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    Auction Finds

    Black Americana toys & more

    The auctioneer had given my auction-buddy Janet a heads-up on one particular vintage toy in an upcoming auction. It was a Louis Armstrong tin wind-up toy made in Japan in the 1950s.

    It would be sold at the auction-house’s special toy sale – which would also be conducted online – so she knew the price would be steep. Specialty toy sales bring out both dealers and collectors, and on the day of the auction, they came out with their checkbooks and their wallets wide open.

    Louis Armstrong wind-up tin toy, sold for $90.

    One of the bidders that day was a regular who sold toys and was something of an expert. I wondered which toys would be the big sellers: Satchmo/Louis Armstrong, he said, along with the Six Million Dollar Man, the merry-go-round, the firefighter. (Click on the photo above for a full view of the toy.)

    There was only a smattering of Black Americana toys, and they did not command the highest prices. The toys in the auction were more vintage than antique, with most made in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s and a few from the 1920s and ‘30s.

    The Louis Armstrong toy was made by a company called TN Toys (or Toys Nomura), one of the major makers of tin toys around that period. The auction sheet described it as “lithographed tin & rubber face.” The toy, which worked sporadically, sold for $90.

    The toy would fall under the broad heading of “Black memorabilia” or “Black Americana” items that were popular from the 1880s until around World War II. Most of the items – from cookie jars to calendars, housewares to advertising – were produced with derogatory images of black people. Interest in them seemed to wane in the decades after the war amid the emergence of black pride but now has picked up again.

    Black Americana figures, sold for $75.

    They are highly collectible, hard to come by and can demand pretty steep prices. I’ve been to many auctions and watched as buyers batted bids back and forth for the most stereotypical of them. Even the obvious reproductions drew heated bidding.

    People – including African American collectors – have their own reasons for buying or collecting Black Americana: To remind them of the past (not so good for black people, nostalgic for some others), for the history attached to it, to make a buck by selling it, to take it out of circulation, or just to collect it.

    EBay has made the items more available and easier to find, along with many sites on the web that sell the stuff. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI, offers some history on Black Americana and what it embodied.

    The auction didn’t offer many choices of Black Americana toys, though. There were only a handful of pieces:

    Black Americana doll, at left, and bank.

    1930s Black Americana doll, 9″ tall, with composition head and jointed arms, straw-filled cloth body, painted hair & eyes, $90.

    Three Black Americana figures, painted: 2″ cast-iron Aunt Jemima, 3″ x 2 ½” lead boy and girl seated on a bench, 2 ½” lead man with door & hammer, $75.

    Black Americana cast-iron still bank, 7″, $45.

    Many of the toys were wind-up tin toys. Wind-up toys were first mass-produced in the late 1800s in Europe, and became popular here in the early part of the 20th century, with Louis Marx among the leading makers. Several Marx tin wind-ups from the 1930s were in the auction. Tin toys were being made in this country as early as the 1840s by the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory.  

    Here are some other toys that were sold:

    Hand-painted wood John Robinson Crusoe Circus O gauge train set, $375

    1960s American Character Tiny Tears doll, with accessories, $160

    1950s Murray Jet Flow Drive Builder Supply dump truck pedal car, $140

    1960s-1980s Matchbook Cars, 14 of them. These come up often at auction and are pretty popular, $90

    1939 Walt Disney/Marx Co. lithographed tin wind-up Pinocchio, 8 ½”, $130

    1945 Unique Art Manufacturing Co. lithographed wind-up Lil Abner Dogpatch Band, 8″. Unique was an American company founded in 1916 in Newark, NY. This was apparently its first commercially successful toy, $275

    1940s unmarked lithographed tin wind-up circus rolling toy, $120

    1940s Unique Art lithographed tin wind-up Lincoln Tunnel, 24″, $100

    1930s Marx Co. lithographed tin wind-up The Big Parade, 24″, $180

    1950s Marx The Mysterious Woodpecker Knothole Game with box, $100

    1950s Frankonia Toys Japanese lithographed tin & plastic Friction Cap Firing Santa Fe Railroad  Stagecoach with box, $130.

    1977 Kenner Toy Co. Six Million Dollar Man 12″ doll, $70.

    The toy expert was a little off on the big winners (I didn’t get the price on the merry-go-round and firefighter), but even he was surprised at the outcome. Auctions are as unpredictable as the people who bid at them. You just never know how they will turn out.

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