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.


The Condition Thing

Show picFunny the things that your mind comes up with when it’s in neutral. My wife and I took a couple of booths at an outdoor flea market here in North Carolina last weekend, hoping to sell off a few older items and lighten the load. My mom came along and helped staff the booth too, as she had more than a few antiques from her own collection with which she wanted to part. (See my Sept. 19 post for more on that collection.)

As things slowed down after a couple of hours, I began keeping track of people who noted/asked about/complained about condition. Now, my wife and daughters can give you chapter and verse about how picky I am when it comes to originality and condition, whether of a 19th century lamp or a toy car made in the 2000s. I prefer to think of myself as a discerning collector; but truth be told, I’m high maintenance in this area. In others too, to hear my family tell it.

Some folks didn’t seem to care if the item they were buying from us had a giant hole punched through the center of it, or that one corner of the blistercard packaging was slightly softer than the others. Several of them made counter offers to the marked prices, but many of them didn’t say a word about damage or wear and tear.

Then there were those who listed every flaw for me, pointing out missing parts and frayed electric cords with obvious pleasure. One guy came in and picked up a heavy 1920s electric “cage” fan we had sitting on the pavement near the front of the booth. He asked me if it worked, and I told him we didn’t know as there was no way we were going to plug in the tattered power cord to find out. He said to me “Do you mind if I go plug it in to test it?” I was momentarily befuddled by his question as we were outdoors, but he was off on his quest before I could answer. I wondered if I would ever see the fan, or the guy, again.

He returned a few minutes later with a disappointed look, telling me “The fan’s gettin’ power, but the motor’s froze up.” As he set it back down in the booth, he picked up an iron apple corer that my mom had on one of her tables and said “Can you do any better on this? Look here, somebody musta broke off the original piece that attached to the table and welded this thing in its place…and this part over here is just plain missing…”

I knocked a few dollars off the price, and the guy bought the corer. And I realized that I enjoyed the back and forth and the debates about condition more than a straight sale where the buyer just handed me money. There’s something about that interaction, about that give and take, that just feels right. It made it a good day at the show.

Douglas R. Kelly is no longer in mint original condition, but maybe that’s over-rated anyway.

A Legacy

There’s no doubt our environment plays a huge role in determining who we are, but so do our genes. Seems to me that, if I had been born and raised in Eastern Europe or the Pacific Islands, there would have been a good chance that I wouldn’t have become a collector of old things. On the other hand, if my father had anything to say about it, antiques and artifacts would have been all around me even if we had lived at the Arctic Circle.

Robert Kelly loved the hunt, and hDad and dressere loved bringing old things back from the dead. Ask my mom, and she’ll tell you how my dad could spot an early 20th century oak dresser hidden under three layers of bad paint, from the car as they were still pulling up to a tag sale. That’s him to the left, happy as can be after my brother had just given him a dresser for Christmas, scoring huge points with the old man. That particular one looks as though it didn’t need much to get it back into service, but many was the hour my dad spent repairing, refinishing, and restoring dressers, tables, chairs, and electric fans.

And flashlights. Did he love old flashlights. He would show me his latest find with a grin on his face, demonstrating how a nine-inch Winchester made in the 1940s put out just as strong a beam as that new plastic job sitting in the closet. FlashlightsIt got so he had me looking for these things at shows and tag sales, and they grew on me to the point where I now have a couple of them in my own collection, although I wish they were still a part of my dad’s collection.

He passed away three and a half years ago and there are days when I miss him so much that it’s like a physical ache. My mom tells me she feels that too; I lost one of my best friends, but she lost the love of her life. For the last couple of weeks, the two of us have been digging through bins and boxes, dusting off and pricing many of their antiques in preparation for selling them at a show this coming weekend. It’s been a revelation for me. Not every piece has a story behind it, but many of them do, and they often involve my parents digging the item out of the back of some dealer’s truck just after dawn at a show somewhere in New England, where they either got it for a song or paid more than they should have just because it would look great in their den.

The thing is, all of these wonderful stories involve both of them; I’ve yet to hear about my dad finding a great piece when he was off somewhere on his own. They did all of this together, and that brings these objects to life for me. I’m learning all over again that my parents truly were a team, best friends who loved each other and loved going after the old stuff.

We’re selling a lot of it, but of course we’re keeping the special pieces. There are several of my dad’s oak dressers doing daily duty in our house, and the flashlights my mom has given me work as well as they did when they were new. It’s a far cry from having him here. But somehow, it helps.

Oh, by the way Pop…that five-inch Royal with the square reflector has me stumped. What should we put on that one?

The “R” in Douglas R. Kelly is for Robert, his dad’s name. That must be why he’s hooked on the old stuff.

Twists and Turns

Figuring out who made what, and when, is an important part of the collecting life for me. Last month, I made the pilgrimage north to Lehigh County, Pennsylvania for Das Awkscht Fest, a three-day party revolving around old Macungie1cars and old toys in the normally quiet little town of Macungie. Along with the toy shows and hundreds of jaw-dropping classic cars, the event boasts a huge automotive flea market; rain or shine, row after row of vendors set up and sell just about anything you might possibly need for your Packard or Pontiac or Pierce-Arrow.

The night before it all got underway, I had dinner with my friend Ben and his family. Not surprisingly, the talk turned for a time to toys, and we continued a conversation we had started earlier at his house as he gave me a tour of his world-class early plastic toy collection. A year prior, Ben had sold me a five-inch plastic pickup truck after I had shown him a five-inch plastic sedan made by the same company, which I had just scored at the Saturday morning show. Along with the fact that it was mint boxed, what really pushed my button about the sedan was the fact that it was more or less a twin to a similar car I’ve had in my collection for years—a car about which I’ve been able to learn absolutely nothing.


The mystery car, center, along with the sedan and pickup from the Luxor series.

This “mystery” car has a friction motor that has the words “Made in Germany” stamped on the casing, and is based on the Jowett Javelin, a British car made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’ve had it for years and had no clue as to its origin or maker. But when Ben told me he had a pickup truck from the same series as the sedan I had just found, he provided a piece of information that advanced things a bit: Although the sedan (like my mystery car) is unmarked either on the toy itself or on the box, the pickup truck is marked “Luxor Made in Holland.” Now we had something to go on, as Luxor was an established (if minor) player among European toy makers in the 1950s. The fact that the “Mechanical Motorcar” series was made by Luxor told me that the maker of my mystery car either copied the Luxor toy, or perhaps inspired the Dutch manufacturer to include a model of the Jowett in its Mechanical Motorcar series.

Ben likes putting together this kind of puzzle as much as I do, which is why I brought all three pieces to show him when I traveled to the Macungie event last month. We examined them and kicked around a few ideas, but in the end, the manufacturer of the mystery car remains—for now—a mystery. But you’d better believe I’m now hunting for Luxor pieces with a passion.

As for the Macungie shows this year, they proved, as usual, to be target-rich environments for me. Early Friday morning, I dug out a late-1940s tinplate Tri-Ang Minic petrol tanker from a plasMacungie3tic bin that was filled with new-ish action figures and model kits. I asked the seller if he was firm on his $50 price (a bargain, as these often sell for $75 to $100), and he said he was, so I paid up. I took my find back to my car wondering how this English tinplate treasure—in superb original condition—could wind up thrown in with Aragorn and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. By the way, if you have the February 2012 issue of Antiques Roadshow Insider, check out my feature piece in that issue, “Worthy Competition,” which explores the world of Minics.

The icing on the cake came on Saturday morning, when I purchased a cardboard garage, made in the 1930s by an Indiana company called Warren Paper Products. These “Built-Rite” buildings are as scarce as hen’s teeth and look terrific when they’re displayed with toy cars of the period. I’ll put this one together and see if my Minic tanker will fit inside.

Douglas R. Kelly has nothing against today’s automakers, but he thinks new cars should come in boxes, for display purposes.

Messing About in Boats

News stories this week are showing the stricken cruise ship, Costa Concordia, being re-floated and towed to the scrap heap, and that gets the attention of my inner sailor. Actually, it’s not much of a stretch, as I’m editor of Marine Technology magazine, and most days I’m surrounded by all things maritime.

But ship salvage fascinates me. So much so that I found myself more or less obsessed with this one particular dealer booth at an outdoor show last fall. Among other large artifacts, this guy had a truly stunning ship’s telegraph—a throttle control on a stand that mounted to a ship’s deck—and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it. Made of brass and other metals, the unit was propped up against a tent pole (due to the ship’s deck staying behind when it was salvaTelegraph picged) and absolutely screamed early 20th century industrial design. It may not have been love, but I definitely was smitten with this piece of maritime history. The telegraph itself was similar to the one shown at left, although this one is without the stand. (It still sold for almost $300 at a 2011 auction.)

I moved on after seeing the price (way out of my range), but then circled back—several times—to look at the telegraph again. Did I think the price would magically change to one that I could handle? Who knows? Maybe it was the idea that this device, having spent years and years guiding some long-forgotten ship on its appointed rounds, now was sitting in a field surrounded by wicker chairs and soda signs and garden statues and somehow I hated that that part of its history had come to an end.

A business conference in Houston a few years back included a weekend visit to Galveston, where I had a chance to poke around Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor, a ship salvage shop run by Michael and Adrienne Culpepper. Net floats, deck lights, buoys, navigational tools, cleats, liferings and on and on. If it was once part of a ship, the Culpeppers rescue it and find it a good home. My time there was great fun, so I called Michael recently to see where the nautical antique market is headed. I especially wanted to hear his thoughts on telegraphs and other ship control units. “Well, it’s Binnaclestill hard to find the good stuff,” he told me. “We’re seeing more aluminum units—usually they’re Japanese made—now than ever before. And in terms of finding telegraphs and binnacles [deck-mounted instrument stands], the price of scrap metal affects us a lot…when the market prices for brass and copper go up, that has a real impact on what we’re able to get.”

Michael also said that their customers tend not to be nautical collectors. Rather, many of them are non-collectors who are just struck by a particular piece. “Often it’s a person who stops in front of a binnacle and realizes, ‘Hey…that would look great in our front hallway,’ and that starts the process.”

He also told me that overall, their business has picked up in the last couple of years, and that demand for these larger pieces is strong. Just what I didn’t want to hear as I hunt for a ship’s telegraph that costs less than a mortgage payment.

Douglas R. Kelly is considering selling his miniature wastepaper basket collection to raise enough cash to buy a telegraph.

Pranks by Proxy

Maybe it’s because I leave things lying around, but for some reason, the gag and joke items that I’ve collected over the years seem to work most effectively when I’m not there. These joy buzzers and rubber candies and squirting quarters go back to the 1930s and 1940s, and some of them still function as well as they did the day they left the factory. As long as I’m not around.dribbleglass

About a week before my wonderful wife, Laura, and I got married, my parents gave us an early wedding present: a new queen-size bed. It had to be delivered while I was at work, so I asked Laura’s mom, Shirley, if she might come to my apartment and make sure the delivery and setup went smoothly. This she did on the appointed day, watching as the delivery guys muscled the bed up three flights of stairs to the apartment.

As they were getting things squared away, one of the guys asked Shirley if he might have a glass of water. “Of course,” said my future mother-in-law, heading for the kitchen cabinet. She apparently grabbed the first glass that presented itself, filled it with water, and handed it to our unsuspecting friend. Shirley told us later that she watched the man drink from the glass as water dribbled down all over the front of his shirt. This struck her as very unusual—drinking from a glass generally being a skill mastered early on in life—but she said she didn’t say a word as the man finished the water (or what there was of it actually in the glass) and handed the glass back to her. “Thank you,” he said as he went back and finished his work with his partner.Gag radio

It was then that Shirley saw the slots cut into the decorative pattern on the outside of the glass, and realized she’d been had. My dribble glass had done its job perfectly and I wasn’t even there to enjoy it! Still, hearing Shirley recount what had happened—especially the part about the guy not saying a word as he irrigated his shirt—was hugely fun and of course has become something of a family legend.

This wasn’t the first time one of the pranks in my collection had done its dirty work in my absence. Check out my feature article, “How to Amuse Your Friends,” in the April 2014 issue of Antiques Roadshow Insider and learn how my friend Joel ran afoul of my exploding pen at exactly the wrong moment.

And if you want to have lots of laughs along with a great history lesson, get a copy of Kirk Demarais’s book, Life of the Party. It’s a history of the S.S. Adams Company, which has been the gold standard of gag and joke makers for more than 100 years. Check it out at

Douglas R. Kelly keeps trying to pull the classic “Nail Through Finger” gag on his wife, but she’s got his number.

Connecting People to Objects

The artifacts we pursue—whether mid-century, rusted, paper, 1880s, metal, mint condition, glass, or whatever categories they fall into—are the reason we’re in the game. But an old saying has worked its way into my consciousness lately, and like most time-worn adages, it has an element of truth to it: it’s the people, and the relationships, that matter the most.

This was impressed upon me once again recently at an outdoor show that serves as the beginning of the antiques year here in central North Carolina. The field at this twice-yearly event doesn’t open until 8AM (haven’t they heard of dawn?), so I was motoring among the tents and booths by 8:04, doing the back-and-forth head swivel thing as I scanned the landscape for the stuff of dreams. In the third aisle, I stopped at a tent containing an assortment of old toys. As I made my way in among the throng, I recognized the booth’s owners, a husband and wife team from whom I’d bought several good pieces at this show the previous year.

With all of the people and the activity going on in and around the tent, I didn’t expect them to remember me or the items I had purchased from them more than 6 months before. The husband greeted me and motioned me over to one of his display trays. “We’ve got some good oddball stuff this time,” he said, pointing to a small metal car in one of the trays. Rare would have been a better word for this toy, which I recognized as one that had been made for just a short time in the mid-1950s. It was in nearly perfect original condition and I bought it on the spot.

“You were here last year and you’re after the unusual stuff, right?” I was surprised that he remembered, and we began talking about old toys and the items he and his wife had sold me at the previous show. He reminded me of one in particular—a hard-to-find six-inch plastic Pontiac coupe made by FitchIrwin Pontiac smallerburg, Massachusetts-based Irwin Corporation in the early 1950s. It was in excellent original condition and the friction motor worked like a charm. I told him it looks terrific in my collection, and he really seemed to get a kick out of that.

I actually had bought the Pontiac as part of a “bundle” deal, which also included a delivery van made by Ideal, about five inches in length. But while examining the van later during a food break, I discovered it was missing part of its front bumper. Although I had bought the van in good faith and any flaws were now my problem, I went back to the seller’s booth with a proposal. After showing him the damage to the van, I asked if he’d be inteTootsietoy kitrested in taking the van back in exchange for my purchasing a Tootsietoy sports car kit that I had been eyeing in one of his cases. The kit was an Austin-Healy, made around 1960, and was still on its original blistercard. The kit was more expensive than the Ideal van, and I suggested that I just give him the difference. He didn’t have to accept the deal, of course, as it meant he’d be taking back a damaged item.

But to his credit, he said yes, enabling me to acquire a piece that I planned to photograph and include in a feature article I was working on for a magazine in England. Like the Pontiac, the Austin-Healy kit has a fair degree of accuracy, and it’s really a snapshot of 1950s automotive design.

On balance, a fun day made even better by dealers who help connect people to the right objects. They’re at the show to make money, of course, but it was obvious these two also enjoyed seeing their treasures go to good homes. As I drove out of the show grounds, I realized I’d forgotten to ask their names. Note to self: look for these dealers—these friends, I guess they’re becoming—at the fall show.

Douglas R. Kelly loves old stuff and would live in one of his display cabinets if he thought someone would bring him his meals.