Running out of space, collector winds up selling off mechanical toys


"Popeye the Pilot," "Mortimer Snerd Drummer" and "Moon Mullins Hand Car" lithographed tin toys by Marx, aren't what you'd imagine Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus getting all wound up over. He's an MIT graduate, former Dean of the Minnesota Institute of Technology, a past president of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute (a renowned science museum), and, according to his wife, the inventor of a space clock "which you need a Ph.D. to set." But old mechanical toys and how they work keep 82-year-old Dr. Spilhaus running.

As a young boy in South Africa, he didn't have any marvelous little store-bought toys. "I played with mud animals I fashioned along the riverside," he reminisced recently. As an adult, he made up for his youthful lack of playthings. For nearly five decades, Dr. Spilhaus and his wife, Kathleen, have been amassing one of the world's largest collections of 18th-to-20th-century mechanical toys. Nearly 4,000 are displayed on open shelves in four specially constructed rooms added to their 17th-century Virginia farmhouse.

The Spilhauses finally have run out of space. To make room for new acquisitions, about 500 of their mechanical toys are moving to Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions Ltd.'s auction block on July 3, at the Eagle Fire Company in New Hope, Pa. Dealers and collectors are spinning with excitement, since the toys are being offered without reserves, so all will be sold. (Auction information and catalogs [$25 postpaid] are available from Barrett: P.O. Box 1001, Carversville, Pa. 18913, [215] 297-5109.)

Comic character toys from the 1930s and '40s are expected to bring serious money. Marx's lithographed tin Donald Duck "crazy car," a wind-up spring toy that lurches comically, likely may exceed its $250 to $300 pre-sale estimate. There may be a cat fight for two "Pluto" dogs by Marx: they roll over when wound ($100 to $150 each). The rare German tin Mickey Mouse "Hurdy " Gurdy" (Mickey wheeling a wind-up organ) sounds like a bargain at $1,000 to $1,200: it's estimated low because it's in well-used condition. G.I. Joe "Jouncing Jeep" and "Walker" wind-ups in excellent shape, by Unique Art, may beat their $100 to $150 estimates.

Few batteries

What distinguishes the Spilhaus toy collection from others is its breadth. "He didn't always buy toys in the best condition, but he has examples of every mechanism there is," said auctioneer Noel Barrett. Among the offerings are 19th-century German and American steam engines ($100 to $500 each), a rare lever-operated circa 1880 French toy of a Chinese magician standing under a canopy ($1,000 to $1,200), a circa 1885 American clockwork minstrel by Secor playing "the bones," (the sale's top lot, estimated at $10,000 to $12,000), American cast-iron horse wagons, cloth- or fur-covered papier-mache animals from Europe ($300 to $600 each), and German and Japanese-made trucks, boats and trains.

If a toy moved, the Spilhauses wanted it. But, you won't find many battery-operated playthings. Dr. Spilhaus said there are few he likes because "the mechanisms lack imagination" and "you have to keep supplying them with batteries, which cost more than the toys themselves."

Nearly all the Spilhauses' toys pre-date 1950, when the fine art of toy-making began its decline, according to many collectors. "Few modern toys meet our tastes. Old ones combine beauty, humor, art and music. Modern toys lack that," Dr. Spilhaus said. They particularly dislike electronic toys: "You can't see the mechanisms -- electrons are too small for human eyes," and kids can't get the powerful feeling of winding a toy and watching it run. Since most of the Spilhaus toys are operable, Barrett is banking on transforming the power generated at the auction's pre-sale exhibition (July 2, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., and July 3, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.) into high prices.

Deciding which toys to sell was difficult. "We really wanted to keep all of our beloved toys, they're all our favorites. We hated to let any go," said Dr. Spilhaus. "It was the worst custody fight I've seen," said his wife.

One of the toys toughest to let disappear is a glass-domed, 19th-century, automated magician. It plays a shell game on a brocade-covered table amid a bower of peach-colored silk camellias. A clockwork mechanism (wound with a key) operates this rare French toy, in which the magician, with movable head and eyes, raises and lowers the metal cones he grasps in each hand, to reveal different objects. They're moved into position by rotating ratchet wheels in the table top, activated by a wire through a table leg. Barrett expects the successful buyer to pull $3,000 to $3,500 out of a hat for it.

A clown at an easel

Another hard goodbye: to a clown automaton. The brightly dressed crank-operated, circa 1895, German lithographed tin toy Philip Vielmetter sits at an easel, drawing a caricature of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck ($1,600 to $1,800). The clown's pencil is controlled by a double cam, a rotating irregular metal plate which forces the pencil to move along its edges. It comes with additional cams for drawing a monkey or "Punch," of Punch and Judy fame. In their book, "Mechanical Toys, How Old Toys Work,"(Crown, 1989, $27.95 postpaid from the authors, P.O. Box 2000, Middleburg, Va. 22117), the Spilhauses show that although Vielmetter generally is credited with inventing this toy's mechanism, he probably purchased its patent from its English creator, James Walker. Both toys' cams are interchangeable.

"In a sale of this scope, I'm hoping to find some relative bargains," said dealer Jay Lowe, of Lancaster, Pa. Since U.S. toy collectors generally prefer American-made examples, foreign-made toys might be good buys. These include small German lithographed tin figures of a 7-inch bucking bronco ($400 to $450) and a painted tin seal ($100 to $150), and French, circa 1897 to 1912, tin toys by Seraphin Fernand Martin, such as a kitchen maid which drops a stack of tin plates, and a dancing bear ($300 to $400 each).

The July 3 sale may be the first of an eventual series of auctions of the complete Spilhaus collection. They say that although they would have enjoyed seeing their toys in a museum, no institution has come forward yet and they can't endow their own. "Eventually our collection will go back into the hands of collectors who will cherish them," said Dr. Spilhaus.

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