11 December 2020
Internet platforms were challenged as Christmas and Halloween enthusiasts battle over treasures
If there were a trophy for stamina and composure at the auction podium, it surely would have been awarded to Michael Bertoia on 14 November, at around 1:30am. That’s when an intense two-day marathon auction of toys, trains and holiday antiques finally came to a close at Bertoia’s gallery, with a $2.3 million gross and bidders clamoring for more.
Adhering strictly to COVID guidelines that govern New Jersey businesses, Bertoia’s initially had planned to accommodate a limited number of pre-registered, socially-distanced bidders at their gallery. “We wanted to have a live attendance because so many people told us they wanted to come. We thought we would be able to control it, but the response was so overwhelming, we had to change course and err on the side of safety. The bidding ended up being by remote methods only – absentee, by phone and through two bidding platforms, Bertoia Live and LiveAuctioneers,” said Michael Bertoia, the company’s president and principal auctioneer.
Online participation during the two sessions was relentless. At times, there were communication lags due to the sheer number of bidders. “But every bid was recorded, and in the end, the prices – especially on Bob Merck’s phenomenal Halloween antiques – went beyond anything we could have predicted,” said Bertoia’s co-founder Jeanne Bertoia.
Holiday antiques, highlighted by the stellar four-decade Bob Merck Halloween collection, generated the most excitement of any auction category. Every phone line and both bidding platforms were in use throughout the Friday session. “Bob Merck’s collection was well known for its quality and uncompromising condition,” Michael observed. “We were selling his entire collection, so it was a now-or-never opportunity for other collectors to own something with Bob Merck provenance.” The Halloween category was further sweetened by a small but elite selection of items consigned by another private collector.
The top Halloween lot was a German composition frowning tree trunk lantern candleholder, which defied all expectations. A diminutive 3.5 inches tall, it had been estimated at $700-$1,000 but ended up selling for $18,000. “Even at that price, underbidders were upset to drop out of the competition but knew they had to stop bidding at some point,” Michael said. Following closely behind was another collector favorite, an 11.5-inch cloth-dressed witch disguised as a devil jack-o’-lantern, which sold for $16,800. An endearing veggie man lantern and candy container fashioned as a stick-legged pumpkin figure holding two smaller pumpkin-faced jack-o’-lanterns was bid to $14,400.
The spectacular Christmas selection produced the auction’s top lot, a 35-inch-long sleigh pulled by six composition reindeer on a wheeled platform, with a composition Santa in the driver’s seat. A very rare and special production, each of its bell-adorned reindeer was posed differently and had beautifully crafted antlers. Entered with a $1,000-$1,500 estimate, the prized lot soared to an incredible $72,000, with many bidders in hot pursuit. Another big winner was the red-coated, mohair-bearded Santa atop a wind-up white fur polar bear nodder. Standing 29 inches tall inclusive of its iceberg base, the Christmas rarity swept past its $7,000-$9,000 auction estimate to land at $36,000. Other Christmas highlights included a clockwork donkey with Santa rider, $15,600; a rare 15-inch articulated German belsnickle with a rabbit-fur beard and snow-flecked, fur-trimmed brown coat, $14,400; and a magnificent 17-inch-tall nodding reindeer with a decorative harness and Santa rider, $13,200.
A tremendous variety of antique toys awaited bidders. One of the rarest of all comic character productions, a Gunthermann (German) Felix the Cat windup merry-go-round in gorgeous, all-original condition with whimsical Felix passengers easily surpassed its high estimate at $20,400. From the early 20th-century French toymaker Fernand Martin, a circa-1914 clockwork “Nanny” holding a bundled baby sold with its original pictorial box for $7,800. A Martin cloth-dressed Roller Skater, one of only a handful of known examples, sold (unboxed) for the same money.
American horse-drawn cast iron toys were led by a Dent Police Patrol Wagon, $13,200; and a Pratt & Letchworth combination fire wagon, $10,800. Rare examples of Schoenhut (Philadelphia) toys drew strong competition. Top lots included a Freihofer’s Fine Bread wagon, $7,200; and a jointed Felix the Cat figure with its original Schoenhut box, $5,700. Made to commemorate the 1892 Columbian Exposition, a seldom-seen Ives Columbus “Santa Maria” egg toy of painted tin with cloth sails sold with its original box for $8,400.
A ball toss game featuring a wonderfully expressive bas-relief composition bulldog with a hinged open/shut jaw capable of catching a ball sold for $6,000, more than six times the high estimate. The auction menagerie also included two irresistible circa-1905 Steiff teddy bears. A 24-inch apricot plush mohair center-seam teddy with elongated limbs and shoebutton eyes was won for $26,400; while a 28-inch golden mohair teddy with a “cone” nose, elongated limbs and shoebutton eyes made $21,600. Both easily beat their high estimates.
Of the antique train lots offered, the one attracting the most attention was a Lionel 2 7/8-inch powered gondola and trailer from the late Norm Schaut’s collection. The second of two such examples Schaut owned (the other sold at Bertoia’s last May), it was entered with an $8,000-$12,000 estimate and was chased to $40,800. Also noteworthy, a Marklin Pennsylvania Railroad set estimated at $3,000-$4,000 rose to $10,200.
A Midwestern collection was the source of 18 working mechanical music machines, each equipped to play either cylinders or disks and all housed in finely carved wood cases. A Swiss mandolin music box in a Black Forest case, with a lid ornately carved with figural pheasants and their chicks, sold for $31,200 against an estimate of $5,000-$10,000.