Robot and space toys at Smith House, through May 9

TELFORD, Pa. – In the world of 20th century antique toy collecting, robots are among the crown jewels. And in the world of robots, toy collector and author Robert Lesser is considered royalty.

This spring, Lesser’s 30-year collection of the greatest and most desired robots and space toys – which have spent most of the last seven years in museum exhibitions in New York and Chicago – will be sold by Smith House Toy & Auction Company. The phone and online auction will open for bidding April 24 and end May 9. A live preview, by appointment only, will be held in mid-April.
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The red Diamond Planet Robot with box, once owned by Japanese toy collector Teruhisa Kitahara, is among the most desirable toys coming up in the Lesser auction. Smith House Toy & Auction Company image.

Topping the list of more than 200 pieces will be the toy field’s finest robots, many with their extraordinary original boxes. Among them are the series of large, battery-operated mechanical men made by Masudaya in the 1950s. It was Lesser who coined the description “Gang of Five” for the Sonic Robot, Radicon Robot, Non-Stop “Lavender” Robot, Target Robot, and the scarcest of the group, Machine Man. The Machine Man in this auction was the first example of the toy to emerge in North America.

Another headliner in the collection is the extremely rare red version of the Diamond Planet Robot with box, which was once owned by the renowned Japanese toy collector Teruhisa Kitahara. Other top-shelf pieces are the seldom seen Jupiter Robot with box; a silver version of Mr. Atomic with box, and the “Topolino” Radar Robot with box. Each of these could be the centerpiece of an advanced toy collection.
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Lilliput Robot. Smith House Toy & Auction Company image.

The depth of the Lesser collection continues through many more layers and collecting levels.

On sale will be an example of what is commonly believed to be the first mass-produced robot toy, the primitive-looking Lilliput robot, created in Japan in the 1940s. This particular toy is unique in that it comes not only with its original box, but also its key and key tag. The unusual Conehead robot has packaging aimed at the Japanese market; most of these Japanese toys are found with English lettering meant for export.

Leading the fleet of space toys in the Lesser collection are the robot-piloted Flying Space Saucer, a beautifully lithographed toy, and the Space Patrol Super Cycle with box and rider and the only known original helmet for the figure. The Super Cycle is among several pieces in the Lesser collection that appeared in the early space toy book, “Robot,” by Pierre Boogaerts. The other vehicles include the Volkswagen Space Patrol Car with box, Moon Patrol Vehicle, and Nomura’s Robby Space Patrol, a vehicle modeled after the one in a 1956 film now considered a science-fiction classic.

It was the movie character Robby the Robot that sparked Lesser’s passion for the tin men. “When I was going to school in Chicago I saw ‘Forbidden Planet.’ That turned me on to robots,” he explains. “I kept going to see this one movie all the time.” And his collection reflects the obsession.

Spacemen AT 2-27.jpg A variety of robot toys with human features will march through the Lesser auction. Smith House Toy & Auction Company image.

Among the Robby toys going on sale are the very limited edition silver Robby, the most desirable example of the famous robot and one of the scarcest robots overall. The Moon Robot, another unusual version of Robby, with its rare box, will also be sold.

Other robots with distinct personalities, and their original boxes, in the auction will include Winky Robot, Musical Drummer Robot, Tremendous Mike, gold and blue versions of Lantern Robot, Thunder Robot, Missile Robot, and two versions of the early Atomic Robot Man.

Other favorites in robot circles, with graphic, hard-to-find boxes, are Flashy Jim, Interplanetary Explorer, Space Fire Department Robot, Buzzer Robot, Door Robot and Mighty Robot. The closely related class of space men – the robot-like toys with human faces — include the transforming Change Man, the green Daiya Space Conqueror, Astroman, Chime Trooper, Space Scout, Astro Scout and Space Explorer, most with their original boxes.

The packaging has always been a vital part of Lesser’s collections. “They used to make fun of me. They called me ‘Mint-in-the-Box Bob.’ But the boxes had such great graphics on them, such beautiful artwork,” Lesser says. “If you lay them flat and put them in a frame, they’d be works of art.”
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Machine Man robot toy from the Lesser Collection, which will be featured in the Smith House auction.  Smith House Toy & Auction Company image.

From the planet of non-robot robotic toys come the Batman robot with box by Nomura; the Frankenstein robot with box by Marx, and the Whistling Spooking Kooky Tree with box. The animal robots in the auction include the Space Elephant, always a challenging quarry, with its rare box.

Lesser also added a few treasured sci-fi lunchboxes to his shelves; going on the block will be Lost in Space, Star Trek and Jetsons pails in extraordinary condition.

Many forms of popular culture have appealed to Lesser over the past 30 years. He began with comic books and comic character toys, and assembled a remarkable collection that became the basis for his first book, “A Celebration of Comic Art and Memorabilia,” published by Hawthorne Books in 1976. The out-of-print volume has long been a bible for toy collectors.

His devotion to Buck Rogers toys and ephemera made Lesser’s transition to space toy collecting a natural progression. “Robots intrigued me for a couple of very good reasons. One: they are so much an integral part of the imagination of our civilization,” says Lesser, who was once a researcher at the Institute of Nuclear Studies in Chicago. Second, “these robots somehow reflect childhood naivete. They’re not these great things that are going to do 16 different functions on microchips. They have a simple ordinary motion that the Japanese imagination put into them.”

And “the visual appeal of these toys attracted me immediately. You look at some of these and they are just exquisite,” Lesser says. “So there are so many good reasons to collect the robots. And the last one is because they’re a lot of fun.”

The Lesser collection was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in November 2000 through February 2001, and was viewed by thousands of visitors each day. They then moved to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where they were exhibited from November 2001 to January 2002, and again from June 2005 until September 2007, when they were shipped to Smith House Toy & Auction Company.

Every piece comes with that extraordinary provenance: all are museum-quality toys once owned by one of the most prominent collectors in the world.

Lesser says he decided to part with his collection because he had acquired all the great robots and space toys he had sought. “If you’re a tiger hunter in Kenya and you’ve shot all the tigers, you know what? You’re not a tiger hunter anymore.”

The former bibliographer, nuclear researcher, electric sign salesman, author and playwright is still a collector, however. His concentration in recent years has been on original cover art of pulp magazines (he published “Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines” in 2003) and an extensive collection of one-of-a-kind resin models of movie monsters.

The Robert Lesser Robot and Space Toy auction will open for bidding on April 24 and close on May 9. for more information, call 215-721-1389, e-mail smithhousetoys@comcast.net, or go online to www.smithhousetoys.com..

Smith House Toy & Auction Company has been dealing in fine toys and nostalgia since 1986. Craig Thompson expanded the bidding to the Internet in 2004, but has retained the personal service for which Smith House has always been known.

Smith House is looking for consignments for future auctions, whether it is one quality item or an entire collection. For information, contact Thompson at 215-721-1389, or e-mail smithhousetoys@comcast.net.

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