Vintage toys depicting a swaggering Popeye the Sailor Man were "strong to the finich" at Milestone Auctions, including a rare Linemar Popeye And Olive Oyl Tank that rolled over expectations and set a new world record.
The winning price of $105,000 (against an estimate of $30,000-$40,000) was made by a Florida collector who aggressively bid to get it back in his collection, after buying the toy 20 years ago for another record price at the time.
“I originally bought it in the early 2000s from an Australian seller on eBay,” said Ozzie Bilotta. “I don’t think they knew much about what they had, because their description wasn’t very specific. The bidding opened at only a few hundred dollars, but I wasn’t the only one after it. I recall having to pay $14,000 or $15,000 for it. At the time, that was a record-setting price for a Popeye toy.”
A few years later, when Bilotta’s collecting focus shifted to robots and space toys, he sold the tank privately. For the next 20 years, he never saw or heard of the tank’s whereabouts. But old habits die hard, and even as immersed as he was in the world of sci-fi collectibles, he never lost his fondness for other types of vintage toys. He would regularly send out “wish lists” to dealers and auction houses, always including Popeye toys on those lists.
When Milestone Auctions co-owner Miles King contacted Bilotta to let him know that a Popeye tank was coming up for bid at an April 9 Antique Toy Spectacular and emailed him photos, Bilotta immediately recognized it as being the same toy he had purchased on eBay decades earlier.
“The box had the same small characteristics, the same scribbled numbers on the price tag – there was no question that it was the same toy,” Bilotta said.
The Popeye tank is now destined to be one of many prized attractions at a private museum Bilotta plans to open this fall in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
The tank wasn't the only Popeye standout at the auction. Milestone said Popeye toys haven’t seen an appreciable downturn in the collector marketplace at any point in the past 25 years and many offered in the auction sold well above estimates. An exceptional example of a boxed Linemar battery-operated Popeye And Rowboat, complete with oars and its correct remote control, glided to $11,000 against a $2,500-$3,500 estimate. Bilotta was the winning bidder on this toy as well. An old favorite with collectors, a 14-1/2-inch-long Hoge clockwork Popeye Rowboat came complete with its original oars, rudder and desirable Hoge decal. In excellent condition, it more than doubled its high estimate to moor at $9,600.
“Everyone, young or old, can relate to Popeye,” said King. “Since first appearing in a 1929 comic strip, Popeye has amused and entertained audiences in a way that sets him apart from other comic or cartoon characters. He’s an eccentric guy who seems to wander naively into one misadventure after another, always getting out of a scrape at the last minute thanks to a can of spinach. Many of his exploits have translated to toys over the years, and collectors want them all.”
Several now-classic Popeye toys depict the musclebound sailor in boxing or strength-testing pursuits. Two toys from this category – both made by Chein – landed in the auction’s top 10: a Popeye Heavy Hitter with its original box, and a boxed wind-up Popeye Overhead Puncher. Each of the toys settled well above estimate at $11,400. Right behind them, pricewise, was an all-original Linemar tin Mechanical Popeye Air-O-Plane with its original box, which sold for $10,500 against an estimate of $6,000-$8,000.
Disney toys, which have enjoyed a huge resurgence of interest, were present in the form of superstars like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and lovable co-stars such as Goofy, Pluto, and Figaro the Cat. A boxed Lionel Mickey Mouse Circus Train in beautiful condition, with original cardboard accessories including circus tickets, a Sunoco billboard, and cutouts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the Three Little Pigs and Clarabelle the Cow, chugged to $7,500 against an estimate of $3,000-$4,000.
Pressed steel weighed in with some impressive numbers. A 1920s Steelcraft Packard Deluxe pedal car, 49 inches long and in 100 percent original condition, was so complete it even retained its klaxon horn, spotlight, colored marker lights, dash gauges and license plates. Estimated at $6,000-$8,000, it cruised to $16,200. Another delightful 1920s Steelcraft production, a 49-inch “Little Jim” Air Mail pedal airplane, also boasted 100 percent original condition, with maroon and cream paint on its super-clean body and a detailed piston-style engine. This spiffy auction entry landed at $10,500 against expectations of $3,000-$5,000.
For complete auction results, visit Milestone Auctions.