Malcolm Forbes' Toy Auction Could Bring In Millions

It's hard to believe that a toy auction could bring in $3 million to $5 million in this economy, but when you're talking about toys owned by late publisher Malcolm Forbes, you know it's not just any toy collection.

Thousands of items he collected are going on the auction block at Sotheby's on Friday.

  • Throughout the 19th century, the size and power of ships continuously grew, reflecting the latest of a nation's engineering and artistic talents. The romance of the great floating palaces excited younger generations — and toy makers.
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    Throughout the 19th century, the size and power of ships continuously grew, reflecting the latest of a nation's engineering and artistic talents. The romance of the great floating palaces excited younger generations — and toy makers.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • This highly prized tin toy boat came back to America with a soldier's possessions after his death in France in 1918. Propelled by a battery-powered electric motor, it is equipped with two props, working guns, and lights. Value estimated between 100,000 and 200,000 dollars.
    Hide caption
    This highly prized tin toy boat came back to America with a soldier's possessions after his death in France in 1918. Propelled by a battery-powered electric motor, it is equipped with two props, working guns, and lights. Value estimated between 100,000 and 200,000 dollars.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • This is the earliest Monopoly game hand-made by Charles Darrow known to survive, and its circular shape is said to be in reference to Darrow's dining room table. It contains the original set of rules and more than 200 pieces. Its estimated price is between 60,000 and 80,000 dollars.
    Hide caption
    This is the earliest Monopoly game hand-made by Charles Darrow known to survive, and its circular shape is said to be in reference to Darrow's dining room table. It contains the original set of rules and more than 200 pieces. Its estimated price is between 60,000 and 80,000 dollars.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • Around the Pyramid of the Sun in Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City, Aztec warriors in feather regalia and jaguar skins battle against the troops and Indian allies of Hernan Cortes in 1521. This large, intricate set was produced by Aloys Ochel of Germany, the world's largest maker of tin flat figures. Its estimated value is between 2,500 and 3,500 dollars.
    Hide caption
    Around the Pyramid of the Sun in Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City, Aztec warriors in feather regalia and jaguar skins battle against the troops and Indian allies of Hernan Cortes in 1521. This large, intricate set was produced by Aloys Ochel of Germany, the world's largest maker of tin flat figures. Its estimated value is between 2,500 and 3,500 dollars.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • Marklin recreated the Cunard Line's "Lusitania" ocean liner, which was sunk in 1915 by a German submarine, precipitating America's entry into World War I. It was purchased by Malcolm Forbes for $28,600 at Sotheby's New York in 1983, setting a record at the time for the highest price ever paid for a toy boat.
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    Marklin recreated the Cunard Line's "Lusitania" ocean liner, which was sunk in 1915 by a German submarine, precipitating America's entry into World War I. It was purchased by Malcolm Forbes for $28,600 at Sotheby's New York in 1983, setting a record at the time for the highest price ever paid for a toy boat.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • This boat is an early and pristine example of its kind. The delicacy of its styling, hand-painting and detailing would soon give way to mass-produced ships. But it was toys like this that gave Marklin its worldwide reputation as one of the best toy manufacturers. Estimated value between 150,000 and 250,000 dollars
    Hide caption
    This boat is an early and pristine example of its kind. The delicacy of its styling, hand-painting and detailing would soon give way to mass-produced ships. But it was toys like this that gave Marklin its worldwide reputation as one of the best toy manufacturers. Estimated value between 150,000 and 250,000 dollars
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • A sweeping narrative of toy soldiers from around the world features the work of renowned makers. Its estimated value is between 10,000 and 15,000 dollars.
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    A sweeping narrative of toy soldiers from around the world features the work of renowned makers. Its estimated value is between 10,000 and 15,000 dollars.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's
  • Large collection of 20th-century motorcycle toys, valued between 4,000 and 6,000 dollars.
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    Large collection of 20th-century motorcycle toys, valued between 4,000 and 6,000 dollars.
    Courtesy of Sotheby's

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Forbes Magazine's motto is "the capitalist tool," so it's not surprising that Forbes collected Monopoly sets.

"Monopoly, in a sense, is all about capitalism," says David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's.

The earliest homemade version of the game known to have survived — from 1933, when the board was still round — is expected to go for between $60,000 and $80,000. And there are all kinds of later sets in Forbes' collection.

But what's more surprising in this collection are the armies of toy soldiers: Revolutionary War, Wild West — complete with toy buffaloes — legions of Aztecs, castles filled with medieval warriors. There are hundreds of toy motorcycles and many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boats — tiny boats, huge ocean liners, battleships.

"These were made to be actually played with. They were made to go into water, and that is why toy boats are quite rare — because so many of them sank," says Redden.

One German gunboat, created in the 1880s by Rock and Graner, is a combination of a steamboat and a sailboat with beautiful folk art characteristics. This boat is expected to go for between $150,000 and $250,000, and could well set a world record for a toy. It's clearly not really something a child would play with. Most of the collection dates from between the mid-19th century to just before World War I, when, as Redden put it, the fantasy of the Gilded Age ended.

Forbes collected for more than four decades. Some of his collection was on view until recently at the Forbes Gallery on Fifth Avenue, in New York City.

Why did Forbes create such a big collection? And why so many boats? Redden tells a story of a young Malcolm Forbes traveling on an ocean liner with his family to Scotland. He put his favorite toy boat on a long string and put it down into the turbulent ocean to sail behind the huge liner.

"And needless to say," says Redden, "the boat was never seen again, and he was devastated. So, there really is a Rosebud sense to all of this; he was trying to bring back that lost toy of his childhood."

And that's true for many collectors.

Toy collector and dealer Leon Weiss has collected toys since he was 11 — that's more than 40 years. As Weiss walked through Forbes' collection, he says he actually sold Forbes a few boats over the years. He loves that German gunboat.

"I personally believe that old toys transcend generations. For me, it evokes an emotion and triggers a memory," Weiss says.

But it's not just toy collectors who will come to this auction, Redden says. "This also takes people back to their childhoods. Whether or not you had a battalion of toy soldiers or a fleet of ships, you wish you had had them," Redden says.

Although perhaps not at these prices.

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