Toy-collecting couple in Towson in search of dolls, trains and treasures of the past

They came pushing metal grocery carts filled with worn cardboard boxes and large paper shopping bags, unearthed from basements and the backs of closets.

From them they revealed Lionel trains, delicate dolls in lacy dresses, dogeared board games and other childhood memorabilia.

Some hoped to fetch a small fortune, others simply wanted to clear out an elderly parent’s house. They all sought the expertise of “Toy Maven” Bruce Zalkin and his wife Laura, who specialize in collecting and reselling antique toys and other items.

At the antique toy and doll show, which opened Saturday at the Towson University Marriott Conference Hotel and continues through Monday, Bruce Zalkin carefully scrutinized the items before offering a price for those he deemed valuable.

He gently tapped his fingers on a doll’s face to determine the material, squinted through a small magnifier over pieces of costume jewelry — and stacked the less desirable items off to the side, like an unopened box of the board game, Sorry!

Sorry!, indeed.

Laura Zalkin said part of the job of appraisers is to give bad news to sellers: Some of their once cherished items are worthless.

“Some people get really offended,” she said. “It’s not just a toy you’re buying, it’s a memory.”

The couple, from Tampa, Fla., travel all over the country in search of valuable antiques, mostly toys, but occasionally odd items that pique their interest. They once had a brick and mortar store in Florida and organized a large toy show, but now exclusively sell items online. That’s where most buyers go, as they do with much of retail, they said.

These days, the most sought after toys tend to be from the 1970s and earlier, Laura Zalkin said. Many baby boomer and Generation X buyers are looking to fulfill their childhood dreams, on the hunt for Hot Wheels cars with a red stripe on the wheel from the 1960s, G.I. Joe action figures, early Barbie dolls and Star Wars items (from the first three movies, she said).

Determining what’s valuable can be tricky. Not all old Barbie dolls are highly sought after. Laura Zalkin said that a telltale sign of an authentic early Barbie are the copper wire tubes in her feet which originally connected to a stand that came with the doll.

But even if you have such a collectible, the condition of the toy is very important. The more love it had as a toy, the less it might be worth now.

“We can always tell which was the favorite” based on the wear and tear, she said.

Then, there are reproductions that don’t hold any value for collectors.

“They’re basically worthless,” she said, pointing to a table of reproduction “bisque” dolls. Some might have had arms replaced, or handmade clothing that did not come with the doll. That hurts their value.

But even items that are in high demand can fall from prominence. The couple no longer accepts Hummel figurines that once adorned shelves in so many Baltimore living rooms or pricey, ornate china settings, which must be hand washed and aren’t a necessity for minimalist millennials.

Still, some people will collect anything. Laura Zalkin noted eBay posts for “vintage diapers” that sold for several hundred dollars.

Occasionally, the Zalkins come across oddities: one man offered a collection of “petrified penises from animals.” They politely declined. They did attempt to purchase a cane whose owner claimed it had belonged to Pope Pius II. The owner decided to keep it in the family, Bruce Zalkin said.

Those aren’t toys anyway. Still, buyers and sellers have to be ready for anything.

George Hairsine, 80, brought — and sold — some toy cannons he had collected as a child, including from Fort McHenry. He also sold the Zalkin’s a bayonet he said his father, who served in World War II, brought from a Japanese soldier.

He said he felt a little emotional about parting with the bayonet, but “it’s just been sitting there” in his Carney home.

He declined to say how much he got for it, which Bruce Zalkin said he believed was authentic because of a small chrysanthemum etching on the side. Zalkin said the symbol was stamped on Japanese military items at that time.

Diana McGee, of Pasadena, and her husband were pleased to offload boxes of toy trains to the Zalkins, helping them to clear out her father’s home in Locust Point. He had moved to an assisted living facility, she said.

“He was a pack rat,” she announced, just before leaving the hotel conference room.

She soon returned with another load.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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