After his first appearance in the Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929, the swaggering, wisecracking cartoon sailor Popeye became an immediate hit with people of all ages.
He gained even higher visibility in his own cartoon series that launched in 1933, and Popeye, with his spinach-powered superhuman strength, has been depicted on countless collectibles, including vintage toys that have only continued to rise in popularity and price.
On Saturday, he will be the star of Milestone Auctions' Spring Antique Toy Spectacular that offers one of the finest selections of Popeye toys ever to reach the marketplace, including more than 60 rare items led by the greatest rarity of them all: a Popeye and Olive Oyl Tank with its original pictorial box. Considered the ultimate catch in its category, it's expected to reach between $30,000 to $40,000.
“Every major collector of Popeye toys – and just about every collector of comic character toys, in general – wants that tank,” said Milestone Auctions co-owner Miles King. “The minute word got out about it, the phones started ringing and collectors started searching for it in the online catalog.”
Made by Linemar (a Japanese post-World War II subsidiary of Louis Marx & Co), the 11-inch-long battery-operated tank of Popeye and his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, is in excellent to near-mint condition and easily the nicest of few known examples. It is all original and complete, even retaining Popeye’s pipe and the red plastic caps that hold his legs to the tank. When activated, Olive Oyl’s head emerges from the cupola with a surprised expression on her face, as Popeye flips the tank over. The toy’s battery box is immaculate, and when tested, the tank worked well. The piece de resistance, however, is the crisp, profusely illustrated original box that accompanies the toy.
Popeye is more than just a sailor who attracts misadventure, as is apparent in the auction’s rare toys with his image. He’s a man of many accomplishments: a pilot, as seen in Linemar’s Mechanical Popeye Air-O-Plane with original box, estimated at $6,000-$8,000; a strongman hitting a carnival bell in Chein’s Popeye Heavy Hitter, boxed and estimated at $5,000-$6,000; and a gymnast in Linemar’s Popeye Acrobat, boxed and offered with a $4,000-$6,000 estimate. In addition, he’s a scrappy pugilist, starring in Chein’s wind-up Popeye Overhead Puncher, boxed, $4,000-$5,000; and the same manufacturer’s wind-up Shadow Boxer, boxed, $3,000-$4,000. A super example of a boxed Linemar battery-operated Popeye and Rowboat, complete with oars and correct remote control, carries a $2,500-$3,500 estimate.
The auction also includes rare automotive and character toys, and Milestone has earned a reputation for selling some of the most coveted antique and vintage toy motorcycles. Last October, Milestone's $768,000 toy auction drew a global contingent of bidders who competed aggressively over a collection of 138 super-clean bikes. Among the leaders were two Marx prototypes that each sold for $22,800. More Japanese, American and European motorcycles and scooters are lined up for Saturday's auction, including a Hubley (American) 9-inch cast-iron Indian solo motorcycle with a civilian driver, original Indian decals and original pull cord, $2,000-$3,000; and a Georg Levy (German) tin wind-up double rider motorcycle with sidecar, $1,500-$2,500. Fans of Japanese postwar tin friction bikes will instantly recognize the large (12-inch version) sought-after “Romance” motorcycle with a male driver and female rider, and crossing the block with a $1,500-$2,500 estimate.
The American cast-iron section includes several interesting “transitional” toys, so named because they reflect the design changes of the period when horse-drawn vehicles were phasing out in favor of motorized types. Three Hubley productions are included in this group: a fire ladder truck, water tower fire truck, and fire pumper with a boiler. Each is expected to make $2,000-$2,500 at auction. An oversized (27-inch-long) Kenton fire pumper has all of the necessary parts intact, including two jaunty 11-inch horses, two firemen figures, white rubber hoses and brass fittings. In excellent condition, it is entered with a $2,000-$3,000 estimate.
More than 75 banks – both mechanical and still varieties, primarily of cast iron – are ready for play. Mechanicals include a J&E Stevens Darktown Battery, $1,000-$1,500; Stevens’ Bad Accident, $800-$1,000; and an all-original yellow-version Cabin bank in working order with no breaks or repairs, $800-$1,000. A still bank to watch is the Sydenham & McOustra (England) cast-iron Eiffel Tower. All original with a handsome patina, the 8-3/4-inch money box is graded “excellent” with no condition issues. Estimate: $600-$800.
For collectors who like high style, there’s a 1920s Steelcraft Packard Deluxe pressed-steel pedal car, 49 inches long and in 100-percent as-found condition.
“Only a privileged child could have owned this car,” King said. “It has a klaxon horn, spotlight, colored marker lights, dash gauges and license plates. You won’t find a better or more original example.” Estimate is $6,000-$8,000.
The auction will be held at Milestone’s gallery at 38198 Willoughby Parkway, Willoughby (suburban Cleveland), OH 44094. Start time is at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. All forms of bidding will be available, including live via theiInternet through Milestone Auctions’ bidding platform or LiveAuctioneers. For additional information, call 440-527-8060, email firstname.lastname@example.org. or visit www.milestoneauctions.com.