Published: November 27, 2007
It took 53 years for Stephen and Marilyn Steckbeck to build their collection, but only a day to dismantle it.
On October 27, Morphy Auction’s sold the unreserved, 492-lot collection of antique mechanical banks for $7.7 million. The record single-day sale of antique toys surpassed Bertoia’s $4.33 million auction of the 251-lot Stan Sax collection in 1998.
“We went well over our high estimate. Turnout was fantastic. We had 1,000 registered bidders, including 150 from Europe. This was one of the finest mechanical bank collections ever assembled. People paid for rare items in fine condition,” said Dan Morphy, the firm’s chief operating officer.
Morphy narrowly missed setting a new record price paid at auction for an individual bank when Jonah and The Whale †Jonah Emerges, a colorful cast-iron mechanism made by J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Conn., brought $414,000, including premium. W.S. Reed Co.’s Old Woman in The Shoe, sold at Bertoia’s as part of the Sax collection for $426,000, still holds the public record.
Indiana native Stephen Steckbeck remembers the day he discovered antique mechanical banks. “I was 7 years old. My mother let me cross a busy street to visit a school friend whose father owned the largest bank in Fort Wayne,” Steckbeck told Antiques and The Arts Weekly .
The Steckbecks bought their first antique cast-iron mechanical bank at a Christmas antiques show in 1954, soon after they married. After being given a few banks as presents, Stephen Steckbeck began networking with other enthusiasts in the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America. The Steckbecks attended their first antique bank convention in 1970.
Steckbeck writes that it was not until 1972, when he found two rare turtle banks in Westerville, Ohio, that he “graduated to the league of known collectors.” He says, “I had the three known turtle banks. Two I traded for a lot of good stuff.” One turtle went to Sears Roebuck chairman Wally Tudor. A third Kilgore Manufacturing Company reptile remained with the Steckbecks. The sale’s cover lot, it fetched $69,000.
The Steckbecks acquired important banks from Edwin Mosler, Leon Perelman, F.H. Griffith and L.C. Hegarty to build a collection renowned for its completeness and the rarity of many of its examples.
Steckbeck wanted other collectors to share his pleasure. He turned down a substantial private offer, he said, to sell at auction. Sotheby’s rejected the collection, he said.
Steckbeck instead went with Morphy Auctions. He has known Dan Morphy, a bank authority and collector himself, since he was 12. A letter of intent was signed two years ago. Morphy had the hardbound catalog in buyers’ hands by January 2007, giving collectors plenty of time to consider.
“Morphy did a super job, but there were a lot of bargains,” said Steckbeck, content with the $7.7 million total, but disappointed with some individual prices. He considers Boy Scout Camp, made by J. & E. Stevens Co., one such bargain. The 1912 cast-iron bank drew only $25,875.
The Steckbeck sale demonstrated the overwhelming importance of condition and color in what Pittsburgh dealer Ray Haradin calls “a very demarcated market.”
“Pieces in outstanding original condition with great color accounted for most of the new records,” said antique toy specialist Steven Weiss, who bought ten banks for inventory and has already sold five.
“There is definitely a premium for perfect,” confirmed Haradin, comparing the $414,000 Jonah and the Whale †Jonah Emerges to the Freedman’s Bank, a circa 1880 wood, metal and cloth mechanism by Jerome B. Secor of Bridgeport, Conn. It sold for $92,000 ($250/300,000).
“They are equally desirable banks. The difference is mainly about condition,” says Haradin, who regards the Freedman’s Bank as a great buy. Examples have gone for $321,500 and $250,000 in past sales.
The Pittsburgh dealer purchased Germania Exchange, a charming J. & E. Stevens depiction of a goat on a beer keg, for $149,500. “There may be ten of them, but this one is the best I’ve ever seen.”
Rare banks with minor repairs or repainting, such as a J. & T. Stevens Bank Teller, $86,250 ($125/150,000) were good deals.
“I knew that Darky Fisherman would do well. I had never seen that bank, and I’ve seen a lot. It is amusing and, of course, in wonderful condition,” said Catherine Saunders-Watson, a dealer and collector of antique toys for 20 years. Manufactured by Charles A. Bailey of Cobalt, Conn., Darky Fisherman sold to collectors in the room for $287,500.
Darky and Watermelon, a Stevens bank of circa 1888, was a disappointment, bringing $195,500 against an estimate of $250/300,000. An example of this rare form in the Sax collection made $354,500.
Many collectors admired Kyser & Rex of Philadelphia’s Mikado bank, less blatantly racist than many late Nineteenth Century toys. The Mikado handsomely exceeded estimate to sell for $287,500.
The Steckbeck collection was rich in brass and tin banks, too. “Many of our European bidders were after the tin,” noted Morphy. A German Flip The Frog Money Box made in the 1920s by Saalheimer & Strauss sold for a record price paid at auction of $57,500 ($20/25,000).
“To be honest, this will be a very difficult sale to repeat. Collectors stepped up for once in a lifetime opportunities,” said Dan Morphy.
After the auction, Stephen and Marilyn Steckbeck returned to Fort Wayne, Ind., for two days before heading to Belize.
“I bought two banks last week. You know, you can be cured of cigarettes and alcohol, but not of collecting,” said Steckbeck.
For information,717-335-3435 or www.morphyauctions.com .
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