From Playtime to Priceless: How Mechanical Toys Became Coveted Collectibles

March 25th, 2024

Märklin spring-loaded tinplate steam locomotive, 1906, Germany. Milan, Museo Del Giocattolo E Del Bambino (Toy Museum). Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images (detail)

Automata, best described as ‘self-operating’ machines, were known in the Ancient World. In 1900, divers recovered the remarkable Antikythera Mechanism – an Ancient Greek model of the solar system, dating from circa 87 BC – considered the oldest known example of an analogue computer operated by a complex system of bronze gears. Archytas, the Greek mathematician, is also said to have invented a miraculous flying dove, or pigeon, operated by a jet of compressed air. Ancient China has further accounts of wooden flying birds and mechanical, life-like figures.

Archytas, 428 To 347 Bc. Ancient Greek Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer, Statesman, And Strategist. From Crabb’s Historical Dictionary Published 1825. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The discovery of coiled tempered steel in the early 15th century, replacing weights with wound spring mechanisms, allowed clockmakers to create portable devices – reviving interest in automata. In 1547, Dr John Dee, Elizabeth I’s court astrologer and magus, invented a vast mechanical beetle which flew around the stage during a performance of Aristophanes at Trinity College, Cambridge. And Nefs– elaborate galleon models made from silver, gold or precious metals – might be fitted with a spring and propelled across a dining table at banquets. The Mechanical Galleon, now in the collection of the British Museum, was made around 1585 by Hans Schlottheim for Augustus, Elector of Saxony. Three separate clockwork mechanisms powered a clock, music and movement, including firing cannons and blaring trumpets.

Detail of The Mechanical Galleon in the British Museum – Room 39. Photo © Paul Hudson / Licence CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

Then, in 1764, Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist, unveiled his extraordinary life-like ‘Digesting Duck’ automaton – which flapped its wings, drank water and took food from the operator’s hands- at the same time neatly defecting pellets from its behind. Between 1768 and 1774, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss watchmaker, with the help of his sons, Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, created three exquisite figural automata: the musician (playing an organ), the draughtsman (painting portraits) and the writer (writing letters with a quill). Waxworks were also fitted with clockwork mechanisms. Philippe Curtius’ Sleeping Beauty waxwork, thought to be modelled on Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry – and possibly dating from the 1760s – includes a mechanised rising chest – as if the sleeping figure was alive and breathing. The current waxwork in Madame Tussauds, London, dates from the 1920s but was taken from the original 18th-century mould.

All three of Jacques de Vaucanson’s Automata. The Flute Player, The Tambourine Player, and Digesting Duck, 1850. Public domain image

This tradition of exquisite automata continued into the late 19th century, especially in Paris. Makers such as Roullet & Decamps (established in 1886), Léopold Lambert (founded in 1866), and Gustave Vichy (established in 1862) created fabulous automata, less as toys for children and more as expensive playthings for the rich. Today, the best automata from this period are rare, desirable and valuable. In 2020, The Snake Charmer, an automata by Roullet & Decamps, dating from 1900 (with fewer than fifteen known to exist), sold for $54,000 (including buyer’s premium) at Dan Morphy auctions in Denver in 2020. Another remarkable automaton, Vichy’s The Acrobat Clown, features a pierrot figure balancing on two white-painted chairs (operated by ten elaborate movements) and sold for $17,000 in 2016, again at Dan Morphy auctions.

Jean Roullet for Roullet & Decamps, The Snake Charmer automaton, 1900, sold for $54,000 at Morphy Auctions in 2020. Photo © Morphy Auctions

In the years leading up to the First World War, Germany exported numerous toys to Britain, Europe, and the United States. The invention of tinplate- the process where powered machines could stamp out parts from a single sheet of thin metal coated with a layer of tin- allowed firms to produce mechanical toys in quantity. From the late 1880s, the invention of offset lithography also meant that colourful designs could be printed directly onto the metal sheets at low cost- a process which came to be known as the ‘Nuremberg style’. The toys were light in weight, so they were relatively cheap to export.

Bing Brothers toy locomotive “George V”, 1922. Photo © Holger Ellgaard / Licence CC BY-SA

Historically, the Bavarian town of Nuremberg was a centre for toy-making. The great companies of Bing (in Nuremberg), Märklin (Baden-Wurttemberg) and Carette (Nuremberg) made magnificent toys of ingenuity and quality for the children of the middle and upper classes. Märklin – one of the most famous toy manufacturers in the world – was founded in 1859, concentrating initially on doll’s houses, before moving into clockwork trains (on standardised track) in 1891- realising that once a customer had made that initial purchase, a desire for track, stations, signals, tunnels and further accessories would follow. Märklin also produced clockwork battleships, aeroplanes, zeppelins and toy forts. Bing was founded in 1863 as a manufacturer of metal kitchenware before switching to the more lucrative field of toys in 1880, making clockwork cars, trains and ocean liners. Lehmann is another key manufacturer of the period. Founded in Brandenburg, Prussia, in 1881, Ernst Paul Lehmann made a range of sophisticated lightweight tin toys, including cars, carriages, carts and human and animal figures.

Marklin Toy Company, Märklin carousel, 1911, collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis/ Photo © Wendy Kaveney / Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

At auction, early Märklin ships are prized by collectors, with the rarest examples (in the best condition) fetching considerable sums. In 2023, a Märklin clockwork New York Paddle Wheel River Boat fetched $252,000 at Pook & Pook Inc., and the Märklin clockwork ocean liner Amerika (again in a lovely condition), sold for $271,000 at Bertoia Auctions, New Jersey, in 2016. Carette’s chauffeur-driven clockwork toy limousines are especially appealing too: a Deluxe Carette hand-painted wind-up limousine with chauffeur and luggage rack sold for $4,500, again at Bertoia Auctions. For collectors with tighter pockets, Lehmann’s novelty toys are more affordable, with a Masuyama wind-up rickshaw toy selling for $505 on eBay this March. Still, one of the rarest Lehmann clockwork toys, depicting an historical event during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, fetched $7,500 at Milestone auctions in January.

Märklin clockwork New York paddle wheel river boat, early 20th c., sold for $252,000 at Pool & Opook Inc. Photo © Pook & Look Inc

In the 1870s, following the opening of formerly closed markets to the West, the Japanese began to manufacture tinplate toys – often direct, unauthorised copies of the German toys flooding the Western markets. Then, in the immediate years after the Second World War, the Allies occupied Germany and Japan. With peace, their first goal was to reconstruct the devastated industrial base of their former enemies. So, with the demilitarisation of both countries, production switched from arms and munitions back to tinplate clockwork toys – made specifically for export to America and the West.

Three Japanese tin litho wind up cowboys: (from left to right) Rodeo Cowboy Rope Spinner by Alps Shoji Company, Western Hero by Haji Toys, Rocking Horse Cowboy by Yonezawa. Photo © Morphy Auctions

Many of these early 50s Japanese toys copied the older pre-war German designs and are now highly collectable – and still affordable. For the collector of post-war toys, the evocative names of Alps Shoji Company, Haji Toys, Tokyo Plaything Shokai (T. P. S.), Mitsushima (MM), Yoshiya KO and Yoneya (Yone) hold much appeal. The colourful lithographic-printed boxes evoke the innocent world of late 1940s and 50s bubble-gum Americana: lumberjacks, plaid shirts in Madras Cotton, crew-cuts, pony-tails, Bobby Soxers and the Coney Island fairground. The Haji Western Hero Bucking Cowboy is typical of Japanese toys produced in this period. An immaculate example (with box) sold for $279 on eBay earlier this year, although examples in lesser condition, or without the box, sell for considerably less. Yoshiya KO’s Coney Island Scooter sells for $100 or so.

In occupied West Germany, the American fairground theme provided rich pickings for the export market. The old firm of Goso (founded in 1878) produced a charming Coney Island roller coaster with a tinplate track and a working wind-up elevator, which now sells for prices in the region of $300. Schuco (founded in Nuremberg in 1912) manufactured wind-up performing monkeys, racing cars, and motorcycles, and Kohler (founded in Nuremberg in 1932) produced delightful working songbirds in beautifully printed tinplate – very much in the tradition of 19th-century toy making.

Six Schuco mechanical toys, first half/mid-20th century. Photo © Bukowskis

With the invention of the alkaline battery in the late 1950s, clockwork toys fell into decline. As health and safety concerns came into force, tinplate – with its sharp edges – began to be replaced by softer plastic. But for many collectors, mechanised clockwork is still the thing. As with so many other antiques, condition dictates the market. Children play with their toys, so a degree of wear can be acceptable, but ultimately, the holy grail of toy collecting is ‘mint and boxed’. A working clockwork toy in excellent condition, in the original box, will hold a higher value than the damaged equivalent without a box. And a box’s typography, design and colourful lithography adds an extra dimension. The fascinating world of antique mechanical toys appeals to collectors with an appreciation for graphics, the finer points of miniature engineering- and a nostalgic escape into the past.

If you liked what you read, we encourage you to explore our website: from insightful articles to fascinating stories, there’s plenty to discover. So don’t hesitate, dive in and satisfy your curiosity with Collectors Weekly!

(If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)

Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.