estimate of $154,000. A pair of finely lithographed Issmayer clockwork tin trolleys offered with six correct cast-metal trolley-wire supports and a section of track drew a winning bid of $9,200.

Achieving exactly the same money as the trolleys – $9,200 – was an Ives (American) lithographed-tin Grand Central Station with double-gabled roof and tin filigree edging. Another American train that blew away its estimate was the George Brown Excelsior locomotive of painted and stenciled tin, featuring cast-iron wheels and what Barrett described as a “wonderful exuberant form.” Estimated at $1,800-$2,000, it finished at $6,300.

Barrett commented that the top tier within European trains seems to have remained consistent in the secondary marketplace. “Marklin is always golden,” he said. “The 38 Marklin train lots in the sale had a combined high estimate of $97,000 and sold collectively for $147,000. There’s your proof.”

For his Toys of Summer auction, Barrett took a lighthearted approach in designing the catalog cover. Instead of amassing the customary group of dozens of toys and trains to represent the sale’s various categories, he opted for what he called “eye relief” and created an idyllic beach scene using painted-iron figures of carefree sunbathers, beachgoers and even a lifeguard on a stand. To add realism to the setting, Barrett digitally produced a background of azure sky and rolling surf. The atmospheric shot must have captured bidders’ imagination, as the 10-piece set of figures ended up selling for $3,162.50 – more than 10 times the low estimate.

Another noteworthy grouping of painted miniature figures was the very rare Britains Buck Rogers sci-fi set in fine original condition comprised of Buck, Wilma, the Mekkano Man Robot and three other characters from the legendary comic strip. Estimated at $1,000-$1,200, the futuristic ensemble zapped a winning bid of $4,600.

In analyzing the sale’s results, Barrett remarked, “I think the prices re-emphasized the flight to quality and the ongoing strength of the toy train market. The consensus within the trade has always been that Issmayer trains, which were exported from Germany to the United States, appealed only to the U.S. market, but in the June sale we had strong international attention for the brand. All things considered, this sale did very well, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Noel Barrett’s next auction will be held April 24-25, 2010, at his usual venue, the Eagle Fire Hall in New Hope, Pa. Additional details will be available prior to the sale online at www.noelbarrettauctions.com.

To contact Noel regarding consignments, call 215-297-5109 or e-mail toys@noelbarrett.com.

Photos courtesy Noel Barrett Auctions.

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