Friday, July 31, 2009

Top-Shelf Titans: The Donald Conner Interview

Every two weeks (or so), I sit down with other addicts collectors to take a look at their toys and discuss the hobby of toy collecting. This week: Donald Conner is our Top-Shelf Titan!

"The flying saucers are the kind of ships I'd be zooming around in if I were in outer space," says Donald Conner. "To me, they're the sports cars of the space toy world." Conner should know. Since entering the hobby a few years ago, he's managed to put together a world-class collection of vintage flying saucers, one that's filled with some of the rarest and most beautiful examples. As if that weren't enough, he also collects robots and ray guns, and in the latter case, owns some toys you're unlikely to find anywhere else. But Conner didn't start out with this type of collection -- he's a perfect example of how a collector can benefit from sharp focus, strong discipline, an honest appreciation for these toys, and simple trust in his own sound judgment. Oh, and a little bit of luck doesn't hurt either!

DOC ATOMIC What's your approach to collecting, and how has it changed over the years?
DONALD CONNER When I started, I went through the "grab everything and anything you can afford so you can have lots of shelves filled with lots of toys" phase, but after a while I realized that all I was doing was collecting practically at random. I made a decision to focus on just my favorite categories: robots, flying saucers, and ray guns. To do this I would have to forego all other space toys like rockets, capsules, space tanks, and space cars. This was not and is not easy, let me tell you. There are so many toys that I really love from these other categories, but the fact is I can’t afford to collect everything. Focusing on a few things means I can actually build a collection that makes a statement

What do you mean by "a collection that makes a statement?"
Well, obviously, every collection is a statement about the collector's personal taste -- it has to be unless you're super rich and can buy anything and everything. But if a collector finds that they have a real love for a certain type of toy or a particular manufacturer or even a color of toy, and they put together a collection that focuses on whatever that is, in my opinion that makes a different kind of statement. It says, "This is what really turns me on and here are some examples for your enjoyment." 

If the examples are displayed on their own without the distraction of other types of toys, then a statement is made about the essence and purity of the form illustrated by the collector's choices. This is the kind of statement Alfred Stieglitz made when he took hundreds of photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands. Plus, by specializing -- and depending on the category of toy -- it's actually a reasonable goal for the collector of average means to put together a complete collection some day.

What inspired you to move from a "collect everything" mentality to a more focused approach to collecting?
I started to notice that if I got one of something, all of a sudden I was collecting another category of toy. One rocket is cool, but two is better. Eventually, I wanted every every rocket there was. I realized that the more things I collected -- capsules, rockets, space cars -- the more I was spreading my budget thinly over each category. One day I decided to sell everything that wasn't a saucer, ray gun, or robot (I don't make a distinction between astronauts and robots) and channel that money back into the collection.

I noticed that some pieces brought me pleasure every time I looked at them and some didn't. You know what I mean -- there are the pieces you keep coming back to time and again to hold them and cherish them, while others merely fill space on the shelves. The space-fillers were mostly robots that I bought just because I needed a "robot fix" and there was a robot going for a good price. Missing from this equation: It wasn't a piece I loved.  

Different groupings of (mostly) tin robots (top) and plastic ones. 

I remember my breakthrough robot was Chief Robot Man. There was a mint example on eBay and I decided to spend three times as much as I had on any robot up to that time. When it arrived, as soon as I took it out of the box, I knew that I would never regret how much I spent on it. 

Chief Robot Man (center) stands tall.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you can only love expensive toys -- one of my top-three favorite toys that I own I got for under $100. I just decided to limit myself to only toys I absolutely love in my collection and that meant saving up. Once I learned how much satisfaction there is in saving for those very special pieces, I went from needing to have a regular "fix" to actually enjoying the saving part.

Do you have a favorite piece? 
I'd have to say my favorite saucer is the VX-1000, my favorite ray gun is the Shooting Bubble Gun (Arliss, 1950s), and my favorite robot is the Television Robot (Sankai, 1960s). I own the VX-1000 and the Arliss -- two out of three ain't bad!

The VX-1000 (bottom left corner) amidst various other great saucers. 

One of the rarest, and coolest looking space guns ever made: The Shooting Bubble Gun.

Is there any piece in your collection that you never expected to own? And how'd you end up getting it?
The Space Robot X-103 saucer. It's an extremely rare flying saucer with a great, primitive-style robot pilot sitting right in the middle. It's also got the best action of any saucer: You rev the wheels across a table while holding the robot head and then let go. The toy rolls forward while the saucer revolves around the robot's body. This is one of those pieces that you only see in the top collections, like Kitahara's. There have been a few published documentations of this toy as well, in Kitihara's books, Morita's book, and in a mail order catalog sent out years ago by [renowned dealer] Ray Rohr. This is a piece that has eluded the collections of people like Griffith, Wyse, Davidson, Lipps, Lesser, and Rosen

To say I never expected to own one is an understatement!

The fact that I did come to own one is a testament to the benefits of networking. Out of the blue, a friend of mine who is a dealer emailed me an offer for the the X-103. He knew that, as a collector obsessed with flying saucers, I would be a very interested party. Needless to say, the price was more than I take home in a month, let alone the amount that I had on hand for a toy. But after a lot of thought, I decided to make a serious offer and just put it on the credit card. After all, this might have been the only chance I would ever get to buy one, and I was not going to let a little thing like not being able to afford it get in the way! Once I had the toy safely in my clutches, I would move a few pieces to pay off the credit card -- it's the "snag now, figure out how to pay later" technique!

All the other toys want to hang out with the Space Robot X-103!

I happen to know that a number of your toys have good stories behind them. Come on, spit 'em out!
Okay, there's my Mr. Flash; I wish I could find all my robots this way. I had been collecting for maybe two years and a friend of mine knew that I did a lot of traveling to the antique shops that can be found up and down the North Coast. He had visited an antique shop the week before, and told me that if I was ever in that area I should out this particular store because it had a nice selection of antique toys. I grilled him about the type of toys: "Did they have any robots?" I asked. 

"Don't remember."

"How about space ships?"

"Could be."

"Ray guns?"

"Can't say."

So the very next weekend, I drove for two hours just to check out this one antique shop. When I went inside, the little bell above the door was still tinkling as my eye immediately fell on a red and blue figure standing inside an under-counter display full of tin cars and pressed steel planes. There, in all its glory, was a Mr. Flash. I wasn't even fully through the door yet! I always carry batteries with me -- for just such an occasion -- so I tested it out and found it to be in working order with walking motion, swinging arms, and blinking light in the head. I haggled a little on the price and paid about $115.

That experience is what I imagine it was like in the "old days" of robot collecting. Nowadays, a find like that is next to impossible -- or, at the very best, extremely unlikely. It's one of my fondest robot hunting experiences.

Mr. Flash (right) next to the colorful Magnor. 

What about the ray guns... any interesting stories there?
Yes, the Arliss Bubble Gun. That one popped up on eBay as part of a lot featuring about five guns. All of them were somewhat damaged or in poor condition. I was in love with that gun from the image in the book Ray Gun by Eugene Metcalf. The example in the auction was missing half of the sight at the top, and there was only one poorly lighted picture in the auction. I still bid on it because I wanted to hold and examine an example of this fantastic toy. I learned later that several bidders considered bidding but passed because of the missing part. I ended up winning the auction for under $150. 

Here's the kicker: When the seller shipped the lot, she emailed me to say that she had found a little piece of plastic and thought that it must go with one of my guns. Believe it or not, the piece was the other half of the Arliss' sight! It was a clean break that fit back together perfectly, and I was able to restore the gun. Now, it shows only the slightest fracture where it has been repaired. 

[Full disclosure: When he first discovered this lot of guns, Donald was nice enough to email me to see if I was interested in bidding. To his credit, he never mentioned how much he loved the Arliss; he just let me know the auction was there, and added that if I wasn't interested, he would place a bid. I decided that since the Arliss had some damage, I'd pass. I had no idea at the time how rare the gun is, and I wanted to wait for a mint one. Because, you see, I'm an idiot. Regardless, I'll always appreciate the fact that Donald offered to stand aside and let me bid if I'd wanted to. That sort of gracious gesture is why he actually deserves to own the gun! -- Doc Atomic]

Six incredible ray guns! (Clockwise from top left) Shooting Bubble Gun (Arliss, 1950s), Pyrotomic Disintegrator (Pyro Plastics, 1952), Rex Mars Sparking Gun (Marx, 1950s), Pow'r Pop Gun (Glenn, 1951), a rare "color test" green Space Patrol Rocket Pistol (U.S. Plastics, 1952), and Martian Bloon Rocket Gun (Mercury Plastics, 1950s)

What's the craziest thing you've ever done to get a toy?
Knocked on a stranger's door with $7,000 cash in my pocket. [The story behind this involves both Donald and myself; one day, maybe we'll tell it to you. -- Doc]

When did you start collecting? How did you get involved in space toys? 
I was casually picking up random tin toys at garage sales and flea markets for a few years. I decided one day to see what I could learn about toys, so I did a web search for tin toys and stumbled across Alphadrome. At that point, I was completely unaware of this area of collecting. When I visited the pages that had pictures of many of the different robots, all cataloged by manufacturer, my jaw dropped! These were without a doubt the coolest, most desirable of all the vintage toys I had ever seen. By the time I visited the flying saucer pages, I was hooked. All I knew was that I wanted very badly to own these toys.

Three great saucers. The red Astro 8 has sparks that race around the outer edges when it rolls forward.

Variations on a theme. Which is your favorite? 

The Space Giant is the largest of all the vintage saucers.

Mint examples of great robots.

Some nice examples of guns and their packaging. The blue toy on the right is a very rare German version of the Space Patrol Rocket Dart Gun. The lamp is just funky.

It's hard to describe the feeling I had that day, but it was a lot like falling in love at first sight. At the time, I knew very little about eBay, but reading the discussion forums on Alphadrome made it clear that's where I needed to go to find my first pieces. It went slow at first -- it took me a while to get over the fact that I was supposed to send money to a perfect stranger and trust them to send the toy. I can still remember my first three robots: A Taiwanese SJM Rotate-O-Matic, a brown Horikawa Attacking Martian, and a Horikawa Fighting Robot. I would re-arrange those robots on my shelf all day long! For a long time, my plan was to amass a large robot collection, but along the way the flying saucers kept catching my eye. Now the robot collection is secondary to the saucers. Same with the ray guns, I just kept buying them because I liked them, but I never thought I'd have a serious collection.

Do you have any goals as a collector?
I'd like to see how close I can get to a complete collection of Japanese tin flying saucers. There are obviously variations that I don't care about, particularly in the later Masudaya saucer variations of the X-5 and the X-7. Trying to track them all down could get very distracting. As for robots -- I'll never in a million years come close to having them all, but with saucers, I'll have a shot at it.

What's your proudest moment as a collector?
Having some of my saucers included in William Gallagher's book Modern Toys From Japan (Schiffer Press, 2005). I spent many, many hours thumbing through the pages of reference books and auction catalogs, coveting the toys, envying the owners and dreaming of the day I could own some of them myself. Being referred to Mr. Gallagher as someone who could provide pictures of some of the toys he was looking for and eventually having a few of them make it into the book made me feel like I had actually made it into the world that I used to dream about (and still do). It was a moment that made me feel like I was officially a collector.

The saucers on the top shelf (and the green one just below them) represent just some of those produced by Masudaya. Note the picture of Robby the Robot on the Space Patrol saucer (far right).

What's your worst moment?
There was a rare, boxed Masudaya X-12 flying saucer being offered in an online auction, and if I remember correctly, it was the example from the Griffith collection. For some inexplicable reason, I wanted to place my bid at the last minute, although this was not necessary as the bidding was open for two weeks and ended like a standard auction -- once the bidders finished bidding. I set my alarm to get up in the morning in time to place my bid at the last minute -- or, at least I thought I did!I woke up about 20 minutes too late and found that it had gone for less than I Was willing to pay. That's when it hit me -- I had two weeks to place my bid and never did. That one hurt because I just wasn't thinking.

What is the best advice you've gotten regarding collecting? 
Focus, patience, and selectivity. If you spend $100 every week, you will have a large collection of $100 toys. If you can wait and save $100 a week, in four months you can buy a $1600 toy. Also, only the richest collectors can afford to go after everything, so if you have a certain area that you are into, you have a better chance of making a statement.

What advice would you pass on to a collector?
Decide what you like and educate yourself. Learn what toys have been reproduced and how to tell the difference. Hold out for the best condition possible -- you'll be glad you did. I doubt any collector has ever looked back and regretted keeping a high standard for condition!

Various robot boxes: beautiful examples of mid-century space art!


  1. One of the finest collection of saucers you'll ever see! Good show, Don!

  2. Donald was kind enough to sell me a very rare blue Rex Mars Sparking gun. Great collectors are generous too. Thank you Donald, you and Brian are inspirations.


  3. wow !
    I just joined your blog, and this collection is just amazing ! this gentleman has a museum !
    this collection is just out of this world.

    congratulations !



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