Personal Luxuries | Past Masters

Tinplate toys

Full of golden-childhood appeal, tinplate toys can fetch distinctly grown-up prices, says Simon de Burton.

December 12 2011
Simon de Burton

The late publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes might have attained threescore years and 10, but it is probably no insult to say that he never really grew up. Who would want to with a toy collection like his? Although he was famous for accumulating everything from hot-air balloons to Fabergé eggs, it was the tinplate liners, cars and motorcycles that he found in antiques shops, attics and auction rooms that really floated his boat.

Forbes was inspired to start the collection at the somewhat advanced age of 53 after spotting an old tin yacht in the window of FAO Schwartz, a sight that transported him back more than four decades to his boyhood. By the time he died in 1990, Forbes had amassed a collection that ran to more than 100,000 items, many of which were dispersed at Sotheby’s New York in 1994, where they fetched $393,000.

Further examples were displayed in a dedicated museum on the first floor of the Forbes building on New York’s Fifth Avenue until they, too, were sold off last year in an auction that raised more than $2.3m from bidders around the world.

Tinplate toys first appeared during the 19th century and were made, as the name suggests, from thin steel sheets plated with tin. In the early days they were hand-painted, but by the late 1800s lithographic printing made it possible to reproduce quite complex designs that added realism and detail. At first, boats and trains were most popular, and many featured clockwork motors or small steam engines for added interest.

Cars, motorcycles and aircraft then arrived on the scene, followed in the 1950s and 1960s by Japanese-made robots that made one last stand for tinplate before plastic and die-cast metal took over as favoured materials for mass-produced playthings.

But the form, size and considerable aesthetic appeal of tinplate toys have once more brought them to the fore among discerning collectors – although the days of pocket-money prices are well and truly gone.

The largest and rarest products of the best makers, such as Germany’s Märklin, Bing, Schuco and Arnold, can now change hands for six-figure sums. Forbes’s three-foot-long, 1912 Märklin model of the Lusitania, for example fetched a record $194,500 at the end of last year, almost seven times more than he paid for it in 1983.

“Prices are very, very strong at the moment,” says Bonhams toy specialist Leigh Gotch. “There are more buyers out there than there are objects available. The market is driven by wealthy, middle-aged collectors who are putting their money into tinplate toys for both nostalgic and financial reasons – they are no longer objects to be played with, but pieces of history to be preserved and admired. Condition and originality are everything, whether you’re talking about an 1800s steam-powered liner or a 1960s clockwork robot.” According to Gotch, the rarest robots (such as Machine Man, Target and Radicon by Masudaya of Japan) can fetch up to £4,000, although less sought-after models might sell for as little as £200.

“In the case of robots, the boxes that contain them are almost as important as the toy itself, because people are attracted to the artwork on the packaging,” he says.

One man who concurs with Gotch’s views on condition and originality is London-based former veterinary surgeon David Pressland. He began collecting tinplate toys during his first year at university and now, 50 years later, has written three books on the subject and is as enthusiastic as ever. “I look for quality rather than quantity, and probably have around 100 pre-1910 toys in my collection – all of which are in excellent, original condition. I am not interested in having anything around me that is rusty, badly damaged or repainted. It is all about aesthetics – tinplate just lends itself ideally to miniature versions of cars, boats and aeroplanes.

“The largest toys were originally expensive objects, perhaps costing £5 each during the early 1900s – as much as an Edwardian doctor might earn in a week.” Most modern-day doctors would, however, be hard-pressed to earn sufficient money in a week to be able to buy one of Pressland’s most desirable pieces, a Märklin model of a Wright Brothers biplane that is now worth an estimated £80,000. It originally belonged to a member of the Thai royal family and is among just three known to survive.

Nick Letherbarrow, meanwhile, has chosen to collect tinplate motorcycles and now has 40, the most expensive of which cost him a relatively modest £800. “The motorcycles are often very amusing to look at and their lasting appeal has been demonstrated by the fact that reproductions are now being made in China and Hungary, and sell for around £5 a piece. But the quality is nothing like that of the originals, which I have bought for as little as £50,” says Letherbarrow, who works for Teesside-based Vectis, the world’s largest toy auctioneer.

Simon Khachadourian, owner of London’s Pullman Gallery, which sells gentlemanly “objets de luxe”, is even more specific in his tinplate quest. “The only tinplate models that I really look out for are the Alfa Romeo P2s that were made by Compagnie Internationale Jouet (CIJ) from 1924 to 1935. I think they are absolutely exquisite and, being one-eighth scale, they are more of a model than a toy,” he says.

“They are becoming more costly and more difficult to get hold of, especially since I never buy restored examples. I’d rather have one that is a little ‘play worn’ than one that has been repainted. They are really captivating and seem to suit a modern, minimalist interior as well as a typical, booklined study. I could look at one for hours.”

See also

Collecting, Vintage