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Do you have this toy in your attic?
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
The Antique Toy Roadshow was formed in Athens, Ill., by several passionate, lifelong toy hobbyists. They began staging free shows around the country, inviting the public to bring in boxes of used toys. Their goal: to locate and purchase rare items on behalf of several thousand serious, and often wealthy, members of the International Toy Collectors Association.
So far, the concept has been a big success. The roadshow, which hit 40 cities the first year, will visit nearly 200 this year. Collectors have shelled out huge amounts of cash for vintage, mint-condition, hard-to-find items -- $12,000 for a Mickey Mouse and Pluto on a motorcycle from the '30s, $5,000 for a Giant Sonic Train Robot from the '50s and, recently, $225,000 for a rare mechanical bank from the early 1900s.
At every stop, people bring in boxes of long-forgotten toys from the bottom of the bedroom closet, or sometimes bring along sentimental childhood dolls or gadgets. A staff of experts connects the toy owners with potential buyers, who sometimes offer cash on the spot.
PBS objected to the ITCA using "roadshow" in its name, invoking unwanted comparisons to the TV show. The concern was that people would go to the toy show expecting to get independent appraisals, only to be offered cash by people representing buyers. The Antiques Roadshow offers expert appraisals of heirlooms but does not attempt to buy them.
The suit alleged that the Antique Toy Roadshow was not respected by serious antique collectors. It also referred to a 1999 story in the Maine Antique Digest, which implied that the toy roadshow experts gave low appraisals to obtain collectibles at a better price.
The toy group countersued, saying the Antiques Roadshow suit sought to damage the ITCA's name and business. In December of that year, the lawsuits were resolved with "a mutually satisfactory settlement concerning the trademark dispute." No terms have been disclosed, and both entities appear to be thriving.
The Toy Roadshow -- it dropped "antique" from its name to embrace a wider range of toys -- sets up shop today through Thursday in St. Petersburg. Everybody with an old G.I. Joe or Barbie in the closet will have a chance to come and make a deal.
But what kind of deal will it be?
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McCurley, 45, says providing a price and then buying does not present a conflict of interest. In fact, he says, the practice helps both the buyers and the sellers, and there are safeguards to ensure that.
"We have always had a policy that the experts who are at the show are not allowed to buy for themselves," he says. "What they're doing is they're providing information to help that local resident make a decision on whether they want to sell that (toy) today. . . .
"Because they're not allowed to buy for their own personal gain, for resale or whatever, there isn't any selfish motive on the part of that collector or expert."
McCurley describes his roadshow experts as collector representatives -- not dealers -- for the doctors, lawyers, movie producers and other people willing to pay big money to get what they want. He explains that the expert reps merely act as conduits between the group's members -- now some 5,400 worldwide -- and the people who tote in their toys.
The system works like this: The ITCA maintains a database of what their collectors are looking for -- from 30-year-old Hot Wheels to century-old, cast-iron, horse-drawn carriages to Hopalong Cassidy holsters. He says the values, determined by a grading system according to the items' condition, are already set in the databases. If roadshow experts think they have stumbled on an item one of the collectors may want, they check the lists in their laptop computers and make a cell phone call to the collector -- sometimes more than one collector.
"We do not give appraisals," says ITCA media director Frank Ross. "For a lot of people, an appraisal is a certificate you give the insurance company. What we do is not somebody's estimate of what the toy is worth. When we say a toy is worth $500, that means, today, we have a collector, money in hand, here's your money.
"As one of the collectors told me, there's all kinds of books about antiques and collectibles, but the only important book is the checkbook."
Roadshow experts don't offer their own judgments on market value but merely relay what a given collector is willing to pay. If the collector wants the toy, he is allowed to make one bid only -- sometimes up against other bidders -- and the offer is then conveyed by the expert to the seller.
"They (the experts) are just there to help folks find out what they've got, what they ought to get for it and what the real offer is today on it," McCurley says. "What we're doing is providing the means for people to reach the collectors directly."
McCurley says his group gets no cut of any sales that are made for members. Instead, collectors pay dues to belong to the association and be represented at free-admission roadshows. Another 60,000 non-members also participate and pay a small percentage of the sales price to the ITCA.
Is there a problem with that arrangement?
Jerry Byfield, who runs Seminole auction house Byfield Enterprises, says he isn't comfortable with a quick pricing and purchase system.
"In essence, the (roadshow representative) is like a buyer and represents the interests of the collector," he says.
"It's got potential for the perception of a problem," he adds. "How do you know if they're giving you the right price, or if they really have a guy on the other end of the phone or on a computer?"
"You can't be really an appraiser and a buyer at the same time, because you could throw a lower price at somebody to buy the merchandise," adds Carl Werme, who, with wife Donas, runs a St. Petersburg antique business called the Toy People.
But both Byfield and Werme say that if the Toy Roadshow is strictly acting as a bridge between collectors and the public -- and not buying the toys to keep or sell itself -- then the system is fine. It simply allows collectors and sellers to find each other in a format other than perhaps eBay, which has cut into the antique toy show business in recent years.
"You have to look at it like this: People would probably never get their stuff sold without (the Roadshow reps)," Byfield says. "They're going to get them more money than they'd have gotten anyway. Those folks probably would have held onto the toys all their life, and their kids would have thrown them in the Dumpster."
McCurley says that many people come to Toy Roadshows with inflated ideas of what their goods are worth. They might read in a collector's magazine that a certain GI Joe will bring $300, only to get an offer for $20 at a show.
"There's a reason for that," McCurley says. "For instance, I have in my collection a Hopalong Cassidy gun set. I put in the database that if somebody found an absolutely mint gun set, please call. So I get a call from somebody at a roadshow that they found a set that was unbelievable, mint condition in the box.
"I looked it up in the book, and it's $800. But this was something I really wanted to have, and I had one shot to bid on it. So I bid $5,000. If somebody hears that a Hopalong Cassidy gun set went for that price, they're probably going to be disappointed when they don't get (a similar amount)."
People always can decline to sell their toys, if they're unhappy with the offer, says McCurley. Some do, but many are pleased to go home with a little cash for toys that were just collecting dust.
There are plenty of toys to talk about -- 1950s robots, space toys, tin windups, Barbies and accessories, G.I. Joes, race cars, Tonka trucks and trains are all highly sought-after these days.
Much of the market is driven by wealthy baby boomers who want to collect items from their childhoods, usually pre-1965. Still, certain toys from the 1800s and early 20th century remain hot properties -- like a Marx Co. Popeye firefighting truck from the 1930s (bought for $3,000) or a 21/2-foot American National Car from the '20s (a $6,000 sale).
"I have a friend who's a doctor, and I'll call him up, and he knows I'm vice president of the Toys Association," McCurley says. "I don't know if you've ever tried to call your doctor at work. You can be really sick and not get to talk to him. But this doctor collects cast iron horse-drawn toys, and when I call he comes to the phone, because he knows I'm calling about some toy I've found for him."
There's the St. Louis car dealer who paid more for a toy '56 Buick than for the real version of the car in his garage. "That real car cost him $2,500," says McCurley. "He bought the toy for $8,000 this year."
Then there was the TV producer who recently paid about $160,000 for a Howdy Doody toy -- the actual ventriloquist dummy used on the show. "It was in really awesome shape," McCurley says. But McCurley urges patrons to bring their toys to the roadshows, even if the items are not in good condition or not seemingly rare: "I have a collector who works at Taco Bell who likes Hot Wheels -- he might give $500 for a real nice one or a couple of bucks for a real rough one just for parts."
Here are some other Toy Roadshow tips from McCurley:
--Toys in original boxes can add as much as 10 times the value, so bring the boxes.
--Famous movie, radio, TV or comic book characters are particularly in demand.
--Samples for big companies (such as miniature John Deere tractors) can attract good money.
--Keep an open mind. Don't assume that no one would be interested in an old toy.
--Don't attempt to clean the toys. That could do damage.
--If you have a Barbie with triangular eyebrows, tiny holes in its feet and a stand, bring it. The doll could be a "No. 1 Barbie" from the first batch.
This last bit of advice is not from McCurley. It's from the ancient Romans:
Let the seller beware.
At a glance
The Toy Roadshow comes to the Ramada Limited, 3601 34th St. S, St. Petersburg, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. today through Thursday. Free.
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