Rinker on Collectibles: The Changing Face of Toy Collecting

The world of toy collecting is fast changing. We used to know what would be collectible, like these lithographed tin toys from the 1930s and ’40s, but those trying to predict which of today’s toys will be collectible in the future have their work cut out for them.


Collecting categories fall into two categories—static and changing. Antiques categories and some collectibles collecting categories are static. Static means no new period products associated with that collecting category are still manufactured, the exceptions being reproductions (exact copies), copycats (stylistic copies), fantasies (shapes and forms that did not exist historically), and fakes (objects deliberately meant to deceive).

If there is a continued flow of new product into a collecting category over multiple decades, it experiences collecting focus transitions as new generations of collectors pick up the mantle of those preceding them. This is especially true for broad collecting categories such as ceramics and glass.

When interpreting developments within toy collecting, it is important to define exactly what is being analyzed. First, for collecting purposes, toys divide into four basic groups: (1) boys toys; (2) preschool/infant; (3) girls toys; and (4) games and puzzles. According to a CSI Market report on Hasbro, boys toys represent 40.32 percent of total revenue, while games and puzzles 24.71 percent of revenue, girls toys 20.04 percent of revenue, and preschool toys 14.93 percent of revenue.

Author’s Aside #1: Mattel, which owns the American Girl, Fisher Price, Barbie, Hot Wheels and Matchbox brands, offers a different picture. Because Mattel lumps Barbie, Hot Wheels and Matchbox into a general Mattel Brands category, it is difficult to arrive at a boys’ toys vs. girls’ toys breakdown.

Author’s Aside #2: The Toy Industry Association (TIA) classifies video and digital games as toys. The TIA did this to preserve its dollar volume “toy” impact when traditional toys sectors starting losing ground to the gaming industry. While video and digital games are collected, they are currently not part of the toy collecting community, no matter what the Strong Museum of Play advocates.

Second, toy collecting is about boys toys. Girls toys are a subdivision of doll collecting. Ignore the argument that toys manufacturers are striving for gender play neutrality. Toys are more sexist than ever. Elizabeth Sweets’ article entitled “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago” in the Dec. 9, 2014 issue of Fortune supports this point of view.

Third, toy collecting is one of the most male dominated collecting categories in the antiques and collectibles field. Less than 15 percent of toy collectors are women. A few women collect action figures. Most focus on infant toys, select licensed toys and/or games and puzzles.

Fourth, toy collecting is generationally focused. The traditionalist collectors, now in their late sixties and above, collected the toys played with by their grandparents, parents, and themselves. Baby Boomers and later generations focused almost exclusively on the toys with which they and possibly their children played. In the twentieth century, the focus is more on buying back the toys the collector had as a child rather than creating large type collections. The Me generations are about Me, Myself and I.

Fifth, like doll collecting, toy collecting is separate from the general antiques and collectibles community. Toy collecting has its own independent periodical, collectors group, and shows. Toys move quickly out of the general marketplace and into this specialized world. As traditionalist collectors become part of great toy playground in the sky and specialized toy shows continue to decline, this independent world is under attack. Younger toy collectors are turning to social media and the Internet to interact with each other, thus making it harder to track toy collecting shifts.

Toy collecting has experienced one major shift in focus over the last half century with another major shift on the horizon. Up to the mid-1980s, toy collectors focused on vehicle toys such as airplanes, boats, buses, cars, motorcycles, trains and trucks and/or toy soldiers. By the early 1990s, action figures, along with Hot Wheels and Matchbox—the “modern” vehicle toys—replaced the older focus on cast iron, plastic, pressed-steel and rubber toys. Those wishing confirmation of this assertion need only compare the table of contents in Richard O’Brien’s “Collecting Toys: Identification and Value Guide, Eighth Edition” (1997) with that found in Mark Bellomo’s “Toy’s & Prices, 19th Edition” (2013).

In 2017, the hot toys are those from the 1980s and 1990s. It takes between 25 and 30 years for a generation to become interested in buying back its childhood toys. Toys from the 1980s and 1990s still mimicked traditional toy types. As the 1990s ended, licensed toys decreased and new toy types arrived on the scene.

Older “Rinker on Collectibles” readers are familiar with my Toy Closet Christmas columns. The goal was to buy toys during the pre-Christmas season for a 30-year period, put them in closets, and reopen each closet on its 30th anniversary and report how I did in predicting what would become future collectibles. I ended the Toy Closet columns after 22 years frustrated by the growing cost of individual toys, lack of licensed and other toy products, and the short shelf life of many toys. Survival on store shelves for a decade or longer is a critical component in long-term collectability.

When the video and digital game world developed, I made a conscious effort to ignore it, a privilege accorded to old farts such as myself. I assumed my career as an antiques and collectibles writer would be end by the time this material was traded outside a speculative secondary marketplace. I am now questioning my decision.

Video, digital, and virtual reality toys are replacing traditional toys, especially for adolescent/teenage boys. The play age of action figure and vehicle toys no longer extends into the double-digit age category. Examples of older electronic games and toys are being traded actively.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, a friend and sister by name not blood, sends me links relating to collecting that she finds when surfing on the internet. Back in the 1990s, we spent days roaming the aisles at the New York Toy Shows. I was pleased when I opened an email and found a link to Mary Cass’s article “Toy Fair 2017: Key trends” posted on line on Feb. 22, 2017.

The first point made in the article was that the toy market is now a “12-and-under market.” Historically, the toy market saw itself focused on 14-and-under. Is 12 the right number? Given the attention span of today’s youngsters and their obsessive, compulsive behavior with digital games, 10-and-under seems more realistic.

Second, the article talked about added diversity, and not just ethnic, to toys, especially dolls. Toy manufacturers are rushing to become politically correct. What they are producing is collecting novelties, which may or may not be included in future collecting. American Girl has launched its first boy doll, Logan Everett. One wonders if he is anatomically correct. Ideal’s Archie Bunker’s grandson Joey Stivic doll was.

This new-in-the-box Archie Bunker’s Grandson Joey Stivic doll from 1976, which drinks, wets and is anatomically correct, sold for $29.99 this march.

Augmented reality is one of the new buzz words in the toy community. Concern is being raised that such products could “detract-from real-world play.” It is not clear why this concern is being raised now. Any grandparent who watches his/her grandchildren spend hours in front of the television or playing electronic games can tell you the problem is endemic. If parents want their children playing outside, they need to pull the TV or game console plug, literally as well as figuratively.

Companies are developing toys that children can use to teach them good manners and time management skills. Excuse me? Did I miss something? Is not this the responsibility of parents?

What I failed to find in Ms. Cass’ article is any toy that has the promise of long-term collectability. The future is now from the perspective of the toy industry. It is immediate and short-lived. As more and more emphasis is placed on adding technology, toys will soon resemble an automobile’s dash board—filled with more buttons and information than anyone, children included, gives a damn about.

I am concerned about the long-term future of toy collecting. If I visit a Toys R Us, I might think differently. My concern is that if I do, I will exit the store looking for a high cliff from which I can jump.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2017

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