By David S. Smith
VINELAND, N.J. — Bill Bertoia built a solid reputation over the past several decades, first as a dealer specializing in early toys and mechanical banks and most recently as an auctioneer, but first and foremost as a personable friend. Along the way, few stopped to realize the positive impact that a single man, such as Bill Bertoia, could have on our large and often impersonal business.
The antiques community will be subjected to a different sort of impact from this day forth as it is with regret that we announce his passing. William “Bill” Bertoia passed away after a courageous battle with cancer on May 6, at the age of 52.
Bill built his business around ideals and friendship, and they flowed forth in every transaction, every “deal” and throughout his personal expression. He magically infused his enthusiasm, his infectious laugh, his warmth, knowledge and generosity into all who crossed his path.
“Bill was one of the motivators who almost single handedly put the toy collecting field on the map,” stated one of his close friends of more than 20 years, Richard Garthoeffner. “He was one of the all-time great dealers; he has done a lot for the toy collecting field and he elevated the realm of toy collecting to another level.”
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950, he moved with his family to Millville, N.J., where he graduated from Millville High School, Class of 1968, and then attended Cumberland County College and Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) before moving to Vineland after marriage to Jeanne.
Bill began collecting antique bottles that he and his brother dug from the soil of southern New Jersey at age 16. He was soon buying and selling at local bottle shows. At age 19, Bill took an interest in antique toys and began doing antiques shows shortly thereafter, including the original Gordon Reid Brimfield show, York, Allentown, Renninger’s, Shupps Grove, Triple Pier, Chicago, Glendale, Farmington and the original Atlantique City event. During his first year in business as a dealer, operating under the name of St James Place, Bill and Jeanne Bertoia participated in 48 different shows.
Quality was always an issue with Bill and he only bought and sold the very best in mechanical banks, early cast-iron and tin toys, automatons, bottles, shaving mugs and pristine Carette toy ships, limos and buildings.
Alan Green, a close friend of the family and compatriot dealer for numerous decades, exhibited in “the booth next to Bill” in the 1970s at Gordon Reid’s original Brimfield market, at Shupps Grove and Renninger’s and spent many a laughter-filled night camped in the van with him. “I have so many fond memories of Bill that I don’t know where to start,” stated Green. “Wherever he went, there was fun. His remarkable knowledge and his shrewdness regarding the business were amazing,” he said. “He was always several steps ahead of anyone around him.”
“To have Billy-B’s friendship was like finding a mint bank,” stated Donal Markey, another friend and business associate for more than 20 years. “You study it, you loupe it, buy it, live with it and enjoy it. And because you can’t find anything wrong with it, you go back to it year after year to examine, admire and reconfirm in your mind that you have the perfect specimen. Bill was a major force in this business, a great friend and he will be deeply missed.”
“Bill brought a lot of energy to the toy world, he was a power in the game,” commented longtime friend Noel Barrett, who joined forces with the Bertoias during their initial auction ventures with the historic Atlanta Toy Museum Sale. “His impact will be remembered and he will be missed. Bill certainly left his mark on this world, which is a great accomplishment,” said Barrett.
Bill had been doing the spring and fall versions of The York Antiques Show under the management of Jim Burk for more than ten years and was fondly remembered by the promoter. “Bill probably had the biggest influence on the toy market of anyone who ever lived,” stated a saddened Burk.
“Bill was a wonderful guy,” commented fellow toy enthusiast and Americana dealer Wayne Pratt. “He was the best toy dealer that I have ever known.” Pratt, who did a fair amount of bank swapping with Bill over the years, stated that he had “nothing but the highest regard for him. Bill was always positive, buying and chatting right up to the end. I have a great deal of admiration for him.”
Rick Opfer had been a friend of Bill’s since the late 1960s and had also been his auctioneer for some ten years, “It was just fun,” stated Opfer. “Whether playing golf, going out to dinner, fishing or selling toys, it was always fun with Bill. The toy world has suffered a serious loss. He moved the toy industry, he was just that type of guy –irreplaceable.”
“Traveling with Bill was like traveling in a Spanish caravan,” said his friend of recent years, Tim Ilyinski, “always laden with toys, fishing rods, glass bottles and other unique collectibles. The caravan journeyed the world from Buenos Aries to Paris, or anywhere Bill felt a new treasure could be found. And at every stop, Bill celebrated life with the best of food and wine, but the most important part of his travels was returning home to be with his family and friends.”
Among the numerous standout events that Bill had a hand in either brokering, auctioning or selling during those infamous tag sales were the Bernard Barenholtz collection, the Hegerty and Norman collections, the Atlanta Toy Museum, the Perelman Toy Museum and the Acevedo collection.
Bill was an avid golfer, skier, fly fisherman, hunter, world traveler and a recognized authority on antiques. He was best known for founding his world-renowned Bertoia Auction Gallery in Vineland and routinely appeared as an antique toy and bank expert on the televised Antiques Roadshow.
Bill enjoyed and devoted his lifetime to his entire family, and together, they shared the same passion for the beautiful and rare in all aspects of life. His appraisal talents were sought across the globe, and his many memberships and offices to varied toy collectors clubs attest to his love and appreciation for the preservation of all things fine.
He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Jeanne Bertoia of Vineland; daughter Lauren and son Michael; father and mother, Hector and Ophelia Bertoia; brother and sister-in-law, Rich and Trina Bertoia; and many nieces and nephews.
Services were held Saturday, May 10. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his memory to the Padre Pio Shrine c/o Marie Dandrea, PO Box 184, Landisville, NJ 08326 or the Kidney Cancer Research c/o Dr Amato, Houston. The funds may be sent through Bertoia Auctions, 2141 DeMarco Drive, Vineland, NJ 08360.
“Bill had so much to give and he gave it unselfishly; he was always willing to take the time to talk to people and was always generous with his knowledge,” said Garthoeffner in summation.
Bill Bertoia will be dearly missed by his family, friends, the toy collecting community and the antiques trade in general.