Published: March 29, 2022
Review & Onsite Photos by Tania Kirkman, Catalog Photos Courtesy Bertoia Auctions
VINELAND, N.J. – Bertoia Auctions sold the outstanding toy collection of Monique Knowlton in a two-day sale March 11-12. With just over 600 lots, it brought in a grand total of $2.16 million and every lot found a buyer.
Monique Chevalier Knowlton had a modest upbringing in the Black Forest area of Germany during World War II. She was later educated in England and Switzerland and began a family early as her modeling career began to take off. Knowlton became an international cover girl, gracing the pages of the top magazines, such as Vogue, Harper’s, Elle, Glamour and others. She was styled by top fashion designers and photographed by the best in the business.
After a prolific career in fashion, she turned her sights to art, opening the Monique Knowlton Gallery in New York City. While offering a variety of works in her gallery, Knowlton became an expert on German-born modernist Oscar Bluemner and gained influence from the works of South American artist Betye Saar, whose imagery piqued her interest in the visual artistry of toy design and collecting.
Knowlton’s passion for collecting was apparent in her treasured toys, and her enthusiasm for the whimsical and wonderful was undeniable. “She bought only the best” said Jeanne Bertoia on Monique’s eye for collecting. “She loved boxes and graphics, and her collection was all about condition and quality. She was interested in and educated herself about the toy, the history and the rarity, how it worked, and what it did.”
Bertoia’s offered a fully illustrated color catalog for the two-day sale, with early preview occurring weeks in advance of the auction. “There has been a lot of interest, inquiries and phone calls; people were really excited about buying from this auction,” Bertoia remarked. Being in close contact with Knowlton throughout the entire sale process, Bertoia said that “she was ecstatic, over the moon with the results of the auction; from the catalog, and promotions – the sale went above and beyond her expectations.”
Speaking on the results of the sale, Bertoia said that they were “Totally amazing! The collection far surpassed what we were expecting.” Customers flew in to be at the sale from the West Coast, Texas and even Europe. At the gallery, the crowd for the live sale was small but extremely active. There were countless phone bids, sometimes with all lines full, and with a heavy online presence with internet bidding on BertoiaLive and LiveAuctioneers, bidding was strong, steadfast and active.
Undoubtedly the most exciting moment of the sale was when the Tippco Mickey and Minnie on a motorcycle came to the auction block. As the highest estimated lot in the sale, notably, it was also one of the rarest, with cross-over appeal to Disney collectors as well as motorcycle enthusiasts alike.
Acquired by Knowlton in 2010 for $65,500 on a $23/28,000 estimate as part of the Donald Kaufman collection, and also previously from the Wengle collection, it had an estimate this time around at $25/45,000. “We have sold a few over the years, and with the amount of early interest and enthusiasm on this piece, we knew that it could set a record,” said Bertoia.
When the lot opened, competitive bidding erupted almost immediately, and the estimate was quickly reached and surpassed. A full bank of phone bidders fueled the price to $100,000 without hesitation. Steady bids continued between several phone lines, until finally realizing $222,000 with premium, nearly five times its high estimate. When the hammer fell, applause broke out in the audience. President and auctioneer, Michael Bertoia, thanked the bidders for their participation and announced that a new sales record had been reached for this toy.
“We were all happily surprised at the outcome,” said Bertoia. Many of those who were bidding on this piece were previous bidders when this was offered in the past. It was a second, or third chance for collectors. “Between phone bidders and those in the audience, everyone knew and was willing to bid well above the estimate.” It sold on the phone to a private collector in the United States.
Other Mickey Mouse highlights dominated as top selling lots, including a rare German Mickey Mouse slate dancer crank-action die-cut figure, circa 1930, that sold for $26,400 and a Schuco Mickey Mouse tin windup car with felt Mickey figure that fetched $18,000. An extremely rare 1930s Japanese large-scale celluloid cart with Mickey and Horace Horsecollar figures sold for $33,600. As one of only a few examples known to exist, this piece also retained its original “City of Paris, San Francisco” price tag for $0.69.
Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop paired up in a colorful “Time is Gold” 1930s Japanese celluloid whirligig. Due in part to condition, rarity and having the original box still intact, it presented as an exceptionally fine example. When wound, the toy activated with a spinning umbrella and turning hands on the clock face. With provenance from the collection of Carl Lobel, this piece saw a final price of $31,200, ten times it’s estimate.
A rare prewar Japanese Santa Claus car by C.K. depicted Santa behind the wheel of a racing car, illustrating delightful imagery and movement. The lithographed tin car had a mint green ground decorated with images of toys, animals and gifts. The car had a windup motor and internal bellows to produce sound. In excellent condition, and possibly the only one known example of its kind, it achieved $32,400.
Another holiday vehicle was in a more traditional style Father Christmas by Fischer of Germany, dating to 1912. As a desirable example to collectors, it is one of only a few in circulation and had provenance from the collections of Don Kaufman and Mary Grumbine to Knowlton. The mustard yellow lithographed vehicle illustrated a figure of Santa at the driver’s seat, with teddy bears, baskets and toys popping out from the seats, with a Christmas tree nestled in the back seat. Selling above estimate, this piece went for $43,200.
Disney prototype toys saw great interest, offering a unique twist to the usual toys available to collectors. In hand painted factory produced details, a bright and happy Linemar Mickey Mouse figure, standing 10½ inches tall, was dressed to the nines in a suit with polka dot bow tie and striped pants. Windup action produced drum playing and head-rocking. As a prototype, it is presumed that these toys were never mass produced, making them one-of-a-kind objects for collectors. Mickey sold above his estimate at $22,800, while a Jiminy Cricket with twirling umbrella brought $9,600, and a Marx Donald the Duck Driver prototype sprung past its estimate, coming in at $6,600 when all was said and done.
Felix the Cat, the noir genre figure of a black and white cat with the wide grin, has been a staple in animation since his inception in 1919 by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. Gaining popularity during the silent-film era, Felix has been a great resource for toy makers and collectors alike. Topping results in the Knowlton collection, a rare Gunthermann Felix the Cat lithographed action windup rotating merry-go-round realized $52,800. In addition, an oversized articulated rocking action “Felix Frolic” made by Chein in 1926, depicting Felix figures chasing mice, fetched $38,400. Each of these examples more than doubled their high auction estimates.
Another unexpected highlight in the first day of the sale was a Linemar Popeye and Olive Oyl battery-operated toy tank. A wonderfully illustrative toy, the motorized action depicts a battle between Popeye and the super tank, with Popeye walking back and forth in a tug-o-war motion, finally lifting the tank and exposing Olive Oyl’s head from inside the tank hatch. This unique example saw strong bidding against its estimate, finally reaching $33,600.
Other top lots included a Nifty silent movie “Movie Man” tin car from Germany, circa 1913, depicting figures in a car with turning camera handle and driving motion which sold for $13,200, a Tippco German Army motorcycle with sidecar in camouflage lithography and uniformed figures, dating to the 1920s, at $12,000, and a Tippco “Mother-In-Law” motorcycle with sidecar and original box, Germany, circa 1926, $12,000.
Cast iron toys made a solid appearance in the sale, offering desirable examples to collectors. Topping the list was a pair of Hubley cast iron surfer boy and surfer girl pull toys. In great condition and appearance with original paint and patina, with each figure was riding a surfboard with splashing water over a tri-wheeled base. Each example retained original Jantzen decals. Surfer girl, who also had her original box, went for $33,600, while her surfer boy counterpart saw $27,600. Provenance for each came from the Rich Garthoeffner to Bob Brady collections.
Other Hubley cast irons included a near mint showroom display example of a Popeye on motorcycle that sold for $16,800, a Static speedboat and racer in striking green paint with original decals for $12,000, horse-drawn Royal Circus band wagon in reduced size that came in at $10,200, along with a cast iron Knapp & Co. steeple cab “Electric Locomotive 221” in original paint and near perfect condition, which brought $18,000.
The second day of the auction saw some out-of-this-world action, with space toys and robots taking center stage. Affectionately known as the “Gang of Five,” this family of robot toys received a ton of interest and strong bidding.
Produced by Masudaya of Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, these robots were among the first remote-control toys to become available on the public market. Because of their rarity, collectability and large scale, at 15 inches tall, they remain extremely desirable to collectors. The robots in the Knowlton collection did not only exhibit excellent condition but have retained accessories and remain in working order.
Heading the gang was the striking “Machine Man” robot in a vibrant red, originally a special-order color through Masudaya. Battery-operated action included walking, swinging arms and illuminating features. As the highest estimated robot of the bunch, it did not disappoint, reaching a purchase price of $72,000. Following in the lineup was the “Target” model in metallic blue with dart gun, action movement, lights, sound and original box, that sold for $32,400, “Radiocon” with remote box and turning motions, $21,600, “Sonic” with motion and sound at $12,000, and finally the “Non-Stop” robot in lavender, a special-order color, at $7,800. Collectively the group sold for a combined total of $145,800.
Superhero figures are among some of the most popular genres in toy collecting and were also a prevalent fixture in the Knowlton collection. A Bandai Flying Spaceman Superman Cycle topped the hero category, depicting a green plastic figure with cape atop a colorful tin motorcycle. Last sold in 2014, this piece is considered the best-known example, both for the condition of the figure in addition to retaining the original box. After competitive bids between phone, internet and floor bidders, it took its place as the third highest lot in the auction, selling for $57,600.
Batman figures followed the superhero category. A desirable Bandai walking Batman figure with the original box with Japanese writing, making it an extremely rare example, sold well over the estimate, for $43,200, and a Nomura battery-operated walking Batman in excellent condition with original box brought $16,800.
The space race continued with futuristic vehicles taking the lead. Several outstanding Japanese examples, all with provenance to the Mark Solondz collection. These included a friction-driven Yonezawa Super Jetter Racer prototype open-top race car with figure, having hand painted details and original box, that sold for $31,200. A boxed TT Mirror Man Porsche by Takatoku of Japan in bright blue with a helmed driver and original box with vibrant graphics, $16,800, and a Masudaya Zoran Racer with male driver and squirrel sidekick, sold for $9,600.
Other vehicle toys drove the sale, including a fantastic large-scale Yonezawa Atom Jet Racer. At 26 inches long with a futuristic design and vibrant graphics, this scarce example sped past its estimate, selling for $25,200. A 16-inch friction driven Nomura Dream Car in brown, beige and black brought $11,400, and a delightful Hisimo Ice Cream Vendor Van with original box and friction-driven mechanism allowing the door to open and ice cream man to pop out, saw a final sales price of $7,800.
Rounding out the two-day sale was a grouping of wooden pull-toys, board games, character dolls and stuffed animals. Highlights included a red velvet stuffed Felix the Cat figure for $5,400; Hoppy the Bunny Marvel superhero doll, $2,700; a felt Lenci child doll in springtime dress and bonnet, $2,400; pair of Maggie and Jiggs cloth character dolls, $2,040; a boxed Mickey Mouse beanbag game and a Steiff clown monkey pull toy each went for $1,680; and an American teddy bear in Roosevelt costume at $1,200.
Countless items in this sale received fervent bidding and sold well above estimates. Many toys were examples that survive as only a handful that are known in existence, speaking again to the quality, condition and rarity that was sought throughout Knowlton’s decades of thoughtful collecting.
“In a world of beauty, her whole life, through fashion and her art gallery in New York, it seasoned her in the collecting world,” said Jeanne Bertoia, “Within a unique genre of comic and Disneyana – she had a discerning eye, and she bought what she liked.” As it turns out, Knowlton did know best!
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Bertoia will offer its final installation of the Paul Cole Collection on April 21, followed by its Annual Spring Sale on May 19.
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