Saturday, October 31, 2009

Auction Results: Smith House Toys

There's a new extreme sport in the world, and it's called toy collecting. Don't believe me? Then you didn't stay awake the extra 12 hours to fight your way to the end of the Smith House Toys auction of Alan Rosen's robot collection. The event went into overtime at 11 p.m. on October 30th and ran until 11 a.m. October 31, marking another marathon session of toy buying, and leaving many collectors with smiles on their faces. (And some holes in their wallets!)

Prices for the 435 lots were all over the map, with record highs as well as screaming deals for savvy buyers. Personally, while there were many toys that I would have liked to own -- and at prices that almost couldn't be denied -- I decided to keep my eyes on a few (secret) prizes. These all went for more than I could afford, thanks to their rare boxes, but I know that other examples will be popping up again at an auction two weeks from now. Consequently, I let a lot of the deals pass me by. Oh well... gotta stay focused!

The belle of the ball was clearly the ultra rare Flying Space Saucer (Aoshin) with it's original box, which brought a whopping $41,923! (Including buyer's premium.) Interesting side note: It was the only piece in the sale that was not part of Alan Rosen's collection.

I'm just too tired to provide a more complete breakdown on prices -- there were just so many toys, with so many highs and so many lows. (Maybe I'll come back and do so in a later post.) There are a couple nice discussions brewing over at Alphadrome for those who are interested. And, of course, you can check out the results for yourself at the Smith House Toys website.

Congratulations to all the winners! And to Craig Thompson (and Alan Rosen if he's reading this), I hope you're happy with how the sale turned out. I think everyone will agree that it was an exciting moment in the toy collecting hobby!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Interview: Smith House Toys' Craig Thompson

With the Smith House Toys auction of Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen's robot collection ending tomorrow night, I thought now would be a good time to present an interview I recently conducted with Smith House owner Craig Thompson. It's an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at how a rather unique auction company operates. It also demonstrates how it's possible to turn a love for the hobby of toy collecting into a thriving family business, one that's survived multiple owners, a changing market, and cutthroat competition.

DOC ATOMIC So, right now, are you surrounded by Alan Rosen's toys?
CRAIG THOMPSON No, I've got the toys in a storage unit.

You're not sitting in a fantasy room surrounded by the greatest robots ever?
[Laughs] Nope, sorry!

Before we talk about the nuts and bolts of running an auction, how about some history? Smith House was originally started by Herb and Barbara Smith in 1986, and I know they were one of the first couple mail-order auction catalog companies. How did you get involved, and when did you end up buying the company?
I'd been involved with the hobby since the early Eighties, as a collector and a dealer. I met Herb in the mid Nineties, and had bought a few things from him. Then, when I was doing some toy shows, he'd come up to me and be like, "Craig, you should consider consigning. I do way better than other guys." He finally talked me into it, and I sent him a few things for three or four auctions in a row -- and they all did fabulously! From then on, I started consigning pretty regularly.

We kept the relationship going, and other friends of mine, including my former business partner Dave Hendrickson, did very well, too. A year or so later, in 2003, Herb approached me and Dave and asked if we wanted to buy the company because he wanted to retire.

Did this take you by surprise?
It's funny, Dave and I had contemplated any number of times opening a similar auction. So it was a weird coincidence when the opportunity came up. We said, "Why not? Let's try it!"

And then eventually I bought out Dave, and now I run the company.

So how did the Alan Rosen collection come together?
I've known Alan for, oh God, I guess I met him the year I bought the business from Herb. Alan and I struck up a friendship and maintained contact since then. He's been a regular consigner since I've been involved in the business, selling off duplicates and extra toys.

Last year, when the economic... "swoon," shall we say, settled in, he decided it was finally time to sell. It was obviously a great opportunity for Smith House. At its height, before he started to sell off bits and pieces, Alan's collection was probably one of the top 10 collections in the world. Robots -- there just weren't a lot of holes. He started buying space toys because he couldn't find robots he didn't already have!

What's involved in a sale like this? Can you walk us through the preparation process?
Well, I bring stuff here to my home, I unpack everything, organize it, figure out a rough order for it to appear in the catalog, and then write the descriptions and take the photos. Getting through all that -- we're talking 435 lots, and maybe 450 or 460 toys total -- takes me about 90 days. Three months of 60, 70 hour weeks.

Three months of getting to mess around with toys.
Yep! [Laughs]

Part of this stage involves setting starting prices and, in the case of some auctions, establishing estimates. Can you talk a little about how that all works?
Well, one area where I differ from other auction companies is that I don't put estimates anywhere. There's a starting bid and that's it. To establish that price, I do research on the toy to see how much I've sold it for in the past, or how much it's sold for elsewhere.

Unless it's something ultra rare, I'll take an average of what I think it'll sell for and then set it back 30-60 percent. I base that on rarity, condition, the condition of the box if it's there, and how much interest I think there's going to be in it. This, then, establishes that opening bid.

Now, if a toy is worth $1000, why not just start it at $800 or something?
Obviously, you want as much activity as possible. Taking a robot that's worth $1000 and starting it at $800 or $900, you'll take away 80-90 percent of the activity the item might get. If that toy's worth $1000 and I open the bidding at $400, yeah, it might sell for $400 or $600. But it might also sell for $1000 or $1200 dollars if it's a pristine example and two people want it.

It's about going for that emotional attachment, right?
Yeah, and we've all done it. If there's something you want, you've spent five years searching for it, and now you've spent two weeks following it, you're not going to let it go for $50 or $100. Five years from now, are you going to remember you spent an extra $100 for it, or are you going to look at it and admire it as it sits on a shelf in your collection?

Now, you mentioned that you don't use estimates.
No, I don't. So many places put ridiculously low estimates on their toys, and then they advertise afterwards that the toy brought three times the estimate. Well, anyone who's got any brains in their head at all will look at the original estimate and see that it's ridiculous to start with.

It's a marketing tool?
Absolutely. I can't tell you how many times I've seen an estimate for, I don't know, $1200 and I know the toy is going to bring $4000. Later, they'll say it sold for three times the estimate, and that looks impressive to the people who aren't in the industry. It's false advertising, as far as I'm concerned.

That's not the only difference between Smith House and other auction companies. For one thing, you allow bidding via the internet and phone, but there's no live auction component. Why's it set up this way?
It's been like this since the beginning when the auction company's original owner, Herb Smith, was running things. And actually, he did very little with the internet, he was pretty much just phone bids.

My feeling is, if it's not broken, don't fix it. The auction company's working well this way. It also keeps the price down to not have a live component, of course. I mean, if a consigner wanted to do it and it was the right consigner, I guess I'd do the auction live. It would have to justify all the extra time and expense. Frankly, I don't know if the results would be any better, and they might even be worse!

Another interesting component of the Smith House auctions has to do with its ending time. Starting at 11 p.m., the entire auction remains open for 15 minutes until no lots receive any bids within that time. Can you tell me how this came about?
It was in place when I bought the business, and it worked really well. As far as the structure, and the way I end the auction, there are any number of benefits, depending on your point of view.

Let's say you have 10 items you're interested in as a bidder. You have X amount of dollars to spend in the auction. If you let the first four or five pieces go by because the ones you're most interested in are at the end of the auction, you risk getting to those items and then losing the actual auction. Now, in this situation, can you look at the items that have already ended and then go rebid on them? No, you can't.

Well, in a Smith House auction, you can do just that.

I know I've been in situations where there were a dozen things I wanted, but the priorities were at the end of the sale. I let the others go, and then ended up losing the two items I really wanted. In that case, I would have gladly gone back to bid on those earlier items if I'd been able, and that would have made them close at substantially higher prices.

And that's how it benefits the consigner, right?
Yes, it maximizes the results. If I'm a bidder, I go back and bid on those earlier items, and it's going to raise those individual results. The consigner stands to make much more money.

Is there any dark side to this process?
[Laughs] Yes, that I have to stay awake until the whole thing ends!

You had a preview of the toys in the Lesser auction, but haven't done so with the Rosen sale. Given how many top-notch toys are available this time around, I'd have thought you might do one. Why not?
That was an experiment, and when combined with the Botstock event of that year, I figured it was worth giving it a try. Alan and I talked about it this time around and with the extra expense involved, he was kind of luke warm about it.

Also, this auction wasn't supposed to be until the end of November, and my plan was to perhaps showcase some of the toys at the Allentown Toy Show. But with the recent addition to the market of the Morphy auction, I was forced to move this sale up. So that preview idea became impossible.

Do you think the preview at the Lesser sale affected the final prices?
I don't want to say it was a failure, but I don't think it added anything to the results. It was a nice event, and it was great seeing everything displayed in one place, but I was disappointed at the interest level. I had a couple guys come in from overseas, but for the most part, it was just the collectors from Botstock.

Your online catalog features a lot of photos, anyway. I've found it to be a pretty good gauge of the toy's condition.
I take multiple photos of everything, yeah. And most of the people who deal with Smith House know how tough I try to be with my condition ratings. My consigners complain all the time that I rate stuff too difficultly!

One of the big complaints that people have about bidding on toys is the buyer's premium -- the fee imposed upon sellers by an auction company once a toy has sold. The argument is that, if a toy sells for $1000, why is there an additional cost attached to it simply because it's being bought at auction, and not at a store. Can you explain a bit about how premiums work, and the logic behind them?
There are several different ways to look at it. When you buy something from a store, the profit margin is already factored into it. Auctioneers, we charge the consigners a certain percentage, and that's what pays for the expenses of running the auction. And honestly, that doesn't leave much room for profit. Our costs include the ads, print mailers, and the catalogs -- it's not an inexpensive venture.

So adding the additional fee to the final sale price... I don't want to say it's "the industry norm," but that's kind of what it is. Every auction house operates very similarly. The percentages can be very different, depending on who you're dealing with, but it's generally how it works. There's a tremendous expense and time put into this. I often joke with my friends -- they'll ask, given how much time is involved, do I make any money? I say that, by the time I've added up all the printing costs and I've figured out the amount of hours I put in, I make about 23 cents an hour!

While I love the hobby, I'm not here to do this for free -- which a lot of people sometimes think I should do!

That said, buyer's premiums have risen a lot in the last 10 years, but I'm still probably the lowest in the business. If you pay with cash or check, my premiums are 13 percent.

You're a small company, as you said. How much of the work is done yourself, how much do you farm out?
I don't farm out anything. I do all the photography and descriptions for the catalogs, the layouts, everything. I once asked a local printer for an estimate for the layout, and it was $20,000. Add the printing costs and it was $40,000! So I'd rather do it myself. I also do all the shipping myself. I once tried hiring some people to help out, but it just didn't work well, it wasn't worth the headache.

Speaking of catalogues and cost... and I'm probably the only one to say this publicly... There are a whole lot of people out there who have the mentality that they deserve a free catalog. Honestly, if I looked at the amount of catalogs I sell compared the cost for how many I have to print, I don't think I'd be printing a catalog. It's a huge loss. Huge.

So why do you continue to do it?
Believe me, I've come close to stopping. But again, it's the industry norm. The day is coming sooner rather than later when I don't do it, except for really big, interesting auctions like Lesser's or Rosen's.

You only do two or three auctions a year, compared to some companies that do many more. Why is that?
I'm definitely pretty particular about what I'll accept and what I won't. I could do six auctions a year if I took everything that presented itself, but it'd be 20 percent nice stuff and 80 percent not nice stuff. I'd have to expand the business, rent office space, hire more staff -- I'm a small business, and I like the niche that I've got.

How would you describe that niche?
I do very well with certain toys, particularly the tin toys, whether they're robots or automotive or character toys or Japanese or American tin, there are very few guys who do as well with them as we do.

I'm not interested in being a Morphy of the world, handling guns and marbles and artwork and pottery and toys and furniture. I got into this business because I love the hobby and that's where I want to stay. Does that mean I pigeon-hole myself a bit? Yeah, probably.

Oh well! [Laughs]

You said that when you bought the company from Herb Smith, you were already buying and selling toys. Can you tell me a little bit about how you became involved in the hobby?
My dad got me involved when I was real young. He was a general antique dealer, and always handled toys whenever he could. One of his friends owned a hobby shop and got me a job there when I was 13, and it just grew from there.

I started going to different markets with my dad. Neither of us had three nickels to rub together, but at that point, you could go out to flea markets and many different areas and buy stuff and then be able to resell it in order to get more money to buy the toys you actually wanted to keep in your own collection.

It must have been nice to be able to connect with your dad in this way.
You know, it was. I was always a sports fanatic and I played a lot of sports in school. My dad didn't really have a lot of interest in that, but we shared an interest in the toy hobby. He wasn't a collector per se, it was more of a money making vehicle for him. But still, it was something we both enjoyed doing.

So what do you collect personally?
My tastes vary widely. My core is pre-war Japanese stuff. If I had the deep pockets to really collect,t hat's where my first love is and always has been. You know, I keep my display space limited on purpose -- if I buy something to put in the case, I have to take something out of the case!

Do you ever find yourself consigning stuff that you'd want to bid on?
Yeah, absolutely.

Is that something you're allowed to do? Or is there a rule saying that you can't bid on the things you sell?
No, I'm allowed to do it -- I bid just like everyone else. There's no advantage, especially because it's a computer-based bid system. But I still try not to do it, generally, because it's expensive! Also, unfortunately, I don't get a whole lot of pre-war Japanese toys.

Maybe that's for the best.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe!

Over the years as an auctioneer, have you had any particular highlights?
You know, just doing this for a living, compared to working a "real job," is pretty cool. I still to this day see stuff that I've never seen before, and that's absolutely cool! It's part of the fun of doing this job in the first place.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Finally not sick!

Okay. Slightly delayed. Germs are stronger than I previously thought. New post tomorrow, I promise. A good one, too! Full of that stuff, waddyacallit... information! Right, full of information. And robots. Good stuff. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Even Robots Get Sick

Sorry for the lack of posts, but I've been sick as a robot dog for the last week. All kinds of aches, pains, and fluids. Especially fluids.

Mmmm. Fluids.

Nonetheless, the Attic will be up and running on Monday with a great interview, as well as the usual assortment of vintage toys!

Now I'm going back to my previous state of collapse.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Smith House Toy Auction Catalogue Posted Online

The online catalogue for Part 2 of the Smith House Toy & Auction Company sale of Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen's collection of robots and space toys is now posted at

Even if you don't plan on bidding, it's worth taking the time to page through the collection. These are some of the best toy robots ever produced, all in mint condition, and most with their original boxes. Smith House does an excellent job of the presenting the toys, using many large photos illustrating multiple angles and details.

The online auction runs until the 30th. It flips into overtime at 11 p.m., until everyone stops bidding for a full 15 minutes. To give you an idea of how long this can take, the auction of Robert Lesser's robots technically went into overtime at 11 p.m. but didn't actually end until about 11 a.m. the next morning. This is toy buying as an extreme sport!

STAY TUNED: Next week I'll be posting a special interview with the owner and proprietor of Smith House. You don't want to miss it!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vintage Toy Daleks (Various, 1960s & 1970s)

In a universe filled with peril, one word inspires fear above all others... Dalek! Not a robot, but an alien mutant encased within a heavily armed and armored battle suit, the Daleks have one mission: Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!

For more than 40 years, these psychopathic little racists have waged war against The Doctor, the hero of Britain's Doctor Who television series. Terrifying enough to send kids scurrying behind the sofa, Daleks were nonetheless one of the most popular characters to emerge from the show. It's no surprise, then, that toy companies in the United Kingdom were quick to capitalize on the public's desire for all things Dalek. A seemingly endless stream of toys flowed into -- and then quickly out of -- stores.

Doc's collection of vintage toy Daleks.

There wasn't ever any question as to whether Daleks would end up in my own collection. They're an iconic piece of science fiction history, and one of the few really great alien toys. Seriously, I've got astronauts, I've got rockets, I've got a heck of a lot of ray guns, but aliens? There just aren't too many out there. And what's a space toy collection without aliens?

But I don't need all of them, so the question quickly became, Which ones do I like? After some heavy research -- remember kids, you can never do enough research! -- I decided that a few stood out from the pack.

1. Mechanical Dalek (Cowan, de Groot Ltd, a.k.a. "Codeg," 1965)

One of the rarest Daleks, this tin-and-plastic wind up toy rolls in a wide circle while his dome and eye stalk slowly scan left and right. It's a surprisingly eerie mechanism, strangely lifelike. If the Dalek weren't a mere six inches tall, it'd probably be kind of scary!

This is the first vintage Dalek I bought, and it fell into my lap right when I decided to add the toys to my collection. I bought it from an eBay seller in the U.K., and thought I was getting the toy along with its original box -- an expensive purchase, but worth it. I don't regularly collect the boxes for toy robots, but I figured that the Daleks were (more or less) affordable enough to allow for the indulgence.

Sadly, when the toy arrived, I realized right away that the box was a fake. A good fake, to be sure, but a fake nonetheless. The inside of the cardboard was the wrong color, and a supposed pen mark on one panel was in fact part of the box's artwork; in other words, the original box had a mark on it which was scanned into a computer. When the reproduction was printed, that mark was printed along with it. A dead giveaway.

I figured I was pretty much screwed, but I contacted the seller anyway to see if I could get some of my money back. Amazingly, he refunded half the purchase price -- exactly what I'd hoped for. So a satisfying if not completely perfect ending: I bought a loose Mechanical Dalek for a fair price, and got a nice reproduction box as a bonus.

He knows you're out there... You can run, but you can't hide!

This is definitely my favorite of the vintage Daleks. I love the abstracted, simplified design and the tin body. And as I mentioned above, the action's top notch. It's a toy with personality, and that's something I'm really attracted to when looking for pieces for my collection.

The Mechanical Dalek also comes in black. It's even rarer than the one I've got. While I'd like to pick it up, too, I'm happy with the blue one. For now...

2. Bump-And-Go Dalek ( Louis Marx Co., 1964/1965)

This 6.5-inch toy was one of the first Daleks produced. It features a bump-and-go action and a flashing light inside its dome. It was made by the British division of Marx Toys.

This is a toy that pops up on eBay quite often, though it's rarely complete. Not surprisingly, the eye stalk, plunger, or gun is usually missing -- and sometimes all three are gone, leaving a strange, sad looking Dalek.

The Marx Dalek was released in four versions. In 1964, it came in two separate colors: silver and black, and featured a larger ball at the end of its eye stalk (this is the version I've got). In 1965, Marx kept the silver and black colors, but shrunk the ball down to a more proportionate size. The color of the base was also changed, I believe. Oh, Marx also changed the box for the toy's 1965 release.

Marx actually put this toy out once more in the Seventies, this time changing the colors to red and yellow. The box was dumbed down, losing its amazing artwork and instead featuring a photo of a couple kids playing with the toy. Despite the strangeness of it all, I really do like the red and yellow Daleks, and will probably try to snag them in the future.

I spent a long time searching for my silver toy before finally finding one at the right price. It was being sold by an eBayer in the United States. He hadn't listed it in the U.K. auctions and it didn't get the number of bidders these toys usually attract. Oh, and unlike my Codeg Mechanical Dalek, this one really did include its original box! Score!

Interesting bit of trivia: When filming a battle scene for an early, black and white episode of Doctor Who, the special effects artist used a couple of these Marx Daleks as models in wide shots.

3. Friction Dalek (Louis Marx Co., 1965)

This smaller version of the early Marx Dalek looks substantially the same, but stands only 4.5 inches tall. It lost the bump-and-go action, as well as its light up dome; now it zips forward after being revved along the floor a couple times.

While not the fanciest of the toy Daleks, I've always appreciated the small scale. They just look cool... a pocket sized, galactic serial killer. How cute!

The small Dalek was released in two colors, silver and black.

4. Talking Dalek (Palitoy Bradgate, 1975)

I love this toy! Seriously, any toy that talks is tops in my book. These squat Daleks use a small record in their bodies to say a number of different phrases. It's the same technology that powered Ideal's Robert the Robot in the 1950s and, later, those "The Cow Says 'Moooooo'" toys. Vinyl tech -- just awesome!

These fairly common toys came in red or silver. They can't move on their own, but do have posable suction arms, guns, and eye stalks. The record is activated by pushing the button on top of their heads.

Maybe he won't notice me... Crap!

I was able to snag a silver talking Dalek, mint in box, pretty early on. I decided I wanted the red one with the box as well, but try as I might, I just couldn't find one. Then, I got clever...

A junker appeared on eBay, and even though the toy was missing all its limbs, it had a great looking box. At the same time, a beautiful, loose example of the toy popped up. So I figured I'd bid on the one with the nice box, which ended first, and then swoop in to pick up the loose Dalek. Voila, a complete set!

My plan started off strongly with me winning the example with the nice box for a very comfortable price. Part A: Success! And then...

Then I forgot to bid on the loose toy!

To say I felt like an idiot would be an understatement. Part B: Ultra Fail!

Okay, maybe he won't notice me... Crap!

Ultimately, I ended up winning a mint, boxed example a week or two later. It didn't cost too much money, even taking into account the extra box and junker Dalek I'd picked up during my ill-fated journey into the Land of Too Damn Clever For My Own Damn Good. So all's well that ends well, right?


Before wrapping up this epic post, I want to mention a great reference book: Howe's Transcendental Toy Box, Second Edition, by David J. Howe & Arnold T. Blumberg (Telos, 2003).

This fantastic guide to collecting all things Doctor Who has been a huge -- huge -- help in guiding me through the wild, wooly, often confusing world of toy Daleks. If you're interested in any aspect of Doctor Who merchandise, either as a collector or simply a fan of the show and its history, I highly recommend picking up this book.

David J. Howe also runs a nifty forum dedicated to the discussion of Doctor Who merch. It's called, appropriately enough, Howe's Transcendental Toybox, and can be found at

There are still a few Daleks I'd like to add to my collection. They're not priorities, though -- I tend to go through phases, and right now Daleks just aren't in the cards. One of these days, though, the switch in my brain will flip and I'll be on the hunt for the little buggers. That's just how I roll.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crass Commercialism! Stuff I've Got On eBay

I've got stuff for sale on eBay that I think you, my happy readers, might enjoy owning. Everything's got cheap buy-it-nows, but the starting bids (and, if applicable, the reserves) are even lower. So, without further ado, let the capitalism begin!

What's up for grabs? Swing on over here to see!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Swift's Space Travel Guide (Howard Kaneff/Swift, 1958)

Everyone knows that traveling into space is a piece of cake. But getting where you need to go? That's the tough part! Unless, of course, you've got this handy Space Travel Guide.

With a turn of the wheel, it tells you everything you need to know about the planets in our solar system: The astronomical sign, the maximum surface temperature, the distance from the Earth at its closest approach, and the period of revolution around the sun. Yep, computers are for punks!

The card also points out that "The Sun has a diameter of 864,000 miles. The average distance from Earth is about 93,000,000 miles. The average surface temperature has been computed to be about 10,000 (degrees) Fahrenheit. The light from the Sun reaches the Earth in 498.6 seconds or slightly more than eight minutes."


The back of the card provides even more useful information, with a diagram illustrating the size of each planetary body relative to Earth as well as the mean diameter in miles.

And in case you're feeling a little peckish from your interstellar wanderings, there's a handy advertisement for Swift's Premium Flavor-Tite Dried Beef! As it says, "Out of this world recipes on the back of every package. Get into Space Orbit with.... Satellite Surprize, Interplanetary Delight, Supersonic Sandwiches or Space Snacks." And yes, they spell it "surprize" because that's how things are spelled in The Future!

All in all, this is a great little premium from a time when kids still considered science and space exploration cool. Yeah, it's educational -- but it's also the type of thing that a young Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or Tom Corbett would drop in his pack, along with his Space Phones and ray gun, before running out to play with his friends. Good stuff, right? Right.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Space Rocket Whistle Mug (Unknown, 1950s)

Space is dark, space is cold, space is lonely. Nothing helps pass the time on patrol like a nice, steaming cup of Joe. Keep your ray guns and Space-O-Phones. Times like these, you need a space mug!

The graphics set the mood, of course, with an astronaut floating above an old-school space station and, in the distance, the planet Earth. Flip the mug around and you get another shot of the home world.

But what really designates this mug as a device from some long, lost future-that-never-came-to-be is the amazing, rocket-shaped whistle! Is it a tool for signaling the waitress at an all night, orbital diner? Is it pitched at just the right frequency to scare off an angry Neptunian? I don't know, and I don't care! It's great!

I like that there's a spot on the bottom of the mug to write your name. And yes, I've been tempted to put mine there... But the collector in me keeps twitching at the idea of marking it up. I'm not too much of a freak about sealing up my toys and collectibles in airtight containers, but even I draw the line at drawing a line on my stuff. For now, anyway... The five-year-old in me might win out one of these days!

The mug was made in Japan, but beyond that, I don't know anything about it. Manufacturer? No clue. Year? Nope. Even the name remains steeped in mystery -- I decided to call it "Space Rocket Whistle Mug," but for all I know, the company that produced it called it something simple like... well... mug. If anyone knows anything about this piece, please drop me a line. I'd love to learn more about it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Space Toys on eBay: A (Second) Round Up of Ended Auctions

Another look at some of the space toy auctions that caught my eye over the last few months. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and doesn't even touch on every great toy to pass through my watching page. These are just pieces worth taking a second glance at, surprising appearances that made me pause for a moment and utter a quiet, "Whoa."

As before, I'm intentionally leaving out information about the auctions themselves -- who was selling the toy, what it went for, etc. While it's public information, I still feel like I'd be stepping on other collectors' toes by including such details.

So... What was on eBay recently? Some juicy stuff indeed!

1. Diamond Planet Robot (Yonezawa, Early 1960s)
This is definitely one of the rarest robots to appear on eBay in a while -- hell, it's one of the rarest robots period. I know of maybe four or five others floating around out there (which isn't to say there aren't more, just that I don't know who owns them). Even in this rusty condition, it's still an amazing treasure. This large, wind-up tin robot was also available in red, and a there's a battery-operated prototype living somewhere in Japan. Seeing it pop up on eBay was a real thrill.

2. Domed Easel Back Robot (Linemar, Late 1950s)
An uncommon, battery operated robot with loads of litho and a great, funky, fish bowl helmet, the Domed Easel Back is one of my favorite toys. (One I'm proud to say I own, by the way -- look for a longer entry on it sometime soon.) It's most often missing that helmet, which is made of a thin, vacuum-formed plastic. This one's not only complete and minty, it comes with it's original box (not pictured because I'm a bit lazy). There are three other Easel Back Robots -- one other remote-controlled one, and two wind ups. This is definitely the rarest and most desirable of the lot.

3. Lilliput Robot (Unknown, 1938)
This is the first toy robot ever made. Boxy, primitive -- it's a beautiful piece that tops many collectors' wish lists (including my own). Needless to say, they're rare toys, though not as rare as one might think; they built 'em to last back then, I guess. There are actually two versions of the Lilliput Robot: One features a dial that's actually made from a separate piece of tin that's set inside the robot's chest, while the other has a dial that's simply stamped into the chest itself. This is an example of the former; I can't say which is rarer, but I know I like the two-piece version a bit more. That said... I'll take either one!

4. Martian Triple Shot Sky-Gun (Mercury Plastics, 1950s)
This is an uncommon gun that fires up to three propellors at once. Normally, it's found in red, and it's also been seen in black. Until now, I've never seen a blue one. (I'm an idiot for not bidding on it, and that's all I'll say on the matter...) The gun was also available with a design variation that includes fewer fin details. I've got both versions in red, one of which is mint-in-bag with a header card. Still, I should have snagged the blue one! Oh well, I'm sure it went to someone who appreciates it.

5. Robbie The Roving Robot (S.N.K., 1950s)
This is by far the rarest of a trio of robots made by S.N.K. that includes the wind up Sparkling Mike (seen here) and the battery operated Flashy Jim. While those other two pop up on eBay all the time, Robbie remains elusive. It differs from its brothers in a couple significant ways. Besides having different litho, it also uses a simple pin-walking mechanism similar to Atomic Robot Man (see here for more details).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Auction Catalogues: The Griffith Sale (Sotheby's, December 2000)

I love flipping through catalogues from past toy auctions. The photos, the descriptions, the prices -- these books capture a single moment of the hobby for later collectors to pour through, speculate on, and generally drool over.

One of my favorite catalogues is from the sale of F. H. Griffith's collection of vintage tin robots and space toys. Officially titled "Important Robots and Antique Toys From the Estate of F. H. Griffith," most collectors know it simply as "Griff." As in, "It's in 'Griff,' page 56."

Doc's beat up copy of the Griff catalogue. He's got a second, mint copy in storage.

F. H. Griffith was a long-time collector, the kind of old-school toy maniac who sought out tin robots when most antique dealers still considered them junk. His motto was "Mint in box!" and he stood by it with a vehemence that bordered on the pathological. People who knew him described him as "cantankerous," and some were a little stronger in their appraisal of Griff's personality. But no one -- no one -- questioned his keen eye, good taste, vision, and forward-thinking approach to collecting. Griff was a collector's collector, the kind of guy who inspired disciples and rivals. Some people considered themselves both!

When he died, lots of people wondered what would happen to all those wonderful toys. It's no surprise, then, that when Sotheby's announced that they'd be selling everything -- well, almost everything -- at auction, collectors came out of the woodwork to attend. Not everyone expected to buy anything, but everyone wanted to experience the sale for themselves.

The catalogue that Sotheby's published for the sale has since become something of a standard guide for collectors. Included are great photos of the so-called Gang of Five (five large, rare, skirted robots produced by Masudaya in the late Fifties and early Sixties), Sankei's Television Robot, a dead-mint Hook Robot and box, the elusive Chime Trooper, the Jupiter Robot, Diamond Planet, seldom seen variations of various 'bots and astronauts, and rare rockets and space cars (including the impossible-to-find Space Patrol Friction Car). Page after page of toys, the kind of stuff that inspires the rest of us to greatness (and bankruptcy).

Griff also collected vintage cast iron banks, fireman memorabilia, and a whole host of other related items. As an added bonus, the first half of the catalogue is full of these great pieces of history.

The Griff catalogue often shows up on eBay, and today can fetch pretty high prices -- I've seen them sell for as much as $75, though they tend to float around $45 or so. They often include a list of realized auction prices, though it should be noted that today's market is drastically different than that of 2000 and the prices should serve more as entertaining reading than accurate valuation.

While it's true that other collections and sales have been bigger (including at least one of the upcoming "mega auctions"), and other catalogues more accurate, the Griffith auction remains a high-point of excitement within the hobby. And thanks to the catalogue, even newer collectors can catch a glimpse of all the hubbub.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Let's Make a Deal: Mighty Robot

Here's a story, kids. It's about the impossible becoming possible, the fantasy coming true, the stars aligning, and the deal of a century landing smack at your feet. Or someone's feet. Certainly not my feet, but that's okay.

Let's do this up right: Once upon a time, there was a toy robot. Its name was Mighty Robot, but its friends called it Racoon Robot on account of the markings around its eyes.

Recently, Might Robot made an appearance at an obscure auction house, where it sold for a measly $4,500. Jaws dropped, eyes bugged, and... Wait. What was that?

Yes, you heard me right. I said "measly."

Mighty Robot is one of those toys that lives in myth and legend. Only a handful are known to exist and they rarely come up for sale. Most conservative estimates price the toy at a whopping $12,000-$15,000. That's loose, by the way. When a box is include in the sale, as in the above auction... Well, the rule of thumb is that boxes double the price. However, rare boxes can drive the price up so much more. And this is definitely a rare box.

$4,500 is nothing to laugh at, especially in today's rotten economy, but it's still an absolute bargain for a toy that, even in today's rotten economy, can sell for as much as a car. And I'm talking about a real car, not a toy one. So I'll say it again: "It sold for a measly $4,500."

All of which makes me very happy. No, not because I'm the lucky owner of this particular Mighty robot. Let's face it, this isn't a toy I'm ever going to own, whether or not it's "on sale." (While reproductions exist, they're just not the same for me.) But we've all got dreams, we all hope that one day we'll score an incredible deal on a toy. It's a tough dream to keep alive, though, as we scour auctions and flea markets and yard sales and antique malls to no avail, and the bright light of optimism slowly dims to a mere flicker.

But don't despair! A collector out there (admittedly, with deeper pockets than I've got) said to himself, "Geez, imagine finding a Mighty Robot for under five grand. Wouldn't that be keen?"

Guess what? His tin toy dreams came true, why can't the rest of ours do the same?

So sweet dreams, kids, and happy collecting!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ach, so lazy

I'll admit it, I've not been updating this blog as often as I should -- or as often as I'd like to. A combination of distracting commitments and, I'll admit, laziness, has kept me from writing as much as I did in its early days. But never fear! Starting on Monday, I'll be updating the Attic every day... Okay, every two days, at most. But much more frequently, I promise.

I'll also be bringing back the Top-Shelf Titans column, as well as two other interviews that I'm sure everyone will enjoy.

Yep, now that summer's finally, completely, absolutely over and done with, my schedule is returning to normal, as is that of the Attic.

So I apologize for the delays, but you've only got to survive one more weekend before I'm back with the vintage toy porn you all know and -- I'm assuming -- love.