Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Morphy Auction: After the Mayhem

Saturday, 6 p.m.
I was tired and, truth be told, more than half-mad. Eight hours of an auctioneer's constant patter was taking its toll. His voice was as mercilessly loud -- and as completely inescapable -- as a serial killer's chain saw. But I wasn't going anywhere, not now. Not after everything I'd sacrificed to get this far -- the deals I'd let slide, the toys I'd let go, the smaller battles I'd forfeited in order to win the war. No, I was in too deep, stuck in the mire of my own stubbornness.

And then, after nearly 500 lots, my waiting ended.

"Lot 1275. Let's start the bidding at-" I didn't wait to hear the number, I just shot my hand into the air. The piece of paper with my bidder number on it was crumpled in my fist.

A nod from the auctioneer, and a call for a higher bid. Someone else's hand went up. Then an online bidder bumped the price even more. I raised my hand; the guy online followed right on my heals. I bid again, and smiled as my online competition dropped out. Unfortunately, he was quickly replaced by someone sitting a few rows behind me.

To hell with this, I thought. I raised my bidder sheet and this time I kept it up. The other guy bid, my sheet stayed high. His move. He upped the price; my hand never wavered. Back and forth, the price climbing, my arm a steel beam, never bowing, never faltering. I had tunnel vision, the world around me shimmered and disappeared, all I could see was the toy. The bids kept climbing, and I began to wonder just how far I could go before oblivion dragged me down into her sweet, sweet embrace...

Friday, 8 a.m.
The road was clear as my friends and I left Manhattan in our rented Ford S.U.V. and headed south to Adamstown, PA, for the Morphy Auctions sale of the Marc Solondz toy collection. The mood in the car was light, our excitement levels high. Two full days of vintage toys, 1500 lots in all, ranging from tin robots, space toys, and ray guns to Japanese vinyl and die-cast character pieces. The collection was full of rare variations, uncommon boxes, and unusual finds. It was unheralded, and represented more than 30 years of toy buying by a man with a keen eye for quality.

Besides attending the auction, we planned on hanging out at the Toy Robot Museum, seeing some friends, and generally geeking out over our favorite subject: Vintage space toys and robots.

In the navigator's seat was Karl Tate, a contributor to the Attic. Steve Jaspen, who appeared in the Attic's first Top-Shelf Titans interview, chilled in the back. Discussion centered on the amount of toys flooding the scene in the last month, as well as the downward trend in pricing. We talked about the toys in the auction that interested us most, calculating the odds that we'd actually take something home while also figuring out what we'd do if we came up short. Auctions are tricky business, and it pays to have a Plan B.

Me, I was tied up over two toys: the Moon Robot (a.k.a. Ribbon Robby), and a rare little number called Ranger Robot. Both are tough finds, but beyond that, they couldn't be more different. The Moon Robot is inspired by Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot, and features three, spiraling metal ribbons under its dome that spin as the toys walks. It's an understated 'bot, but its subtle design gives it a lot of impact. I've wanted one for a long time, and I was pretty certain I could afford it.

Moon Robot. Note the pink tinted dome and the revolving ribbons of lithoed tin.

The Ranger Robot, on the other hand, is all flash and sizzle. Its mechanized guts are sheathed in a clear plastic body, and it features an array of lights, noise-makers, and even a smoke-blower -- all of which remain visible. The toy isn't based on any previous design, and it never inspired any imitators. It's a unique, stand-out addition to any collection -- but one that would probably cost me a few bucks more.

Ranger Robot. One of the few toys that let you see the inner mechanism.

Frankly, I had no idea which I wanted more, and I was driving myself nuts turning the question over in my mind. My plan, formulated as I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike towards PA, was to check them out up close, hold them, give them a good once over, and hope I'd feel some sort of emotional tug in one direction or the other.

Friday, 11 a.m.
Pulling into Adamstown, we decided to head directly over to Morphy's. The auction house is located just off route 222, inside a nondescript brown building. I wasn't sure what sort of action we'd find, and couldn't decide if the parking lot was half full or half empty. Today's auction featured the die-cast and vinyl toys, and I wondered what kind of crowd it'd attract. There wasn't anything I wanted, of course, but curiosity and a deep love for pretty much all toys compelled my friends and I to check it out. Besides, it's always a good idea to scope out the auction house beforehand -- find out how the auctioneers operate, investigate the place's layout, that sort of thing.

Once inside, I headed right over to the cases of robots. They'd been cleaned up and re-arranged since I first saw them months earlier during a preview weekend, and the effect was impressive.

A minty example of the Space Commando. The helmet is usually cracked, if not missing altogether.

One of my all time favorite space tanks. The litho's just amazing, with a lot of great details.

An uncommon, original Tetsujin 28 toy. Love that box.

I quickly found the Moon and Ranger Robots -- conveniently located only a few toys away from each other -- and asked an employee to take them out so I could inspect them closer. See, that's one of the nice things about auctions: They're like museums, but you're allowed to handle all the merchandise. It's an incredible opportunity to fondle examine some really rare toys, stuff you'd never likely see at any other time.

Sadly, my plan failed: giving them a close look only made me want each robot more. I put them back on their shelves with a sigh, figuring that maybe I'd just go for whichever came up first. That'd be the Moon Robot, leaving the Ranger Robot as my Plan B. But somehow, that didn't feel right. I shook my head and went looking for my friends.

I soon ran into a long-time, high-end collector named Perry Mahoney. He also runs a store called, appropriately enough, Perry's Toy Exchange. He was there with his friend, Glen, and the two were picking over the shelves of toys like crime scene investigators looking for clues to a murder. I asked him if anything interested him. "I don't know," he replied. "I think I have everything already!" Apparently, he was hoping to stumble on some rare variations. If nothing else, he figured he'd pick up some toys for resale later on. A good plan.

A small group of robots and astronauts.

Mr. Atomic, with the Moon Robot right behind him. Two fantastic toys!

Tremendous Mike. A rare toy that was also available in grey.

Karl, Steve, and I spent a couple hours checking out the rest of the cases before deciding we'd had our fill -- time for the Toy Robot Museum. Located about five minutes north of Morphy's, it's run by a good friend of ours named Joe Knedlhans. Besides being possibly the only museum of its kind, with more than 2000 robots on display, it's also the unofficial club house for robot collectors whenever they're in town. (I've written about it here and here, and have posted a video profile here.)

Joe was his usual, jovial self, and soon after arriving I found myself wandering around the museum with a beer in my hand and stars in my eyes. It wasn't long before some other collectors showed up: Phil, who owns one of the nicest Buck Rogers collections I've ever seen; Mark, a guy who not only owns some amazing toys but also builds his own; and Charlie, who's built an impressive collection that focuses on vintage space toys and robots by a company called Horikawa.

Soon after that, we were joined by the man I think of as the original toy robot collector: David Kirk. David, who's also a successful artist and the author of the Miss Spider and Nova series of children's books, began actively collecting robots when he was just a kid back in the Sixties. He got most of his toys upon their release, and even appeared on a local TV program about collectors. In the Nineties (I think) he sold off many of his toys, but over the last decade he's managed to rebuild an incredibly impressive collection. He's also a hell of a nice guy.

As great as it was to see all those guys, I've got to admit that the high point came when the door swung open and in walked Pat Karris. Pat's a long time collector who, over the years, build up the biggest collection of Robby the Robot and Forbidden Planet related toys in the world. You name it, he owned it. When I first met him, he lived in NYC and worked just around the corner from my office. We'd get together a few times a week for coffee and conversation, and over time, he ended up teaching me nearly everything I know about collecting robots. Along with Steve Jaspen, he's one of the people who I can honestly call a mentor. Unfortunately, he moved out of town and I hadn't seen him in a couple years. Needless to say, there were a lot of slaps on the back when he strolled into the museum.

Friday, 10:30 p.m.
After dinner at a local Italian restaurant and a couple more hours at the museum for geekery and beer, we all decided to call it a night. Saturday's auction was slated to begin at 10 a.m., but doors opened at eight. Of course, I wanted to get there as early as possible. Because I'm a madman.

I was sharing a room with Karl and Steve at our favorite local crash pad, the Black Horse Lodge. Nothing fancy, but the prices are low, the rooms are clean, and the staff's always friendly. We knew there'd be only two beds in the room, so I brought along an air mattress for myself. I was pretty tired after the early morning drive and the long day of toys, and was unconscious soon after hitting the inflated vinyl...

Boom! Awake! Eyes snapped open, brain alert, sleep banished. I glanced over at the window expecting to see a little light sneaking around the edges of the heavy drapes. No such luck, which meant, I figured, that it was about five in the morning -- two hours before my alarm was set to go off. No big deal, I thought, and I grabbed my iPhone so I could read the morning's news. That's when I noticed the clock... 2:45 in the morning! Hours until the auction, and wide awake. Great.

Saturday, 3:15 a.m.
Paper: read. Twenty games of Solitaire: played. Emails to friends on the West Coast: sent. Short blog entry: posted. I started to feel a little drowsy, so I killed my phone, pulled up the covers, and settled back in for a few more hours of sleep. Er... Not so much.

I was stricken with "Christmas Morning Syndrome." I was so eager for the auction to begin, so wired from thinking about all those toys, that sleep was utterly impossible. I'd close my eyes and my mind would keep on racing. I'd slip off for a few minutes, but the robots tromping through my brain would wake me right back up.

I did have one interesting dream during a brief foray into unconsciousness. In it, I discovered that one of the robots I wanted to buy -- I don't know which one -- had a busted leg. I was so happy, because it meant my choice between the Moon Robot and Ranger Robot was clear. In fact, I felt a twinge of sadness when I woke up and realized that, damnit, both toys were as close to mint as I've ever seen. It's definitely the first time I felt upset over a toy being too nice. Man, I'm a freak.

Anyway, after tossing and turning for a few more hours, the sun finally started coming up. beating the alarm, I jumped in the shower and got dressed before waking up my compatriots. A quick breakfast, check out of the lodge, and then it was off to the toys.

Saturday, 9 a.m.
Once again, I had no idea what to expect as I drove out to Morphy's. A seething crowd of madmen, each one wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth? Me, I was a twitchy mess, and I didn't figure I'd be much better off than anyone else. Times like these try men's spirits, and most of us are found wanting. So I was kind of nervous as I got out of the car and approached the double glass doors. Deep breath, Doc. And... here we go.

Morphy's looked more or less like it had the day before, only the shelves were mostly devoid of the vinyl and die-cast toys. A bunch of people were milling around the robot cases, including my friends. I also ran into a collector and dealer named Larry Waldeman, who runs an online store called Cybertoyz. Larry's a great guy, always fun to talk to, and a real expert on robots and space toys. He was dragging some poor, young Morphy's staffer from case to case as he went through the collection, one piece after another. I decided to stick close by, checking out whichever toys he looked at, asking questions, learning something new the whole time.

Morphy's also had a snack bar set up, with cookies, donuts, and even hotdogs. I grabbed a bavarian cream donut and counted that as breakfast.

Atomic Robot Man. This is a rare version that's stamped with the words "Souvenir of the New York Science Fiction Conference" on its back. Only three or four are known to exist. I wrote about mine here.

The Atomic Water Pistol, a rare die-cast toy out of England.

A fantastic example of the Buck Rogers XZ-38 Disintegrator. That's the extremely rare box behind it.

Saturday, 10 a.m.
Time to start! We all made our way over to the auction area, a large portion of the building set out with row after row of chairs. The auctioneer was positioned on a raised platform at the front of the room, flanked on either side by two large TVs that would display the toy and lot number currently up for grabs. A couple people sat by him at computer terminals, monitoring the real-time, online bidding. At the back of the room was a bank of phones staffed by Morphy employees -- they would handle the phone bidding.

I only saw about 20 collectors on hand; I leaned over to ask Steve what he thought of the turnout. He wasn't impressed, and told me that the famous Sotheby's sale of F.H. Griffith's collection in 2000 was packed to the rafters. We all looked around at the few collectors and wondered how the turnout would impact prices.

Morphy's says that it runs through about 100 lots every hour, and with hundreds of toys to go before anything I found interesting appeared on the block, I decided to wander around the auction house to look at the other items being offered in later sales. Morphy's doesn't just deal in toys, they also have advertising memorabilia, antique weaponry, vintage vending machines -- an eclectic mix of items. Marbles caught my attention, actually, with all their weird designs and rich colors. I was also digging the old die-cast cars, including a cool, small-scale "people mover" toy from the 1939 World's Fair. They even had a case full of old, wooden Fisher Price pull toys -- fascinating.

During one of the auction's particularly slow moments -- I think they were going through the last of the Japanese character toys -- Larry Waldeman actually lead a bunch of us outside to his car, where he had a number of excellent toys for sale. A couple people bought pieces from him, despite the auction going on just inside. Because that's the kind of maniacs we are...

Eventually, the selection of toys heated up and we all began paying more attention to the auction. That's when I noticed how low the prices were. "Bargain" doesn't even begin to describe things. "Steal" comes close. As Pat said, "If you ever wanted to begin collecting these toys, this is the time and place to do it!" In fact, I saw a number of people bidding on lot after lot. Some were dealers -- like Perry and Larry -- and some were people I'd never seen before. One guy, who looked to be in his early Sixties, had a running list of what he'd won; it'd grown into multiple columns by the time I noticed it. Another collector, a younger looking guy from Europe, was cleaning up on some of the higher-end pieces. In the back of the room, a well-known dealer was bidding on behalf of some customers, and he took home a lot of toys. A few pieces went to online bidders, and some went to the people calling in by phone.

The Change Prince. The dinosaur head opens up, revealing the boy's head. Definitely a big ticket item (though, I'll be honest, it never really did much for me).

The rare Chime Trooper is a pretty whimsical looking toy. It's got a great action -- yep, it chimes when it rolls forward.

The Hiller Atomic Ray Gun. Note the resemblance to the red British gun, above. The Hiller came first. The box pictured in this photo actually belongs to the British gun -- no idea how this mistake was made, but I hope whoever purchased the guns isn't too upset.

The Mighty 8 is high on many collectors' lists. Too bad it's so damn rare, especially with the box. The color wheel is pretty amazing when it's running.

Unfortunately, I couldn't take advantage of the low prices -- the toys I wanted were near the end of the auction, and I didn't want to risk coming up short. So I gritted my teeth and watched as people picked up some of my favorite robots without putting a dent in their wallets.

This was definitely more restraint than I think I've ever shown in my life. I summoned up reserves of willpower I never imagined I had. We're talking zen focus, laser-beam eyes, the single-minded determination of the meanest guard dog you've ever had the displeasure of meeting. Slowly, ever so slowly, the lots creeped past.

Including, by the way, the Moon Robot, which, somewhere along the line, I decided not to bid on. I'm not really sure how it happened, but the Ranger took over my brain and wouldn't leave. That was the toy for me, no doubt about it. Ranger Robot was mine, it just didn't know it yet.

And so I wanted. And waited. And waited. Hours and hours of sitting there, listening to the auctioneers incessant patter while the occasional gasp of frustration escaped my lips whenever a toy sold for a bargain basement price. And then, finally... "Lot number 1275. Let's start the bidding at-"

Saturday, 6:02 p.m.
I'd been bidding on the Ranger Robot like a maniac. Just as I started to wonder if my money would last as long as my willpower, I noticed the auctioneer looking around the room. He was repeating my most recent bid, waiting to see if anyone would step up and beat it. My heart began beating faster as the auctioneer held out for another 30 seconds -- I swear, it felt like an hour. Just waiting as the auctioneer implored someone else to outbid me and drive the price up further.

No one did.

"Sold!" he proclaimed. "To the guy who's been waiting all day for that piece."

I fell back in my seat, a grin plastered across my face. It took me a moment to notice that the room was applauding. Applauding! In a day without any crazy, price-driven drama, my little moment in the sun stood out. I'll admit that it felt good, a perfect ending to what had been a loooooong day.

My Ranger robot. A great example that works like a dream. More details in future posts.

All in all, it turned out to be a fantastic weekend. Good friends, good toys, and good times. If that's not what you're supposed to get out of a hobby, well, I'm not sure why else to even bother!

Happy collecting!


  1. YAY!!!! I loved reading your post...it's exactly the way I felt on Saturday at my auction! You drool over robots, I drool over starburst china. lol

  2. Haha that was an EXCELLENT post! As much as I wanted to know NOW what you ended up with (or without) I read it word for word and scrolled down just enough to read without seeing the ending first - my blood pressure went up as the ride went on - and I am so glad you got your robot!

    Awesome. Just plain awesome!

  3. Great read! There's been so much discussion on this auction from the vinyl and newer die-cast crowd, that it was refreshing to read the perspective of someone who collects an entirely different set of toys.

    Congratulations on the amazing score. Truly beautiful.

  4. @akumn6n:
    There's been a lot of chatter on the various vinyl and die-cast boards, for sure. If you'd like to read more about it from the point of view of us vintage tin and plastic collectors, check out Alphadrome. There are at least three main threads on the subject. Good stuff!

    And thanks for the kind words. The Ranger's a great robot, and I'm looking forward to writing up a post on it. Lots to show and tell about!

  5. Holy Moly I love the Moon Robot and Tetsujin Bot! Excellent.. EXCELLENT Post!!

  6. @DAD:
    Thanks! That Moon Robot is a classic, definitely one I hope to add to my collection. It was tough letting it go this time, but the Ranger Robot was calling my name. Since I haven't won the lottery and I'm rather attached to my internal organs, I only had enough cash for one of them...

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Hello

    I have a Ranger Robot (and fairly tatty box). My parents bought it in Japan in 1967 for me when I was six. I have just this evening got it out from storage to put in a glass fronted bookcase in my new study.. Last time I looked at it (a few years ago) to show my six year old son, it still walked and blew smoke. I was unaware it was a classic until I read your charming story. It sounds like I should insure the Robot. What is it's value?
    New Zealand

  8. Hello Doc!!

    Great post!!, I wonder if you have more pics from the Tetsujin 28 from that auction?.

    Recently I just bought one example of this toy and I'm very happy with it. of course is not in that good condition but is pretty well.



  9. Hi, Maimo65. Unfortunately, I don't have any more pictures of the T28 -- what you see is what I've got. It's a beautiful toy, and I wish I'd taken more photos of it. (Heck, I wish I owned one!)

    Congrats on adding it to your own collection -- you've got every reason to be proud of it!


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