Sunday, July 5, 2009

Top-Shelf Titans: The Andrew Klein Interview

Every Sunday, I sit down with other addicts collectors to take a look at their toys and discuss the hobby of toy collecting. This week: Andrew Klein is our Top-Shelf Titan!

Mixing the excitement of youth with the eye of a seasoned pro, Andrew Klein has leapt enthusiastically into the world of vintage space toys to create a collection impressive in both size and scope. He's a man who knows what he wants, tending to focus on robots and the occasional tank or tractor -- if they're driven by robots! And don't bother looking for any astronauts. As Andy says, "A robot toy, in my mind, could be 'real,' while a toy with a litho face clearly could not be a little man inside a wind-up body. In fact," he adds, "for some reason I can't explain, robots with faces kind of give me the creeps!"

DOC ATOMIC So what attracts you to these toys?
ANDREW KLEIN I suppose, as is the case with many other collectors, toy robots appeal to the kid in me. I’m 39 years old and have been interested in robots and science fiction related toys since the mid-Seventies. Star Wars really ignited my passion with R2-D2. I was fortunate that my mother enjoyed science fiction as well and, for birthdays, would give me Japanese imported die-cast robots as gifts. I still have a couple of them today. One of my favorites is Brain-3 from the UFO Commander series. Another aspect that both attracts me and keeps me interested in the hobby is the quality of design that went into these toys. They were built to stand on their own rather than to be sold in conjunction with a movie release or television show. They are unique to this day.

Some of Klein's collection. How many can you name? (All photos by Andrew Klein)
When did you start collecting?
I had been collecting on and off since I was a kid. This meant I would pick up a robot at a novelty shop if I though it was neat and I’d throw it on my shelf. I really started collecting in earnest somewhere around 1995. I received a copy of the Sotheby's Matt Wyse auction catalog and fell in love with robots I never knew existed. I was amazed because, prior to seeing that catalog, I thought I was an expert on toy robots. How little I knew! The truth is I’m still learning today and hope that I’ll never stop!

What's your approach to collecting? 
While my general collection rule is “collect what you like and what appeals to you," I do have a couple of guidelines I stick to (so far). First, I only collect robots. My second rule is that, with rare exceptions, I only collect toys that were designed and sold as toys. This means no statues, no models, and no art. I even have somewhat of an issue with the new robots on the market as they are not sold as toys and even come with the warning that “this is a collector’s item and not a toy. For adults only." If it wasn’t meant to be played with by a kid than I’m probably not interested in it. With that said, I do have an “Andybot” designed and built by a fellow Alphadrome ( member named Andy Hill. That would be my "rare exception."

(bottom) Robby Space Patrol, a very rare "sled" style space vehicle. Also, one of more accurate toys to capitalize on the film Forbidden Planet.

Do you have a favorite toy, and is it in your collection?
I have a number of favorite pieces and, fortunately, most of them are in my collection. They would include my vintage Mr. Atomic (Cragstan, 1962), Non-Stop (a.k.a. Lavender) Robot (Masudaya, 1960), Ranger Robot (Cragstan, 1965) and Mr. Flash (Cragstan, 1960s). I also hope to own a Target Robot (Masudaya, 1965) someday. 

The wonderful Mr.Atomic was also available in a blue version. [editor's note: This is one of Doc's all-time favorite robots!]

Masudaya's Non-Stop Robot is part of the so-called Gang of Five, a group of large, skirted robots heavily desired by most collectors.  

Cragstan's Ranger Robot not only walked and made noises, but it also blew smoke. A light inside its transparent body helped show off all gears.

The Mr. Atomic and the Lavender robot were always "Holy Grail" robots that I dreamt of before I could afford the higher end toys. I had a copy of 1000 Tin Toys (by Teruhisha Kitahara, 1996) and the Sotheby's Matt Wyse auction catalog (1996) and would stare at these robots on a daily basis and fantasize about someday owning them. To this day, Mr. Atomic still has an impact on me and I’m amazed I have one sitting in my display. 

Also, the Mr. Flash is one of my favorites simply because of the design. I have both the red version and the more scarce silver version. Both are fantastic looking toys and never lose their appeal to me. 

Two versions of Mr. Flash. The silver one is rarest.

Is there any piece in your collection with a good story behind it?
I was cruising eBay when I came across a Missile Robot (Alps, Late 1960s) being sold by a guy in Argentina. It had a Buy-It-Now of $650 and looked to be in fair shape. I noticed also that this guy had re-listed the toy because of a non-paying bidder (so he says). Also, it was a bit fishy that even though the bidding on that first auction had gotten up to over $1400, he decided for a buy it now of $650. Finally, he also indicated he would only take Western Union -- no PayPal. 

Despite all that, I took the chance, thinking I made a great score on a very rare robot. We exchanged a few emails and I learned quickly that he spoke almost no English. He assured me that he would send the robot and to “trust him.” “Don’t worry,” he said. Can you smell the dramatic foreshadowing? 

Missile Man! A scarce toy.

I wired him the money plus $50 for shipping (“Is very heavy robot!” he said). A day later I received confirmation that he had picked the money up. Not long after, I got an email from him that said, “Not worry! I have not send yet! Will send tomorrow!” No problem. People get busy right? Things started to go sour after this. I sent him emails day after day with no response. After about 15 emails over the course of a month with no reply I decided to look up his phone number in Argentina through eBay. The woman who answered (who turned out to be his mother) spoke absolutely no English. I then called my brother-in-law, who speaks Spanish, and told him the story and asked for his help. 

He made several attempts and finally got through to the seller, who said, “Don’t worry. It takes up to three months to get to the United States,” and promised to email me. He never did. It became very clear to me he ripped me off. 

Well, at this point I was out over $750 in fees and payment for the robot. After feeling a bit helpless I decided I was pissed enough to take action. I Googled for an attorney in Buenos Aires that spoke English and contacted her. She agreed to take my case for a flat fee of around $200. I thought that was a great deal. Well, her involvement got this guy’s attention right away. All of a sudden I got an email asking me to take $400 back and to forget the whole thing. I told him to stuff it.  After a few weeks of back and forth my attorney managed to get my money back! She had it wired directly to my account. Turns out this guy had spent the money already and his girlfriend came in and ponied up the cash. I was amazed that I was able to resolve this.

So now at this point in the story I’m thinking I lost the robot but at least I got my money back. 

A few months later I’m on eBay and I see another Alps Missile Robot for auction! Wow! Here’s another chance for me! So I think and sweat and debate: Should I spend the money again? Well, as I keep going back to the auction to look at the picture I notice the robot looks really familiar -- same scratch marks on the tin. I go back to the old auction pictures and…can it be? Yes! It is the same robot the guy in Argentina was selling! 

I called the person holding the legit auction, which happened to be none other than [a long-time dealer named] Robert Johnson at Comet Toys. So we’re chatting about the robot and I tell him about the guy in Argentina. He says “Yeah, that’s where I got this robot!” A year and a half ago! It is now clear the Argentina guy sold it to Robert a long time ago and was using old pictures to rip me off. 

So I decide to bid. And… I lost the auction! Well, I figure this really was not meant to be. I tried to forget my frustration and disappointment at losing this robot again. A week later… It’s back on eBay! I guess Robert had a non-paying bidder. Well, this time I decided I was going to have it. I bid, and won! Now the robot sits in my display along side the other Alps robots (Moon Explorer, TV Spaceman, and Rocket Man).

Giants among robots. (clockwise from top left) Alps' Rocket Man, Moon Explorer, Missile Robot, and Television Spaceman

That's just an incredible story! Given your experiences, what advice would you pass on to a new collector?
Buy what you like. If you love it than it is worth the price. Also, never be ashamed of what you paid for a robot.  Just because it was inexpensive doesn’t mean it isn’t a great robot. The wind-up Radar Hunter is among my favorite robots and they can be had for $20 or so at any given time. If my Mr. Atomic became worthless tomorrow I wouldn’t love it any less and it would still give the same happy feeling that it does now. If another collector criticized your collection then you probably shouldn’t be listening to them any way. Always encourage other collectors and always be encouraged by other collectors. And always, always try to have fun!


  1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    There are many other interviews scattered throughout the blog; they're easy to find if you click on the big ol' "Interviews" button on the right side in the navigation section. I've also got a couple really interesting ones coming up in the next few weeks, so definitely stay tuned (as they say in TV land...).

  2. The gang of five are on the top of my most wanted list i bought the reproductions, but they will never beat the real guys. Do you know where can find one for less than a 1000? With the prices i can find looks like ill have to win the lottery first.

  3. I'm afraid that the only way to get a member of the Gang in good condition for under $1000 is to get extremely lucky. The least expensive of the five averages $3,500 or so -- loose. The most expensive can run up to $50,000 or more. They're rare, desirable toys and the prices generally reflect this.

    That said, I know people who have had amazing luck in getting some of these robots for very little money. It can happen, but it's not likely.

    Good luck!


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