Mickey & Minnie Mouse motorcycle sells for a staggering $222,000 at Bertoia’s $2.1M sale of Monique Knowlton antique toy collection
A former NYC gallerist, Knowlton collected with an eye for art and paid the price to acquire toys of exceptional rarity and quality
VINELAND, N.J. – One of the most exciting events ever to be held at Bertoia Auctions’ New Jersey gallery took place on March 11-12 with the sale of the spectacular Monique Knowlton antique toy collection. The globally publicized auction of mostly 20th-century European, American and Japanese toys kept collectors riveted as examples with stellar provenance commanded unheard-of prices. After the hammer fell on the last of 628 lots, Bertoia’s president and principal auctioneer Michael Bertoia confirmed to the media that the single-owner collection had achieved a grand total of $2.16 million, inclusive of 20% buyer’s premium.
The top lot of the sale, a circa-1932 Tippco Mickey and Minnie tin wind-up motorcycle, stirred a bidding frenzy in the run-up to $222,000, a world-record auction price for any Disney toy. Prior to the sale, Bertoia’s had fielded numerous phone calls from bidders with an interest in the classic toy, which was estimated at $25,000-$45,000.
“There were several very substantial absentee bids in place, some from collectors who had tried unsuccessfully to win the toy at its last auction appearance twelve years ago. Those absentee bids faced strong competition from bidders on the phones and in the room,” Bertoia said. “Personally, I couldn’t have guessed how high it would go – that would have been impossible – but I felt confident that it would set an auction record because of all the excitement surrounding it. We were all surprised and happy for Monique when the motorcycle sold for such a fantastic price.”
Knowlton had paid $65,500 for the Mickey and Minnie motorcycle at Bertoia’s 2010 auction of the Donald Kaufman collection. Kaufman was a co-founder of KB Toys. Previously, it had been owned by visionary Disney toy collectors and reference book authors Doug and Pat Wengel. The new owner is a private collector in the United States who bid over the phone.
Comic character toys in general, but especially those depicting Disney characters or other pre-WWII favorites, had an outstanding day at Bertoia’s. A 1930s Japanese celluloid Mickey Mouse chariot pulled by Horace Horsecollar retained its original 69-cent price tag from City of Paris, a legendary San Francisco department store that operated from 1850 to 1976. It sold for $33,600, nearly five times its high estimate. Another eye-catching celluloid duo, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop, teamed up in a 1930s clock-themed toy whose rare and desirable original box displays the toy’s name: “Time Is Gold.” Against a $1,500-$2,500 estimate, it rose quickly through the ranks to secure a winning bid of $31,200. A circa-1930 Mickey Mouse tin “Slate Dancer” crank toy took a bow at $26,400; while a Schuco three-wheeled tin wind-up cart with a felt Mickey Mouse driver applied the brakes at $18,000.
Made in Germany, a Gunthermann Felix the Cat wind-up merry-go-round, one of only two or three known, features four Felix figures that ride around in autos and dirigibles when the toy is activated. Against an estimate of $15,000-$25,000, it more than doubled expectations at $52,800. Another popular Felix toy was the 13-inch-long Chein “Felix Frolic” which came from the American toymaker’s brief 1926 production run. One of only a handful of its type known to have survived, the colorful tin platform toy with a large figure of Felix and smaller figures of mice and cats, leaped past its $12,000-$18,000 estimate to land at $38,400.
Two other familiar comic characters, Popeye and Olive Oyl, arrived on the auction block with their battery-operated tin “Super” Tank. Made by Linemar, a postwar Japanese offshoot of Marx Toys, it rolled over its $3,000-$5,000 estimate to halt at $33,600.
Christmas antiques are avidly collected year round. As a result, there was aggressive competition from both Christmas and toy collectors for a circa-1912 Fischer Father Christmas tin wind-up car. The 10½-inch butterscotch-colored open-air vehicle, with a feather tree and gifts stowed behind and beside the “robed” Santa figure, is one of very few known to exist. With charm to spare and provenance that includes the Mary Grumbine collection, it sold for $43,200 against an estimate of $15,000-$25,000.
The Knowlton collection included toys of every medium, including cast iron. One of the highlights of that category was a Hubley painted cast-iron Surfer Girl pull toy. The female surfer “wears” a green bathing suit and has a Jantzen logo on her surfboard, representing the toy’s use as a promotional item for Jantzen swimwear. With provenance from the Bob Brady collection, and previously, Rich Garthoeffner, it was offered together with a vintage Jantzen child’s swimsuit box. It more than doubled its high estimate to sell for $33,600.
Sharp-eyed train enthusiasts spotted a gem in the Knapp “Electric Locomotive No. 221” 2-inch gauge steeple cab locomotive. In pristine condition, the distinctive 13-inch-long cast-iron train engine with a raised central driving cab, sold for $18,000 against an estimate of $5,000-$7,500.
Robots and space toys always found a welcome home in the Knowlton collection, and over the years some elusive extraterrestrials joined the fold. The most valuable of the group was a boxy, 15-inch-tall Masudaya Machine Man Robot, rarest of the famed Japanese “Gang of Five” robot series. Near-mint and one of the finest of all known examples of its type, it surpassed its high estimate to close at $72,000.
Two Bandai productions followed in the Machine Man’s footsteps, chalking up their own celestial prices. A Flying Spaceman friction motorcycle – known as “Flying Superman” to some collectors because of the plastic figure’s cape and S-shield logo – came to auction with its original, richly visual box. Regarded as the best of all known examples, it soared to $57,600 against an estimate of $12,000-$18,000. With its feet firmly planted on planet Earth, an extremely rare robotic Walking Batman with its coveted original Japanese-language box changed hands for $43,200, more than six times the high estimate.
A former international cover girl from Germany who later became a New York City art gallerist, Monique Knowlton now joins an impressive list of collectors whose toys have been auctioned by Bertoia’s since the company first opened its doors in 1986.
After the March 11-12 auction, Knowlton commented on the long and rewarding relationship she has had with the Bertoia family and how appreciative she is for the guidance they provided during the years she was a bidder at their sales. “When Michael, who now runs the business, was only about 18 years old, he used to personally advise me about which items were genuinely rare. His advice, even then, was very helpful to me. Although he is still young, he is so accomplished and an exceptional auctioneer.”
Michael Bertoia is of the opinion that every time a top-tier collection like Monique Knowlton’s appears at auction, it has a positive effect on the toy-collecting hobby as a whole. “The prices paid for Monique’s toys validate what all collectors usually learn very quickly – that it makes sense to focus on toys that are in the best possible condition, preferably with a box,” Bertoia said. “Monique also proved that even if you have to stretch a bit to acquire a truly rare piece, it’s worth doing because you might not ever have another chance to bid on an example of that particular toy again. The March 11-12 auction results, which are a reflection of Monique’s intelligent approach to collecting, are likely to embolden her fellow collectors, who will carry the market forward for many years to come.”