Behind an unassuming storefront on West Read Street, clowns and animals cavort freely while prim and proper Victorian ladies and gentlemen look on. A '50s Chevy sits ready to pull its silver trailer cross-country, while music school benefactor George Peabody gazes sternly from a darkened corner. And a game of ping-pong waits to get started.
For eight years, Anne Smith's Antique Toy Museum has sat quietly at 222 W. Read St. on the outer fringes of Mount Vernon, housing a vast trove of mostly late-19th- and early 20th-century playthings. But Smith, who has decided the time has come to sell off her collection and move to Florida, considers it more than a museum. To her, it's a work of art she labored over for years, one she's trying to sell as such. True, she'd probably make more money by breaking up the museum and selling it piecemeal at auction. But turning a profit, she says, has never been the point.
"It's definitely a work of art," says Smith, who also operates an antiques shop and fine-arts gallery out of the Civil War-era building. "When I see it go out of here, it's definitely going to be very hard. If someone takes the whole collection, it won't be as hard as if it has to go to auction. If it ends up going to auction, that'll be … "
Smith, who politely declines to give her age but acknowledges having been in the antiques business since the early 1970s, pauses a moment to look around her museum, at the smiling clowns, serious-looking dolls and frisky animals that have been her charges all these years. She spent decades collecting the toys the museum houses, two years assembling the museum after moving to Baltimore in 2000. For her, breaking it up would be beyond hard to do.
"I'll be torn apart," she says simply.
In truth, the museum has never been much of a moneymaker. In a good month, maybe 20 people would drop in, pay the $5 admission charge ($4 for children and seniors) and gaze over the toys their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents might have played with. Some weeks, no one would come by at all. Maybe a few curious folks would walk in to see what antiques Smith had for sale in the front part of the building, and maybe they'd notice the red curtain separating the shop from the museum. But few would bother to pay the admission charge and peer behind it.
It's been their loss. For just those few bucks, visitors are instantly transported back a few generations. Punch and Judy dolls sit on shelves or hang suspended from strings. Tiny cardboard tuba players huff away silently on their instruments. Century-old jacks-in-the-box grin impishly. An oilcloth World War II-era panda, retired after spending who-knows-how-many years on some child's shelf, smiles contentedly.
"The toys are charming, and they're wonderful," says Smith, whose favorite visitors are the children who seem both astonished and delighted by what their grandparents did for fun. "Toys like this no longer exist in modern society, and what they have now, most of it is, quite frankly, ugly."
True, ugly may be too strong a word. But compared with the vibrant graphics that seem to leap off the toys of yesteryear Smith has collected in her museum — the luminous clown faces, the toy seals with yellow, orange and blue beach balls balanced carefully upon their noses, the "Tom Thumb Toy Town," with its multicolored and intricately designed box alluring in a way no computer printer could ever match — maybe "bland" would be more appropriate.
The lion's share of Smith's toy museum — and rest assured, there are more than a few lions — consists of some 40 dollhouses, all old, all carefully restored and decorated by Smith. There are plenty of other toys in the museum, including circus animals (hence the lions), board games and miniature cars and trucks. But, clearly, the dollhouses and their contents are Smith's first love.
"I always wanted a dollhouse," says Smith, adding she never had one as a child growing up in the Midwest. "But a friend of mine had a wonderful one, one of the early European ones, filled with treasures. I always was very intrigued."
Intrigued enough to spend much of her adult life trying to catch up. She bought her first true dollhouse back in 1970, a gabled Victorian-era beauty, about 5 feet tall by nearly 6 feet wide, that remains the centerpiece of her collection and a highlight of the museum.
"And it did not look like that when I bought it," she says with discernible pride. "It had been in an orphanage, and the kids had climbed all over it, broke the windows. I had to have it totally restored, by a retired New York jeweler who had designed for Cartier and Tiffany. Then I wallpapered it and furnished it, piece by piece."
Smith's museum is chockablock with such carefully restored and lovingly decorated dollhouses, and Smith is an enthusiastic tour guide. She points with pride at the tiny rug spread on the floor of one dollhouse bedroom; it's not a salesman's sample or a miniature reproduction, she stresses, but a real rug, made in the Middle East, "probably for some sheik's daughter." That tiny oil painting sitting on an easel in one of the bedrooms? That's real too, she says — look closely, and you can see the brush strokes. And that bust, staring out from a corner of one room? That's not just anybody; it's George Peabody, the 19th-century millionaire philanthropist whose legacy includes Baltimore's Peabody Institute.
Even the dollhouses themselves, dating back as far as 1840, come with stories. One of Smith's favorites, the one she'd keep if she had to pick, is furnished as a miniature apothecary or drugstore, complete with pill boxes from the 19th century. Others were handmade from wooden shipping crates, by parents who otherwise might not have been able to afford toys for their children.
Smith clearly loves her antique toys and concedes that it will be hard to part with them. She can't remember a time when she didn't love antiques. "I was about 7 years old, visiting my grandmother, when I wandered into a neighborhood antique store. I just liked them."
Through the years, Smith says, she has worked as a graphics designer, run her own auction house and opened several antiques shops. Most of her adult life was split between New York City, where prowling antiques stores on Manhattan's Lower East Side sold her on the business, and upstate New York, where she acquired many of the dollhouses that now sit in the museum. She even opened an earlier version of the toy museum, in 1974 near Poughkeepsie.
She eventually sold most of the contents of that first museum, Smith says, but her love of old toys — especially dollhouses — never wavered. After a few moves to locations in New York, she says, "it was just too much to store and so forth. So I sold much of the collection. But then I said to myself, ‘You know, I still want to have a museum someday.' So I started re-collecting."
In 2000, she and her husband, Joseph Lehn, came to Baltimore, chased away from Manhattan by prohibitive real-estate prices. "They were quoting me $15,000 a month," Smith says, "and we're not talking the Upper East Side, we're talking the Chelsea area." After looking mainly in the Fells Point area, the couple stumbled onto the Read Street property, which had been built for a carriage maker in the 1860s. They loved it, bought it and set up shop — Anne selling antiques and running an art gallery on the first two floors while Joe established a framing business on the third floor.
On May 11, 2002, Smith opened her toy museum — a labor of love she continues to adore. But after eight years, Smith says she is ready to move on.
"Here's the deal," she says. "I'm an artist and a designer, and I've had a dream of putting this together all these years. And guess what? I've satisfied that. I did indeed put it together. It's very rewarding. But I'm tired. And I'm not doing my creative work. I want to get back into designing."
This is not, Smith stresses, a decision she made lightly, or all of a sudden. She has, in fact, been trying to sell the museum — the toys, but not the antique drugstore items she also has on display — for about three years. She has placed ads in antique and toy publications, posted on the Internet and solicited buyers through word-of-mouth. A few have contacted her, but no one has entered into serious discussions. Smith is coy about her asking price but stresses that everything is negotiable.
And time is running out, Smith says. The couple is eager to move to Florida, and Smith hopes to sell the museum's contents within the next two or three months — preferably as a whole, although breaking it up and selling the pieces at auction remains a possibility. But whatever happens, Smith's days as a museum curator seem numbered. Maybe after she has moved down South and the museum contents are no longer on Read Street for the viewing public to enjoy — maybe then people will lament what they missed.
"That's what wears you down over the years," says Smith. "I have people all the time who come in and ask about the museum, but they don't want to pay the admission. … I've had them sneak back there in the dark. I'm talking about people who climb out of Mercedes, BMWs. After they get all snarky and leave, I think, ‘What are they driving? And they can't pay $4?' "
If you go
The Antique Toy Museum is at 222 W. Read St. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, other times by chance or by appointment. Call 410-230-0580 or go to antiqtoymuseum.com