Steve Jaspen has collected space toys for more than a decade, and there are very few people who know more about them than he does. His collection of vintage wind-up robots and small-scale saucers, rockets and space cars is a wonder; not because it's huge, but, rather, because every piece in it is a bona fide treasure. Steve also happens to be one of the nicest guys in the hobby, and I consider him not only a good friend, but an honest-to-goodness mentor. So now that I've abandoned even a pretense of journalistic objectivity, let's get to the toys!
DOC ATOMIC What attracts you to these toys?
STEVE JASPEN I like the feelings they evoke in me. It's very close to how I felt when watching the early space launches in the Sixties. The same feelings I have reading sci-fi novels. They represent something so much grander than we see, for the most part, in our everyday existence. A representation of the potential we have that we haven't quite reached yet.
Do you have a favorite piece in your collection?
That's difficult. Certainly, my Television Robot (Sankei, 1960s) is high on the list. It's got a perfect look: fantastic lithography, and a face reminiscent of a little boy -- a robot almost becoming human. I love my early, blue, wind-up Planet Robots (Yoshiya, late 1950s). They are rare and beautiful, and their "grilled" faceplates look to me how a robot should look. Also my Mechanical Moon Robot (Yonezawa, 1960s) -- the multicolored ribbons within its domed, mirrored head are fantastic.
The Television Robot. One of the rarest toy robots. (All photos by Steve Jaspen)
Some of Jaspen's collection. The Mechanical Moon Robot (a.k.a. "Ribbon Robby) is on the right, in back. The ribbons in its dome spin as it walks.
When did you start collecting? How did you become involved with space toys?
I was heavily involved in sports memorabilia, but it reached a point where I had collected or seen just about everything in the field -- it was time to move on. The famous Sotheby's robot and space toy auction of Matt Wyse in 1996 showed me that this was an actual hobby. I had known about the famous Japanese collector Teruhisa Kitahara (whom I later had the pleasure of meeting), but until then I thought collecting these toys was only one man's obsession. With my sci-fi backround and love of robots this was a perfect hobby to move to from sports collecting. From that moment on it was off to the races.
One of Steve's rare blue Planet Robots is on the left. The grey skirted robot second from right is called Tremendous Mike -- it's another extremely rare toy. The robot to the far right is a modern piece hand-crafted by the late collector Henk Gosses.
Some of Jaspen's impressive saucer and rocket collection.
After looking at your collection, Steve, I was struck by your focus. Could you describe your approach to collecting?
I purchase the pieces that really move me. When I'm looking at a book of robots and space toys, which are the ones I keep coming back to or most enjoy seeing? Not only do I focus on particular toys, but I quite often focus on a specific example of that piece -- literally one specific toy that I've seen somewhere. One collector I know calls it a "wanted dead or alive" style of collecting. In the world of sports memorabilia, many items were one of a kind, so I learned how to follow a specific piece from collection to collection until it became available. I use this skill in this hobby, too.
Can you give us an example?
Sure. The silver-mouthed Hook Robot (Waco, 1950s) was high on my list from the moment I first saw him. A perfect example was offered by [long-time toy dealer] Mark Bergin in his 1998 catalog. By the time I called him, he'd already sold it. By chance I was able to find out who the buyer was, but he was a very high-end collector and no amount of money or trades could be offered to get the Hook out of his collection. But eventually, as so often happens, he decided to sell off his collection. I was able to figure out who ended up with the Hook. I had a very high-end piece in my collection that the new owner wanted. Applying my trading philosophy of giving up something great to obtain something that would give me even more happiness, a trade was born. I now own the one and very same example of the Hook Robot that I first saw in Mark Bergin's catalog. It only took me 10 years to get the one I wanted!
Any other instances of this happening?
Of course! There's a wonderful book called Roboter by Botho Wagner. Pictured on the cover is an amazing Planet Robot -- a blue, wind-up, rubber-handed version. Just beautiful. Well, I found out the hard way that this toy was so rare that not even well-known dealers had ever seen one -- or even heard of it. It turned out that this toy was probably not exported to this side of the ocean.
I would just stare at this picture every day and wonder, "How am I going to get one of these for myself?" Wouldn't you know it: By sheer coincidence I had become close friends with a European collector... the very same collector who owned the exact robot used on the cover of the book! He knew of my deep love for this robot and one day, out of the blue (no pun intended), he offered it to me. So not only did I get my dream robot, but I got the exact example of the one I had been looking at all these many years. A dream come true!
Ladies and Gentlemen: The famous blue Planet Robot and silver-mouthed Hook Robot.
The Hook Robot next to an uncommon pin-walking robot called Robbie The Roving Robot. The blue robot on the right is the extremely rare X-27 Explorer. Note the VX-1000 space ship, another highly desirable toy.
You mentioned before that you traded a high-end piece to get the Hook Robot. Can you talk a bit more about this technique?
There are pieces [that I want] that are very hard to come by and are in the hands of deep pocketed collectors; one can't simply offer money to this class of collector. However, if I can get the piece I want by offering something special that they want, then a trade is possible. It's really about putting these toys on a scale of happiness; if what I am getting gives me more satisfaction than what I am giving up, it's an exchange I can seriously consider. I may not be able to keep every toy I've owned, but at least I've had the opportunity to have a sweet taste of many different great toys.
A strong word of caution: It's too easy to get so excited about being able to obtain a sought-after new item that you don't carefully consider what you're giving up. You might discover that you liked what you traded more than what you received: I learned this the very hard way in my sports collecting days! My advice is to carefully consider each trade or sale. Sometimes the best deals are the ones that aren't made.
Sound advice! So, do you have any other interesting collecting stories?
There is one piece [from my collection] that is the center of a very good story. The Robot 5 (S.N.K./Sankei, 1950s) is a very high-end piece I never really expected to own. A dealer offered me a Robot 5 in his original box for quite a bit more than I could afford. Without even looking at a picture, I had to turn him down. A friend of mine was offered the robot, and he called to ask me what I thought of it. I told him I hadn't seen a picture, so he sent me one. Oh, my God! First off, it was a version I didn't at the time know existed -- a black and grey version as opposed to the better known champagne-pink one. It was really a perfect robot, and my friend decided to buy it. I was quite sad about that.
By sheer coincidence, just as my friend closed the deal on the boxed grey-black version, he was offered the pink version, which he preferred. But it was unboxed. He asked for my advice -- he wanted the pink version but he also wanted the box. I had the perfect solution: We would split the boxed black-grey version. I would get the robot and he would get the box. Then he could buy the pink version to pair with it. So I ended up with the robot, he ended up with a boxed robot. All's well that ends well.
Three fantastic robots: The extremely rare Robot 5, flanked by the red-mouthed Hook Robot and the Television Robot.
I'll say! So, do you have any advice for new collectors? Any parting words of wisdom?
Here is my advice to new collectors: First off, knowledge is power. Find out as much about the hobby as you can. There are any number of excellent websites, books and catalogs to review. See which pieces "sing" to you and save money for the ones that you can reasonably afford. No impulse or quick-fix buying; save for those pieces that are most important to you. In the long run they will give you the most satisfaction. And use your own judgement as to what you like and do not like. After all it is your own collection that you are building!