Collectable Because They Were Never Meant to Be Collectable
Photography by Josh Clason for Petrolicious
In the wake of World War II, with millions dead and their economies in shambles, Germany and Japan were unlikely founts of whimsy. Territorial ambitions had taken each country down the road to ruin and Japanese and German citizens now found themselves taking orders not from an Emperor or a Führer but from occupying Allied forces. Fun and frivolity were in short supply, and yet, over the next two decades, Japanese and German companies would produce some of the most beautiful, sought-after toys ever made, toys that drew upon the skilled craftsmanship of years past and hinted at an economic resurgence yet to come.
The Second Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century–with its advances in steelmaking, mass production, and communications–launched Japan and Germany into modernity, bringing unprecedented wealth to the nations’ citizens and newfound power to political elites. This era is justly remembered for the advent of the telegraph and the locomotive, but it also brought advances in the manufacture of children’s toys. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, toys were typically made of wood or cheap card stock, but as factories and steel technology improved, German companies such as Märklin and Bing began making tinplate toys modeled on the carriages and trains of the time. In Japan, small shops initially turned out cheap knock-offs of then-superior European toys, but over the coming decades the quality of Japan’s toys rapidly improved and came to rival that of their German counterparts.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied Powers were keen to encourage industrial pursuits in Japan and West Germany that did not include the manufacture of warships and bombs, knowing that prosperity in these nations would be a valuable bulwark against Communism. Japanese and German toy companies were thus granted permission to resume the manufacture and export of toys. In Japan, the occupation government headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, even went so far as to procure subsidized American steel for use in making tinplate toys. Thus began the golden age of toy making in Japan and Germany.
From the beginning, toys have been modeled on the transport of the age, with the trains and carriages of the 1800s giving way to the motorcars and airplanes of the twentieth century. In early postwar Japan, small shops produced toy Jeeps modeled after the ubiquitous American military vehicles that patrolled the streets. Led by the likes of toolmaker Mr. Matsuzou Kosuge, however, companies like Marusan were soon producing wonderfully intricate toys, including a friction-powered toy based on the 1951 Cadillac 62 sedan that featured 54 separate stampings and real chrome on its light bezels, door handles, and bumpers. Assembled by young Japanese women in small workshops, these Cadillacs were, in the words of noted collector Mr. Philippe de Lespinay of Newport Beach, California, “a hell of a lot of work for a children’s toy, and yet they sold for about $2 on average in American department stores.”
Where Japanese toys were whimsical–“pure poetry,” says de Lespinay–German companies prided themselves on the durability of their toys. Toys from firms such as Schuco, Tippco, and Kollner-Prameta also featured surprising functionality: working shifter mechanisms, windup clockworks, and even remote-controlled cars. As if to bring history full circle, by the mid-1950s, German companies were copying Japanese toys, with Bavaria-based Gama turning out its own version of the Marusan Cadillac.
For all their details and accuracy, however, these toys were just that–playthings. With their bright colors and slightly exaggerated lines, these are not scale models of their automotive inspirations. They were designed to appeal to children, which is why they now appeal to collectors like de Lespinay.
“A toy is for children, whereas a model is for adults,” says de Lespinay. “Look at the Marusan Cadillac: it’s obvious that it’s a Cadillac but not one single line is precisely a Cadillac. I want whimsical and this is whimsical. Models for me have no charm at all.“
Postwar children were similarly charmed. Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, Japanese and German firms exported one shipload of toys after another, mostly to the United States, where their lighthearted design and cheap price guaranteed that American children would promptly do what children always do with toys: love them, abuse them, destroy them. That, in short, is the crux of these toys’ collectability: they were never made to be collectible.
As a result, these playthings are now among the rarest, most valuable toys ever produced, and their value ticks further upward in the unlikely event that they survive along with their original packaging, which was immediately discarded by the original young owner. In 2008, for instance, a toy based on the 1962 Chrysler Imperial made by the Japanese company Asahi and complete with original box fetched $28,250 at auction, while another recently brought in $17,500 at Bonhams.
For all their beauty and functionality, however, the tin toys of this era could not escape the economic reality of consumer demand. By the early 1960s, technological advances were making plastic toys cheaper than ever, even as American parents began to fret about the sharp edges of tin toys. By the end of the decade, tin toys had become a piece of history.