King of Toys: Donald Kaufman reflects on a lifetime of collecting

VINELAND, N.J. – Donald Kaufman is the man people are talking about when they ask the question: “Who has the money to pay $30,000 for an antique toy car?”

Kaufman’s life gives the average collector an inside look behind the scenes of a collector motivated by history and craftsmanship and blessed with the means to capture it all. His collection of automotive toys has been called a masterpiece, the likes of which the antiques world will never see again.

So why is it that this skillful collector is so committed to sell every last toy? Kaufman summed it up in an exclusive interview with Antique Trader: “I’m going to sell it back to the collectors who are going to take care of them – they are going to be their prized possessions.”

A second auction of his nearly 40-year collection will be held by Bertoia Auctions Sept. 25-26. Bertoia’s expects it will take several auctions and perhaps two years to sell the estimated 7,000 items. The first auction, March 19-21, brought in more than $4.2 million.

Kaufman, whose family launched, grew and then sold KB Toys, did more than just collect toys; he breathed life into his collection by building an entire wing onto his Massachusetts home. He never told anyone about the collection’s size and scope – even his children didn’t see it. Kaufman said only about 20 people during the past 40 years ever saw the collection in its entirety.

Donald and his wife Sally approached the collection, not as an investment, but as a shared passion that brought them to nearly every toy show in the Northeast. “It was a team effort,” Kaufman said. “It was one of my lifelong pleasures but when she came into my life 20 some years ago she partnered in it and enjoyed what we did just as much as I did. I couldn’t have done this without her.”

The effort to accumulate such a large and comprehensive collection is perhaps more important than the cash spent to build it. Toys were purchased through private collectors and shows and auctions. Kaufman is credited as being the first collector to use a bicycle in navigating Route 20 during the Brimfield antiques shows. He never lost count and has attended 60 Brimfield shows over the last 20 years.

The collection has no ‘doubles.’ No matter what he was buying, Kaufman knew what he was looking for.

“The duplicates are not really duplicates – they are variations,” he said. “It might be the same toy with different paint. Same toy with different wheels but I would say every one is a one-of-a-kind toy with variations of certain toys.

“I always knew what I had,” he continues. “I knew what I bought, where I bought it, who I bought it from and how much I paid for it. And when I saw something, I knew whether I had it or not. I always had a good memory for that kind of thing.”

Kaufman took what he learned as head of KB Toys’ display rooms and show rooms and built himself the ultimate playroom.
“I always thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he said. “I want to build this building and fill it up with toys and make it so that I can fit as many toys in there as I have to get.

“Other people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t have room.’ Well, I always had room. There was always room for one more toy and I could always figure out how to put up another shelf.”

The pursuit was never based on the future monetary value of the items. Kaufman said he would purchase his collection based on what he needed to secure an example of every important antique transportation toy made. This goal sometimes moved him to purchase items as diverse as motorcycles, trucks or a barbershop chair in the shape of a Model T.

In 1988, Kaufman was one of the few big league collectors invited to participate in Bertoia Auctions’ sale of the contents of the Perelman Museum, a Philadelphia toy museum. Kaufman quickly claimed a horse-drawn revolving monkey cage circus wagon showroom sample. He recalls its $30,000 sales price was a good investment compared to the $97,750 hammer price at the first auction in March.

“Everyone else thought, ‘Oh, I could make money on this or I could lose money on this.’ That never entered my mind. If I wanted something, I bought it. I never thought it was a good value or a bad value. I came to what I thought was the right price.

“I wouldn’t overpay. I would not pay a crazy price. If I wanted something and the opportunity was there, who cares if it’s a hundred or a thousand or two thousand too much. If I wanted something I would bid other people out. Sometimes people would bid me out.”

All along, Kaufman was committed to the fact that Bertoia Auctions was going to handle the sale when the time had come. For years he declined private offers to sell select pieces. His toys will return to the collectors who will take care of them, even if they are not housed in their own special wing.

“I am selling every toy I had in my collection,” Kaufman said. “From my first toy to my last, it’s a complete sell out with no reserves. “There’s a lot of bargains in the next auction. There’s always a bargain at auction.”

Photos courtesy Bertoia Auctions.