How do you describe your collection?
My personal collection is what I haven’t sold at this point. I owned about 5,000 toys at the beginning of the year. I’m at about 1,000 pieces at this point.
I have an affinity for rare vintage tin mechanical toys, specifically Japanese robot and space toys from the 1950s and 1960s — Astro Boy, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Japanese superheroes. Their colours are vibrant and the toys are different and whimsical. Buyers purchasing from some of the top dealers are discovering that the dealers are keeping the very best stuff for their own personal collections. It didn’t feel great that they were getting second-tier items. I started selling items from my collection through my own publication, private clients, the Mark Bergin Toys website, and I’ve also consigned to Morphy Auctions, Hake’s, and Heritage Auctions.
The pieces I pick up now are earmarked for my clients, some of them are pre-sold. Sometimes I know an item is so rare I’ll pick it up because I know one of my clients will be interested. I’ve worked on a couple of auctions with Sotheby’s, including two of the biggest robot and space-toy auction featuring the Matt Weiss Collection and the F.H. Griffith Collection.
When and why did you start your collection?
I was working for a landlord and playing in a punk band about 35 years ago. We weren’t making any money. I discovered that I could get really cheap furniture for my apartment at auctions so I started to go to them. I picked up an Arnold Co. tin motorcycle toy made in Germany. I was really mesmerized by the clockwork mechanics of the toy — a rod would turn a wheel inside the toy that created sparks for the headlight. It is a really cool piece. I bought it for $20 on a pallet of about 50 items of junk…and there was this motorcycle. That was the first piece I bought.
I started riding around the Illinois countryside on my motorcycle. Every farm town had an antique shop and not everyone was buying at that time. I’d ride my Kawasaki 650 with my backpack and visit antique shops and rummage sales in small towns. I stopped by a mobile home unit and the guy had a tin “door” robot — it had a little door on the front. I bought it and put an ad for it in Antique Toy World magazine. It sold for $1,000. I told my mom that I thought I could do this as a career. I left the band and moved back in with my parents.
As time went on, I went overseas, where items would show up that Americans didn’t have access to, and I’d bring them back to sell. I was pretty ambitious and attacked it pretty hard. I built up a good client base. Collecting and dealing can be very cut-throat. It takes a lot for most people to try not to overemphasize and just be honest about an item. It’s human nature to not disclose everything and you have to train yourself to do otherwise. I’ve built my business on trust. Now, my clients use me to purchase items through auctions. The items I buy come here first so I can vet them to ensure they aren’t fake, don’t have replacement parts, and haven’t been repainted. You have to have a good eye. Even a seasoned collector can be fooled if they don’t know exactly what they’re doing.
Most of my clients prefer to go unknown – they are owners of large corporations, doctors, designers, and actually every walk of life. I have a client at NASA that collects space toys and have sold to magician David Copperfield. I occasionally also provide toys to movie sets and late-night talk shows.
How do you display and store your collection?
I would love to display my collection in a nice way, but most of my items just sit on shelves in my home — it’s uninteresting. I have a client in Brazil, Roberto, who is an architect and maker of flying apparatuses. His display is just fabulous. He has planes on the ceilings and walls throughout his entire home. He has a menagerie of objects and every spot is filled. Everything is put together so well it’s like a painting. It never looks busy. It’s more like a museum. The people who purchase items at this level are almost as rare as the items themselves.
What do you consider to be the Holy Grail of robot or space tin toys?
There are a few out there with an extreme level of rarity. There are some Diamond Planet Robot battery-operated toys that hardly anyone has ever seen. Machine Man from Masudaya’s “Gang of Five” sold for $159,000 at a Morphy auction earlier this year. Prototypes are always big and there’s a sixth robot from Masudaya that very few people know about.
For me personally, it would be the Arnold Co. motorcycle I mentioned earlier, and the Merrymakers toy I received from my mom when I first started my business.
What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a similar collection?
First, find a dealer you can trust. Make sure you vet the dealer as much as their pieces.
Second, buy items in as nice a condition as you can get your hands on. A few great things are better than more not-so-great things. They are an investment, and when you go to resell the item(s), it takes the same amount of time to sell a $50 item as it does a $10,000 item.
Practice patience and don’t buy junk.
Visit markbergin.com to see more of Bergin’s spectacular collection and do some (window) shopping.
Uncover objects of play through the eyes of collectors.