27 April 2022
Winning bidder, who owned the tank previously but sold it 20 years ago, says it will be displayed at a new private toy museum in Florida
Popeye toys haven’t seen an appreciable downturn in the collector marketplace at any point in the past 25 years. In keeping with that trend, vintage toys depicting the punchy sailor were “strong to the finish” at Milestone Auctions’ April 9 Antique Toy Spectacular, which grossed $650,000. Powering its way to the top of prices realized, a Linemar Popeye and Olive Oyl Tank with its original pictorial box sold for an astonishing $105,000, a new world auction record for a Popeye toy.
“Everyone, young or old, can relate to Popeye,” said Milestone Auctions co-owner Miles King. “Since first appearing in a 1929 comic strip, Popeye has amused and entertained audiences in a way that sets him apart from other comic or cartoon characters. He’s an eccentric guy who seems to wander naively into one misadventure after another, always getting out of a scrape at the last minute thanks to a can of spinach. Many of his exploits have translated to toys over the years, and collectors want them all.”
One of those collectors is Floridian Ozzie Bilotta, who bid aggressively to claim the Popeye tank which, ironically, he had owned once before.
“I originally bought it in the early 2000s from an Australian seller on eBay,” Bilotta said. “I don’t think they knew much about what they had, because their description wasn’t very specific. The bidding opened at only a few hundred dollars, but I wasn’t the only one after it. I recall having to pay $14,000 or $15,000 for it. At the time, that was a record-setting price for a Popeye toy.”
A few years later, when Bilotta’s collecting focus shifted to robots and space toys, he sold the tank privately. For the next 20 years, he never saw or heard of the tank’s whereabouts. But old habits die hard, and even as immersed as he was in the world of sci-fi collectibles, he never lost his fondness for other types of vintage toys. He would regularly send out “wish lists” to dealers and auction houses, always including Popeye toys on those lists.
One day Miles King called Bilotta and said, “I know you’ve been looking for a Popeye tank. We have a boxed one coming up in our next sale.” King emailed photos to Bilotta, who immediately recognized it as being the same toy he had purchased on eBay decades earlier. “The box had the same small characteristics, the same scribbled numbers on the price tag – there was no question that it was the same toy.” The Popeye tank is now destined to be one of many prized attractions at a private museum Bilotta plans to open this fall in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
At the April 9 auction, Popeye proved his strength time and time again. An exceptional example of a boxed Linemar battery-operated Popeye And Rowboat, complete with oars and its correct remote control, glided to $11,000 against a $2,500-$3,500 estimate. Bilotta was the winning bidder on this toy, as well. An old favorite with collectors, a 14½-inch-long Hoge clockwork Popeye Rowboat came complete with its original oars, rudder and desirable Hoge decal. In excellent condition, it more than doubled its high estimate to moor at $9,600.
Several now-classic Popeye toys depict the musclebound sailor in boxing or strength-testing pursuits. Two toys from this category – both made by Chein – landed in the auction’s top 10: a Popeye Heavy Hitter with its original box, and a boxed wind-up Popeye Overhead Puncher. Each of the toys settled well above estimate at $11,400. Right behind them, pricewise, was an all-original Linemar tin Mechanical Popeye Air-O-Plane with its original box, which sold for $10,500 against an estimate of $6,000-$8,000.