Published: March 16, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Bertoia Auctions
VINELAND, N.J. – Murmurs echoed throughout the mechanical bank collecting community when Bertoia Auctions announced that it would sell part one from the collection of Aaron and Abby Schroeder over two days March 5-6. Jeanne Bertoia called it one of the very best collections of mechanical banks in existence.
Songwriter, record producer and publisher Aaron Schroeder (1926-2009) had his first break in the music business with “At a Sidewalk Penny Arcade,” one of the songs that introduced Rosemary Clooney as a solo recording artist. He would go on to write 17 songs for Elvis Presley, including five number one hits: “It’s Now or Never,” “A Big Hunk o’ Love,” “Good Luck Charm,” “I Got Stung” and “Stuck on You.” With a catalog of more than 1,500 songs, his words came forth from the mouth of other vocalists including Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Chaka Khan, Carl Perkins and the Beatles. His wife, Abby, became vice president of the music-publishing and record-production company, which the couple sold in 1978.
In the early 1960s, Abby said, “his doctor called me after his checkup and told me, ‘He’s not in good shape. You need to find something to slow him down and take his mind off work, even if it’s just one day of the weekend.'” Abby, who remembered antiquing with her mother on the weekends, suggested the two embark on a treasure hunt. While out on a drive, the couple bought their first mechanical bank out of a New Jersey barn: a J&E Stevens Magic bank, which they paid $40 for in 1963.
“They were collecting in the days before the internet and before the mega antiques shows,” auction house principal Jeanne Bertoia said. “They would get in the car on the weekend and go antique shopping in New England and Pennsylvania. There were endless amounts of shops and when you went into one, you could find a treasure easily.”
Rather than marketing fluff, the application of the term “museum quality” to this collection is instead literal. The Schroeders had every intention of founding The American Museum of Antique Toys (AMAT) as they collected with quality and condition at the core of their selections since the 1960s. An 1860 bank building on Main Street in Great Barrington, Mass., was purchased to house the museum and an architect was brought in to draft up plans to redesign the interior as an exhibition space.
It was then that Aaron grew ill with a rare form of dementia. The collection, in the midst of being cataloged, was boxed up and became suspended in limbo as the couple’s life turned towards caregiving. In 2004, the couple built a barn on their property to house the collection and share what, at this point, had become a time capsule of a bygone era of collecting. A time when there was no internet and the old guard names of famous collectors still lingered in recent memory and bore witness and prior ownership to many of the objects on display. The couple opened their barn to the collectors clubs when they were able, allowing others who shared their passion to admire their treasures.
In the catalog’s foreword, one would note that Abby does not speak much to the stuff, instead to the memories of collecting and the relationships the couple developed over their journey. She describes the first time the couple demonstrably moved into collecting general toys in a trade with Barney Barenholtz. “There will come a time when you won’t be able to find the next bank so easily,” Barenholtz told the Schroeders, as he encouraged them to “aim high.”
Abby wrote of their relationships with F.H. Griffith, who wrote a monthly bank article for Hobbies Magazine. He and Aaron would speak for hours into the night sometimes. She remembered visiting the collection of enigmatic collector Louis Hertz, who would send from time to time a “not particularly well-packed American tin beauty.”
On the Schroeder’s era, Bertoia said, “They were pure collectors and started in the early days back in 1963. It started as a hobby, they just had a love and a passion in collecting. She wanted people to know what type of collectors they were, because they were collecting alongside the great old-time figures that a lot of new collectors don’t know. She wanted to give a sense of what collecting was like back then – how it’s changed and the joy and the pleasure that they had through the years.”
Making appearances in their journey were many names lost to time and living on through distinguished provenance lines, others still alive: John D. Meyer, author of the 1948 title Mechanical Bank Information; Covert and Gertrude Hegarty; Bill Holand; Leon Perelman; David Bausch; Ed Mosler; Lil and Bill Gottschalk; Blair and Margaret Whitton; Buddy Hendler; Herb Siegel; Dr Ralph Merkle; Mel Roberts; Mary Roebling; Ward Kimball; Donal Markey; Noel Barret; Tawney Bruston; Sister Mary; Sandra Whitson; Ron Van Anda; and Russ and Sheila Harrington.
While the couple’s focus began in American mechanical banks and expanded into American toys, their travels through Europe on business would yield significant European tin treasures that broadened the offerings in their sale.
“What an amazing auction,” Bertoia commented when the dust had settled. The firm had a handful of reserved seats in the saleroom for those with strong interest, while the broader public was bidding online through a number of platforms, absentee bids and through as many as 13 phone lines.
“Starting from the very beginning, the bank collecting community was actively participating. The great excitement and the phone calls in anticipation of this sale were many,” Bertoia said. “It was the most participation that we’ve had in a sale in a long time, and they have been very active as of late. Many people had always heard about the Schroeder collection, heard of some of the pieces that they had. But when the catalog came out, people were blown away.”
The sale was led by a $156,000 result for a Girl Skipping Rope bank by J&E Stevens, an auction record for the form. It was purchased by an American collector.
The lot was an example of two precedents seen throughout the collection and noted in the catalog: that it was a book example and was among the finest condition examples known.
The bank had been illustrated in Blair Whitton’s 1981 title Clockwork Toys and was in pristine to near mint condition. Bertoia said all 13 phone lines were active on it.
At $102,000 was a Bread Winners mechanical bank, also by J&E Stevens. Graded near mint, the auction house said it was “easily a contender for the best known.” The bank was painted in the blue shirt version with red on the left and blue on the right side of base. Taking $84,000 was a J&E Stevens Harlequin bank that was also featured in Whitton’s Clockwork Toys. The strong result was seen despite a repair to the bar that connected the ballerina.
Only a few examples are known of the J&E Stevens Preacher in the Pulpit, which brought $84,000. The example with red painted pulpit was featured in Bill Norman’s The Bank Book. Also quite rare was a Bowing Man in Cupola bank by J&E Stevens that brought $72,000. It had a factory casting chip and small crack in the front panel, but the auction house said it was the strongest paint example known. In near mint condition with a polka-dot painted roof was a Man In Cupola bank by J&E Stevens that sold for $66,000. Also in near mint condition, the auction house said that a Henry C. Hart Co., Presto 5 Cent To 25 Cent mechanical was believed to be the brightest and best-known example of the bank. It took $60,000.
“Likely the best example in existence” was how the firm described a US and Spain mechanical bank by J&E Stevens that sold for $36,000. The bank, which featured a depiction of the Nineteenth Century war between the United States and Spain over the territory of Cuba, featured its original wood shell in the cannon and original mast.
Listed as among the best examples known was a Girl in Victorian Chair mechanical bank that sold for $6,600. The toy, produced by the Reed Toy Co., of Massachusetts, dated to 1880. The only cast iron mechanical bank known to be produced by the Wisconsin firm Wagner and Zwiebel Mfg was a Butting Ram (Man Thumbs Nose) example, which sold for $7,200. In the embossed letter variation was an American Sewing Machine mechanical bank in pristine condition that sold for $19,200. Made in Philadelphia in the 1880s, the bank is rumored to have been a give-away item from the American Sewing Machine Company.
At $5,400 was a Park mechanical bank that could have been a prototype. The auction house wrote, “the building body is the same as the Park Still Bank, but on this example the embossed words are omitted, the top features a brick chimney and a bear figure with opening in mouth, rotate bear clockwise to lock in place and set coin, pull lever at front and bear spins to deposit coin into chimney/bank.” Also possibly a prototype or a patent model was a brass Time Lock Saving still bank that brought $4,500. The firm said it was nearly identical in several ways to the Time Lock Savings mechanical bank.
American iron toys found a number of notable results, including a Pratt & Letchworth Flying Artillery that the firm opined was “the finest cast iron toy P&L made.” In pristine condition and published in Louis Hertz’s The Toy Collector, it brought $66,000. To compliment it was a Deluxe Burning Building by the Carpenter Company that was acquired decades ago from a Pennsylvania dealer who had bought it off a descendant of the Carpenter family. “They allegedly assembled the toy at the factory on Jan 2 1906, and the owner signed such on the front of the building. This is the only example we are aware of which was assembled at the appropriate period and therefore the most authentic example of the elusive toy,” the firm wrote. It went out at $33,600. In the standard version and featuring a single ladder was the Burning Building Toy by the same company that sold for $20,400. It had been an attic find for the Schroeders, who purchased it from the granddaughter of its original owner in a Stroudsburg, Penn., house. Wonderfully graphic was an Ives Bicyclist Team pull toy that sold for $36,000. It featured four riders on a tandem long tricycle and was one of only a few known examples. Bertoia had only ever handled one other from the Perelman collection. Purchased at an estate auction in 1979 was a boxed Miner’s musical wagon in excellent to pristine condition that sold for $14,400. It was only the second example to come to auction after one that was in Max Berry’s collection.
American tin mechanical banks were led by some extremely rare examples attributed to Fallows, including an Alligator in Trough. The bank surpassed its $12,000 high estimate to take $31,200. Fallows was originally established in the 1870s under the name of the C.B. Porter Company. It would change its name to Frederick and Henry Fallows Toys in 1894, where it produced hand painted and sometimes stenciled toys out of Philadelphia. Also attributed to the maker and in a similar housing was a Frog in Den tin mechanical bank that sold for $13,200.
American tin toys found favor at $50,400 with an Althof Bergmann hook and ladder, among the rarest of the American tin ladder wagons that have turned up and the only example of the form to come to sale, the firm said. While one fireman steers the two horses from atop the wagon, the toy featured three of the four original firemen that swung on hooks to the underside of the carriage. Boats floated high as a George Brown Monitor Gunboat took $40,800. Bertoia said it may be the best-known example. Back at $20,400 was a Bergmann Ferry Boat Pavonia, designed after the real boat launched in 1854 that traveled between New York and Jersey City.
European tin toys were not to be outdone. The second highest price in the sale at $132,000 was a Mohr & Krauss double Ferris wheel that sold to a European collector. It had been featured in David Pressland’s The Art of the Tin Toy. “That was one of their most unique toys,” Bertoia said. “We had every single phone line and cell phone on that. There was a lot of European interest on it. We had never seen another one, but we have heard another exists.”
The toy featured two large spinning wheels, each of which revolve around a central tower. It had all original composition figures seated in the suspended gondolas. The whole can be hand cranked or powered by steam via a pulley system.
On its discovery, the firm related, “Abby & Aaron were driving through a small town in Pennsylvania when they passed a closed barber shop with this toy prominently displayed in the front window. They spent the night and visited the shop the next morning. Aaron left with a haircut and Abby had a Double Ferris Wheel in her arms!”
Bertoia said, “For not being their primary focus, they put together quite an impressive collection of European toys.”
Among them was a fabulous group of Lehmann examples including a Boxer Rebellion with complete box. Considered by many to be the most desirable toy from the German company, the example went on to produce $38,400. It set an auction record for the form and we were unable to locate an example from the company that has ever sold higher at auction. At $10,200 was a Primus Roller Skater in a blue coat and measuring 8½ inches high. A Lo & Li took $9,600, while a boxed Pilotto Plane with original instructions sold for $9,000. The firm wrote only 1,200 Pilotto Planes were ever made.
Boxed examples were replete throughout the offerings from Fernand Martin. The group was led by a Fearless Jumper in pristine condition at $12,000 that had the only box known to the firm. At $9,600 was a circa 1894 Flemish Dog Cart, also with the only box known to the firm. A Parisian Woman With Muff, circa 1910, also featured her box and sold for $6,600.
“Abby Schroeder was here during the sale,” Bertoia said. “She was thrilled. Abby really enjoyed the people that came to the sale and those who she got a chance to talk with. She was really happy to see so much interest and for a chance to get to know the new caretakers of these toys.”
Bertoia noted that the Schroeder name will carry on through provenance lines well into the future.
“The collection is truly legendary,” she said. “It’s equal to all the old-time great collections. This is the last of the old-time collections to come on the market.”
The firm will hold two more sales from the Schroeder collection, scheduled for September 2021 and Spring 2022.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.bertoiaauctions.com or 856-692-1881.
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