Auctioning off the games people played


Game collecting was once a quiet, private and inexpensive pastime but the rules are changing. High rollers and novice players from around the country will take turns bidding at a rare public auction June 5 and 6 for the most prized collection of board games, card games, toy blocks and puzzles ever assembled.

When the fun is over, chances are Herb and Jackie Siegel will have hit the jackpot. It's their pioneering collection of over 1,200 19th century games that's up for grabs at Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions Ltd.'s sale at the Eagle Fire Hall in New Hope, Pa.

The Siegels started collecting in the 1950s. Working in the printing business, Mr. Siegel was attracted by the color chromolithography of the boxes and boards. Their vivid and often humorous graphics are a pictorial history of 19th century American life.

The Siegels' first game was "Game of The District MessengeBoy or Merit Rewarded" published by McLoughlin Brothers of New York in 1886. In Horatio Alger fashion, the winner becomes president of the telegraph company, having worked his way up -- just as Herb Siegel was doing in business. It's expected to bring $300 to $500 at auction.

When Mr. Siegel found an 1886 McLoughlin catalog, he began looking for every game pictured. The prize of his collection is the only known complete copy of McLoughlin's "Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall Street Game," patented in 1883 and inspired by economic woes of the period. "Bulls and Bears" came in a wooden framed box with stock certificates and paper currency issued by the Sand Bank; its tri-fold board shows the bear in a derby and the bull in a high silk hat getting down to business: shearing a sheep. The characters depicted include financiers Jay Gould and William H. Vanderbilt, possibly drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast, auctioneer Noel Barrett said.

"It would be fitting for 'Bulls and Bears' to make an auction record this year, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the New York Stock Exchange," Mr. Barrett said. It's estimated to bring between $6,000 and $7,000 -- not a bad return considering it cost $1.50 when new, at a time when games generally were a nickel to 50 cents each. Mr. Siegel won't say what it cost him 27 years ago, only that it was then the most he had ever paid for a game.

The current record price for a game is $5,390, paid in November 1991 at Skinner's auction in Bolton, Mass., for "The National Game of The American Eagle," published in 1844 by W. & S.B. Ives of Salem, Mass. Based on a presidential campaign it fetched four times the pre-sale estimate. This election year the Siegels' copy, in better condition, is on the block.

The popularity of game collecting grew slowly, probably because 19th century games don't survive in great numbers. The antiques world started taking games seriously in September 1988, when 1,200 games from the collection of Lee and Rally Dennis of Peterborough, N.H., were auctioned for stellar prices at Skinner's: 25 sold for $1,000 or more. McLoughlin's 1901 "The Man in the Moon," estimated at $300 to $500, fetched a then-record $5,060.

Herb Siegel celebrated his 75th birthday this year and decided it was time to sell, choosing an auction so a new generation of players could have a chance at his games.

The Siegel Collection catalog, featuring detailed descriptions and more than 30 pages of color photos, will long serve as a definitive reference guide for collectors. It's available for $25 postpaid from Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions Ltd., P.O. Box 1001, Carversville, Pa. 18913.

Collectors also should have in their library "Warman's Antique American Games 1840-1940" by Lee Dennis (Wallace-Homestead, updated 1991 edition, $17.95).

For details about the preview, auction and nearby accommodations, call Noel Barrett, (215) 297-5109.

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