Czech Out this Score

When our girls were young, our family lived for several years in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, and it was a hotbed of antique toy collecting. Seemed like there were more collectors in that Maryland/DC/Northern Virginia corridor than I’d seen anywhere else. However, one of my collecting friends, Ed, lived in South Carolina, and we visited whenever our travel schedules allowed.

I was preparing to head out to a business conference in West Virginia when Ed called and said he’d be coming through our neck of the woods the following day on the way to visiting family up north. He told me he had a few things for me to look at and apologized for the short notice, then asked if I’d like to get together. I had purchased a couple of old toy cars from Ed in the past and I knew he was a long-time collector of the good stuff, so I’d have said yes if he’d asked me to meet him at a biker bar in a tux and tails. I told him we’d expect him for dinner the following evening and then spent the next 24 hours wondering what it was he thought I should see.

He arrived carrying a cloth-covered tray of some kind, and I wondered if he had brought us dinner. After hellos and handshakes, we sat and got caught up with one another as that covered tray sat on our coffee table. After dinner, we returned to the living room, where Ed told me he was selling off his collection and wondered if I’d be interested in some of the pieces.

He pulled the towel off the tray as I tried to avoid hyperventilating. He said, “I generally stuck to the European and British manufacturers when I started doing this back in the late ‘50s, so that’s a lot of what’s here.” In other words, right in my wheelhouse. The toy and model cars in the tray ranged from early post-war Dinkys to models made in Israel to mint boxed Japanese treasures. Ed had bought and/or been given the toys as a young guy and he had kept them in exceptional condition ever since.

Over in the corner of the tray, encased in bubble wrap, was a blue Belgian die cast metal piece that I had never seen before. We unwrapped it, and I could see it was modeled on a late 1940s CheGasqui3vrolet sedan, but I couldn’t place the manufacturer. The tin baseplate had a capital “G” in a circle, along with the words “MADE IN BELGIUM,” and after a couple of minutes, I made the connection. This was a Gasqui (or Gasquy, as it was sometimes spelled), an obscure and now very rare brand made during the late 1940s to early 1950s. The model was in excellent condition, and the accounting side of my brain started wondering whether I could get along with just one kidney.

“There’s another one in there, too,” said my tormentor as he dug out a second bubblewrapped lump and placed it in front of me. I think I actually gasped when I saw what it was, as I had heard of this model but had never actually seen one in the flesh. It was a Tatra 600, also called the Tatraplan, based on the legendary (and innovative) Czechoslovakian car of the late 1940s. Like the full-size Czech icon, this one had the centrally-mounted rear fin and the distinctive art deco design, and it was in superb original condition.Gasqui1

Now I was sure I was dreaming, so I asked Ed why he was selling these exceptional rarities. He told me that he couldn’t keep them forever, and he thought it was time for someone else to enjoy them.

Ed was a friend, so I told him that the Gasquis were worth far more than what I could pay for them. He said “That’s not really important to me…I just want these to go to a good home, to someone who can appreciate them and their history.” I told him that I thought they were wonderful pieces and that I would love to have them in my display cabinet, but that he could sell them at auction for a whole lot more than what I could pay.

He said, “Nah, that’s not for me. What do you think, how about $75 for the pair?” I could see that he wanted me to have them, and after asking him if he was sure this was what he wanted, I told him I’d be thrilled to do the deal.

In the years since, I’ve seen several worn (and repainted) examples of the Chevrolet go for $125 to $200, but the Tatra takes the cake. They rarely turn up for sale, but when they do, examples in this condition bring anywhere from $700 to $1,000. A great score for me, no question; but seeing them in my cabinet reminds me that I’m grateful that Ed entrusted to me these little pieces of history.

Douglas R. Kelly recently began collecting buttonholes.

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