Posted on: May 11, 2020

Beginner’s Guide : Vintage Toys

They say nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but if the auction market for toys is anything to go by, that’s just not true!  Antique and vintage toys are proving increasingly popular at our sales, reflecting perhaps a growing desire from general buyers and collectors alike to reconnect with something tangible from their childhood.  So in this beginner’s guide we’ll look at four areas of toy collecting which are always popular: clockwork tinplate toys, model railways, Stieff bears and diecast vehicles.

Clockwork Tinplate Toys

An early 20th century tin plate clockwork fireman sold for £440

Clockwork or wind-up mechanisms first appeared in automata in the 15th century. These were complex and expensive pieces, and certainly not made for children.  By the 18th century, German and Swiss makers were producing smaller clockwork models for household entertainment, but it wasn’t until  the industrial revolution of the 19th century that mass production techniques allowed the construction of affordable clockwork toys for children. These were generally made of tinplate and decorated with brightly coloured lithographic artwork. Although mainly produced in Germany by manufacturers like Bing & Schoenner and Issmayer, and later Schuco and Ernst Paul Lehmann, British and other continental manufacturers soon caught up, and the tin plate toy market became highly competitive into the early 20th century.  Shut down in World War 2 when metal was in short supply, tin plate toys received their final boost in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the post war gloom was lifted for kids by an invasion of brightly coloured and often noisy robots and other science fiction toys from Japanese makers like Bandai and Nomura, and US brands like Marx. Ironically these toys also led the way into new materials like plastics, which soon spelled the end for tin plate. 

When buying clockwork tinplate toys, the two key things to watch out for are condition and functionality. The highest auction prices are paid for pristine working examples with their original key and original box.  While a degree of playwear is acceptable, overwound or broken mechanisms, lost keys and damaged or missing boxes can greatly affect the value of any piece.  Also watch out for reproduction tin plate toys – there’s a niche retail market for new vintage style collectors’ toys, but as yet these have little re-sale value. 


Model Railways

A Hornby Orient Express Box set sold for £100

The first model railways were made in Germany in the 1830s.  These were made from tin plate with clockwork motors, and didn’t necessarily run on rails, so they might be more properly described as model trains.  The model railway proper really arrived with Frank Hornby’s large scale clockwork ‘0’ gauge train sets, first produced in 1920.  These gave children tracks to run their trains on and stations they could stop at, and the opportunity to add more track and buildings if space and pocket money allowed.  Clockwork remained the main power source for Hornby trains until the 1950s, but electric trains became available as early as 1925, although only becoming safe for children in 1929.  Hornby’s big breakthrough came in 1938 when their smaller ’00’ gauge was launched, and Hornby’s electric ’00’ gauge train sets remained a best selling toy until the 1970s.


Because of their ubiquity and generally playworn condition, ‘0’ gauge Hornby Clockwork train sets aren’t particularly valuable, but there is a steady market for them.  Sets in good condition in their original box will command a premium at auction, as will very early 1920s models and special commemorative sets such as the Flying Scotsman.  Unfortunately ’00’ gauge electric train sets are not yet desirable at auction unless they’re a particularly rare model. 

Steiff Teddy Bears

An early 20th century Steiff teddy bear sold for £4200

The story goes that the teddy bear was named after US President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, who in 1902 refused to shoot a trapped bear. The same year, German company Steiff produced the first string jointed stuffed bear toy. An American businessman bought 3000 of them at a toy fair, sold them in the USA as ‘Teddy Bears’, and a phenomenon was born!  Steiff’s original string jointed bears were short lived, and after a brief experiment with rod joints, in 1905 the company started using the cardboard disk joints it still uses today. Faced with a mountain of competition following the success of the original teddy bear, in 1904 Steiff began putting their famous button in the ear of each bear, and a year later also added their distinctive ear tag.  For over a century Steiff bears have remained the ‘Rolls Royce’ of teddy bears, and although bears from other makers like Chiltern, Joy Toys and Ideal can be sought after, Steiff bears generally make the best money at auction.

Steiff’s original string jointed bears are so rare now that they’re all but impossible to find, and the rod jointed bears are equally rare, so dating bears which which all use the same card disk joint system can be challenging.  The ear button is a good starting point.  The earliest buttons had an elephant design, but this was soon replaced by a blank button, and then with a series of Steiff logo buttons.  The ear tag was originally introduced in 1905 and was made of paper, so you’re unlikely to find one of these.  A red ear tag dates a bear from 1926 to 1934, but the yellow tag that replaced it was used for the next fifty years!  Given that ear buttons and tags can both fall off, identifying and dating a Steiff bear often comes down to eyes (early bears had wooden eyes), stuffing (early bears used wood wool), shape (early bears had long limbs) and texture (early bears had mohair fur).  But even if it turns out that your Steiff isn’t that old, don’t desbear – sorry despair – many later Steiff collector’s bears are highly sought after and command a premium at auction.


Diecast Model Vehicles

A Corgi Toys 261 James Bond’s Aston Martin D.B.5 sold for £120

A diecast model vehicle is one which has been made by pouring molten metal (originally lead, but usually a zinc alloy) into a die (a kind of mould). Although there have been model vehicles for as long as the real things have been around (often produced for marketing purposes), mass produced diecast toy vehicles were launched in the 1930s by Frank Hornby, who sold them as accessories for his famous train sets.  Originally made under the auspices of Hornby’s Meccano company, the vehicles were soon branded as Dinky Toys and sold well beyond the model railway market.  It took twenty years and two major innovations for serious rivals to Dinky to emerge.  In 1953, Lesney launched its much smaller, but pocket money friendly, Matchbox range.  Then three years later, Corgi launched its toy vehicles with plastic windows, taking a big chunk of the market with this simple but revolutionary idea.  This was a golden age for British toy car making which would last into the 1960s, when the American brand Hot Wheels began to dominate the market.


Although produced in huge numbers, diecast vehicles are very collectable and can attract high prices at auction.  As ever, the condition of the model itself is a major determinant of value, but perhaps more so than in any other area of toy collecting, the presence and condition of the original packaging is essential for high prices.  The key expression to look out for is Mint-In-Box (or M.I.B, meaning un-opened and un-played with).  A mint-in-box example of almost any model will have an auction value, whereas a playworn example without a box may be unsellable.  To be considered mint, the box should be clean and bright with no tears or losses (pay particular attention to the folding end tabs here).  Any clear film windows in the box should be crease free and not yellowed, while clear plastic ‘blister packs’ should be dent and split free.  Product age is not necessarily a barrier to value in diecast model collecting – many later models from the 1970s and 1980s can be sought after by collectors.  Models based on Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 vehicles are a good example of this.  And finally a warning – beware of reproduction facsimile copies of Matchbox model boxes.  If the box looks brand new, or any age it shows looks ‘printed on’, you may be looking at a facsimile rather than an original.


One of the great virtues of antique and vintage toys is that – as we were all children once –  almost every home will have some!  So if you happen upon a dusty box in your attic, or your parent’s attic, or your grandparent’s attic, and it happens to contain a few toys that you might just remember playing with, why not get our experts’ opinion on them before you start playing with them again…

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