Chinese traditional toys and games at the Royal Ontario Museum


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The exhibit features this unusual sleeping box for a cricket made of porcelain with overglaze enamels. It is from the Qing Dynasty, 1850-1900. Photos courtesy ROM


Toys & Prices 2011 is a nostalgic bible of toys and is the most comprehensive identification and price guide on post-World War II toys, which is always evolving to meet the changing toy market and needs of toy collectors. Learn more at shop.collect.com.

TORONTO – Though the Royal Ontario Museum’s, Toronto, exhibition The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Warriors will have ended Jan. 2, 2011, visitors can continue to enjoy Chinese artifacts in the exhibition “Playful Pursuits: Chinese Traditional Toys and Games,” Sept. 11, 2010, to May 1, 2011.

The exhibition’s curator, Dr. Ka Bo Tsang, chose this theme because she wanted “to switch to a more light-hearted topic this time.” Drawn from the museum’s own collection and housed in the small Herman Herzog Levy Gallery, the 140 toys, or illustrations of toys in different media (eg. paintings, ceramics, etc.), date from the 1st century AD to modern times, and are divided into five categories: movable; inanimate; sound-producing; sedentary; and active.

Movable toys include the nine rings puzzle to “challenge the mind and dexterity of the players.” Inanimate toys like the miniature pair of colorful tiger shoes in silk and paper, 2000s, educate children. Sound-producing include bamboo slide whistles, 2009, noisemakers, and instruments. Sedentary games include cards or tiles for adults, testing luck and skill. A glazed earthenware sculpture of two cross-legged players at liubo begins the exhibition. And active games include two earthenware acrobats from the Eastern Han Dynasty, AD 66-15, requiring flexibility and agility.

 Dr. Tsang admitted the ROM “cannot disclose the value in monetary terms” of any of the artifacts, but felt the artifacts with depictions of children or adults playing with toys or engrossed in games “may have much higher values than actual toys.” They include a rattle in the form of a little boy leaning on a large drum, a partially glazed whistling top, and a game board made for a dice game called “Happy Destiny,” finely painted on silk from the Qing Dynasty, 19th century. The latter she considered “very valuable, given its uniqueness.”

Touring these ancient toys inevitably conjures up memories of the toys of one’s youth and those available in retail stores and in collectible toy shows today. Kevin Park has owned Kidding Awound, a retail store on Cumberland Street in the affluent neighborhood of Yorkville, Toronto, for the past four years. He bought the business from a woman who, 25 years ago, intended it as a store for collectible toys. However, now Park’s store offers a lot of contemporary toys, both plastic and metal, but fewer collectibles both modern and vintage. One online reviewer of the latter referred to them as “old school … expensive and more for collectors than anything else.”

Non-collectors buy Lego toys from Park, such as the popular boxed Star Wars watch with red band at $28.99 Cdn. However, the Lego Death Star from the first Star Wars movie has become a collectible, Park says, as Lego produced it for one season only. “It’s hard to find.”

Park says there’s still a general (global) market for antique toys – in fact, more toys are being offered online by eBay – but there is no demand in his local Yorkville area. “Not enough new collectors are coming into the market.” The Yorkville area’s demographics have changed. The many condos are bought by young immigrants in their 30s, who aren’t interested in the past, and young people or teens simply don’t collect. Instead, they prefer playing computer games. In addition, the recession hasn’t helped encourage buying toys, as people focus on buying necessities over playthings. It’s become a question of need versus want. “More people want to sell me toys from their garage than buy,” says Park.

But he does sell to collectors per se. “Tin toy collectors come in, but not as many as before. Lead paint poisoning was causing a problem. Quite a bit buy at Christmas. A lot of Jewish customers buy tin windups, and film studios buy toys for their movie sets.”  For example, toys from Park’s store were used in the Dustin Hoffman film “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”

Park’s stock of contemporary Chinese manufactured tin toys range from $3.99 for a jerking frog, $13.99 for a waddling penguin, and $14.99 to $29.99 for marching robots. Best sellers are the Duck on Bike at $16.99 and Carousel at $13.99.

“It’s the movement,” says Park. “They find it interesting. The duck peddles the bike and the propeller on his head spins.” Buyers also buy plastic windups like fish at $2.99, red robots, and different animals. However, non-sellers are war-related toys like tanks and soldiers.

Condition especially is an important factor in evaluating the vintage toys ranging from the late ‘40s to ‘60s. A best seller in Park’s store is the monkey playing the cymbals from the ‘60s at $150. However, his large, metal, red fire trucks are $750 each, as are his Canadian Flyer train engine and pedal car jeep. His Trans Canada Airlines child rocker with plane image is $175, and his large wooden sled $250.

Grimsby, Ontario, veteran toy collectors Doug and Bev Jarvis (www.antiquetoys.ca) also promote the Toronto Toy and Doll Collectors Show, the next being Nov. 21, 2010, at the International Centre, Mississauga. Says Doug, Chinese-made toys came on the market 20 years ago. He once visited a collector selling his vintage toys, but noticed a small number of the Chinese-made ones as well. “Mark my words, those toys will be worth something one day,” the collector insisted. And Doug thinks he’s right. When the collector was buying the Chinese toys, they were 50 cents and $1. Now, the same toys are $8 and $10. In 30 years, Doug predicts they’ll be “collectibles” and worth far more.

Robert Godwin, Space Curator of the Canadian Air & Space Museum, Toronto, collects space toys. But he paints a gloomy picture of the contemporary toy market. “People are afraid to spend money on luxuries. Things that I bought and sold 10 years ago are selling for half as much, or less, today.”

“The market remains stable for nostalgia and has grown over the past few years with greater confidence than, say, furniture, folk art, and decorative accessories,” says dealer Larry Foster, Napanee, Ontario. He sells sports memorabilia.  “Furniture holds a broader market because of function, but nostalgia draws die-hard collectors, who swarm in numbers to most shows. The best items sell first, of course, and collectors in all categories of interest are getting fussy, leaving the middle market dropping to simply, “Do I need this item, or is it a need to acquire?” ?


John Norris is a Toronto freelance photojournalist and retired English teacher. He has written articles, with photos, for antiques and other journals across Canada, the United States and Britain. He may be reached at
jnorris9091@sympatico.ca.


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More Images:

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This mounted female polo player is made of glazed earthenware. It was made in the Tang Dynasty, AD 690-725.
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Liubo players, glazed earthenware, Eastern Han dynasty, AD 100-200
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This glazed stoneware whistle was fashioned in the form of a plump bird and is from the Tang Dynasty - Five Dynasties, AD 850-960.
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Featured in the Royal Ontario Museum exhibition on Chinese toys is this (scholar) doll made of silk, 1900-1925.

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