If our memories could be wound back by the simple twist of a plastic dial, everyone would have the chance to revisit moments they spent with their favorite toys. On the reel of childhood highlights, there lies a special toy that accompanied us at school, on family trips and one that had to be kept in our direct line of sight before bedtime. However, long after we've out grown this gleeful stage of amusement, the magic within these nostalgic objects remains the same.
In the auction world, the vintage and antique toy market is overflowing with charming stories that all originate from this place of play. Did the distant melody of an antique music box ever make you smile? Maybe the wheels of a cast-iron carriage parked itself on a curious corner of your heart. Perhaps, you're tinkering with the idea of collecting vintage or antique toys! If this is the case, then you're in luck! We called upon the one man that collectors would truly want advice from on this topic, and that man is Noel Barrett.
Noel Barrett of Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions LTD standing with a folk art, painted tin and wood carouselPhoto by R. Scudder Smith, Antiques & The Arts Weekly
In the same way that real estate is so reliant on “location, location, location,” antique toys are all about “condition, condition, condition.” Condition is the most important aspect of an antique toy and can often trump rarity. If you are buying online, pay attention to the images posted of an item and be sure to look at the different angles that are provided. Reading the description provided by the seller or au ction house can also help determine what condition the toy is in. In addition, unlike other areas of antiques, patina is not necessarily sought after. Although it can add character, a hand-painted toy like a ‘Teddy and the Bear Bank’ can sell for $600 with paint loss or fetch up to $8,500 in near perfect condition.
The majority of antique toys don’t have the original boxes they came in. Actually, boxes are more rare than the toy itself and can often double the value of a set. For instance, even an empty box without a toy inside can fetch up to $2,500! That is of course, if it is graphically attractive and hits all the right buttons in terms of rarity. With that being said, don’t be too much of a stickler! If you wait around for a toy that has a box you’ll end up never starting your collection. Just think of it as an added bonus.
First of all, if someone selling you an antique toy tells you to buy it because “it’s a good investment” walk away. Buy things that you love, period. With luck, if you decide to sell it again, you will get what you paid for it and if you are even luckier you might get more. If you really like something, it doesn’t matter what it goes for (high end or low end) just buy it anyway!
Know what you’re buying by getting familiar with what’s out there. You can grow your collection by taking notice of your options. Go to trade shows, antique fairs, and auction previews to educate yourself. The more you see the more you can learn from your mistakes! Sometimes, collectors buy things that aren’t accurate, and it’s only by seeing other examples that you can notice the things that you missed before. Take notes, make a cheat sheet and talk to other collectors!
Some people only collect specific makers, while others collect a wide variety. So, whether it’s a one-of-a-kind folk art toy or an item produced by a major manufacturer, by something that’s tuned into your taste and appreciation for what it is. Bottom line, get your feet wet. Buy one toy and go from there!
Noel Barrett was born in Westerly, Rhode Island, and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. He attended St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, and afterward studied film and American history at City College of New York and Columbia University.
arrett's lifelong hobby progressed into a carrer as a highly respected dealer and appraiser specializing in antique and vintage toys as well as advertising memorabilia. His expertise has been enjoyed on television for over 20 years on PBS Antiques Roadshow. His playful engagement with roadshow visitors and supremely informed explanations has helped countless toy collectors across the nation better
understand and value their unique objects. In 2016, the world of auctions watched a kismet partnership unfold between Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions LTD and Bidsquare's partners Pook & Pook, Inc. With merged auctions individually tipping over the $1 million mark in sales, the collaboration has benefited both businesses as well as a growing audience of antique and vintage toy collectors.
Mr. Barrett is an active collector of optical and pre-cinema toys, lithographed paper and comic character toys, as well as salesman's samples and advertising icons. He has written numerous articles for various collector publications, particularly Antique Toy World and he served as the president of the Antique Toy Collectors of America.
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