Endnotes: Money in the bank

Editorial Staff Opinion

The banking system’s near collapse has damaged everyone, from “Madoffed” investors to many more whose savings simply evaporated. But while a down market is traditionally a time for snapping up bargains, frustrated antiques dealers say that lately it has been the worst of both worlds: not much great stuff to buy and few to sell to.

Ironically, one good place to put money has been banks—cast-iron mechanical ones made as toys in the United States between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Ingeniously styled as kinetic sculptures in miniature, mechanical banks have been zealously collected since the mid-twentieth century, often by captains of industry who admired their message of thrift and foresight. As exuberantly comic riffs on popular themes, they have also found a colorful niche in prominent collections of American folk art, according to Steven Weiss of Gemini Antiques in Oldwick, New Jersey.

In defiance of the Dow Jones’s winter free fall, a stash of blue-chip mechanical banks assembled for top dollar during good times reportedly sold privately earlier this year for a profit. As the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America would say, “Invest in precious metals.”

The Bank Teller illustrated here was manufactured about 1876 by the J. and E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut. One of a handful of known examples, it fetched $96,000 at Bertoia Auctions of Vineland, New Jersey, in 1998. While mechanical banks have sold publically for as much as $426,000, common examples may sell for as little as a few hundred dollars.

“Gloom and doom is all you hear these days, but when it comes to antique banks and toys, the top end is selling well,” says Pittsburgh dealer and auctioneer Ray Haradin. Mechanical bank buyers of course operate by their own set of rules in a realm where rarity and condition are king and, at least on the best pieces, detailed histories of ownership are available to cognoscenti. Still, the antique toy market offers certain universal lessons. What was once true about buying and selling antiques remains so: for collectors and dealers alike, knowledge and camaraderie—best fostered by shows, clubs, auctions, conventions and other social gatherings—are the true path to enlightenment.

But it is equally correct that the digital age is rapidly delivering on its promise to create a virtual community of collectors whose numbers dwarf anything seen before. LiveAuctioneers.com, for instance, which in January took over eBay’s live auctions business, now partners with nearly eight hundred auction houses worldwide, offering interactive catalogues and a live bidding platform. At The Magazine ANTIQUES, a redesigned Web site provides a much expanded and more current view of the collecting world, served by a chorus of fresh new voices.

“Internet live bidding has changed the antique toy business,” says Catherine Saunders-Watson, founding editor of toycollectormagazine.com. A partner in QM4G Media, whose digital publications include Auction Central News, Saunders-Watson envisions a visually opulent e-zine, available to viewers worldwide who need never fret that the postman is late.

Digital media notwithstanding, nothing surpasses the look and feel of an old and noble thing. The toy world descended in droves on Bertoia Auctions on March 19 to 21 to witness the $4.2 million opening session of the multipart sale, continuing on September 25 and 26, of the sprawling collection happily formed by Donald Kaufman, the co-founder of Kay-Bee Toys, in the day when being there was all.

Images from above: Bank Teller manufactured by the J. and E. Stevens Company, Cromwell, Connecticut, c. 1876. Auctioned from the Stanley P. Sax collection to an American buyer for $96,000 on May 2, 1998. Photograph by courtesy of Bertoia Auctions, Vineland, New Jersey; Fidelitas clown car train manufactured by Märklin Brothers, Göppingen, Germany, c. 1909.  Auctioned from the Donald Kaufman collection for $103,500 on March 19, 2009. Bertoia Auctions photograph.