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Thu December 16, 2010
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Malcolm Forbes' Toy Auction Could Bring In Millions

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:38 am

It's hard to believe that a toy auction could bring in $3 million to $5 million in this economy, but when you're talking about toys owned by late publisher Malcolm Forbes, you know it's not just any toy collection.

Thousands of items he collected are going on the auction block at Sotheby's on Friday.

Forbes Magazine's motto is "the capitalist tool," so it's not surprising that Forbes collected Monopoly sets.

"Monopoly, in a sense, is all about capitalism," says David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's.

The earliest homemade version of the game known to have survived -- from 1933, when the board was still round -- is expected to go for between $60,000 and $80,000. And there are all kinds of later sets in Forbes' collection.

But what's more surprising in this collection are the armies of toy soldiers: Revolutionary War, Wild West -- complete with toy buffaloes -- legions of Aztecs, castles filled with medieval warriors. There are hundreds of toy motorcycles and many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boats -- tiny boats, huge ocean liners, battleships.

"These were made to be actually played with. They were made to go into water, and that is why toy boats are quite rare -- because so many of them sank," says Redden.

One German gunboat, created in the 1880s by Rock and Graner, is a combination of a steamboat and a sailboat with beautiful folk art characteristics. This boat is expected to go for between $150,000 and $250,000, and could well set a world record for a toy. It's clearly not really something a child would play with. Most of the collection dates from between the mid-19th century to just before World War I, when, as Redden put it, the fantasy of the Gilded Age ended.

Forbes collected for more than four decades. Some of his collection was on view until recently at the Forbes Gallery on Fifth Avenue, in New York City.

Why did Forbes create such a big collection? And why so many boats? Redden tells a story of a young Malcolm Forbes traveling on an ocean liner with his family to Scotland. He put his favorite toy boat on a long string and put it down into the turbulent ocean to sail behind the huge liner.

"And needless to say," says Redden, "the boat was never seen again, and he was devastated. So, there really is a Rosebud sense to all of this; he was trying to bring back that lost toy of his childhood."

And that's true for many collectors.

Toy collector and dealer Leon Weiss has collected toys since he was 11 -- that's more than 40 years. As Weiss walked through Forbes' collection, he says he actually sold Forbes a few boats over the years. He loves that German gunboat.

"I personally believe that old toys transcend generations. For me, it evokes an emotion and triggers a memory," Weiss says.

But it's not just toy collectors who will come to this auction, Redden says. "This also takes people back to their childhoods. Whether or not you had a battalion of toy soldiers or a fleet of ships, you wish you had had them," Redden says.

Although perhaps not at these prices.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, host:

It may be a little hard to believe that a toy auction could bring in three to five million dollars in this economic climate. Then again, we're talking about the toy collection of the late publisher Malcolm Forbes. Thousands of items he collected go on the auction block tomorrow at Sotheby's. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Think of the phrase: Forbes Magazine: the capitalist tool. It's not surprising, then, that Malcolm Forbes collected Monopoly sets. David Redden is vice chairman of Sotheby's.

Mr. DAVID REDDEN (Vice Chairman, Sotheby's): Monopoly, in a sense, is all about capitalism. Developed in the 1930s, we have, you know, the first versions, you know. It was round here, and then he went to a square version over here.

ADLER: The earliest, round Monopoly game from 1933 is expected to go for between $60,000 and $80,000. But what's more surprising is the armies of toy soldiers, revolutionary war, Wild West, complete with toy buffalos, legions of Aztecs, castles filled with medieval warriors, and, of course, toy motorcycles and many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of boats. Tiny boats, huge ocean liners, battleships.

Mr. REDDEN: These were made to be actually played with. They were made to go into water. And that is why actually toy boats are quite rare, because so many of them sank.

ADLER: Forbes collected over four decades. Some of his collection was on view, until recently, when you went to the Forbes Gallery on Fifth Avenue. One German gunboat, created in the 1880s by Rock and Graner - a combination of a steamboat and a sailboat with beautiful folk art characteristics - is estimated to go for between two and three hundred thousand dollars and could set a world record price for a toy. Clearly, not really something a child would play with.

Most of the collection dates from between the mid-19th century, to just before World War I, when as Redden put it, the fantasy of the Gilded Age ended.

Why does Forbes create such a big collection, and why so many boats? Redden tells a story that one day Malcolm Forbes - as a child - was traveling on an ocean liner with his family to Scotland. He put his favorite toy boat on a long string and put it down into the turbulent ocean to sail behind the huge liner.

Mr. REDDEN: And needless to say the boat was never seen again, and he was devastated. So there really is a Rosebud sense to all of this. He was trying to bring back that lost toy of his childhood.

ADLER: And that's true for many collectors. Leon Weiss has collected toys since he was eleven - that's more than 40 years - and he's also a dealer. As he walked through the collection, he told me he actually sold Malcolm Forbes a few boats over the years. He loves that German gunboat.

Mr. LEON WEISS (Toy collector and dealer): I personally believe that old toys transcend generations. For me it evokes an emotion and triggers a memory.

ADLER: But it's not just toy collectors who will come to this auction, says Redden.

Mr. REDDEN: This also takes people back to their childhoods. I mean, whether or not you had a battalion of toy soldiers or a fleet of ships, you wish you had had them.

ADLER: Although perhaps not at these prices.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

GONYEA: You can see pictures of the Forbes collection for free on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.