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.


  1. Hey,
    I would like to know what the manufacturer of the impossible-to-find Space Patrol Fiction Car is that is refered to on this home page listed in the Sotheby's auction cataloge.
    Is it made by Asahi (ATC), and blue? And one more thing, could let me know what it went for?


  2. There were many, many cars produced with the name "Space Patrol."

    The one I'm referring to was made by Ichiko/Yonezawa, not Asahi (ATC). It is blue, but it features a robot driver (he's got a boxy head and red "ears") and a graphic of a "Flying Wing" on the side of the car. An exceedingly rare toy... In 2000, at the Sotheby's auction, it sold for more than $39,000 (including the buyer's premium). I have no idea what the Asahi might be worth -- considerably less than $39,000, though.

    Hope this helps.


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