NEW HOPE, Pa. – Last May the Old Salem Toy Museum in Old Salem, N.C., closed its doors for the last time on a spectacular collection of antique toys, holiday items, dolls’ houses and miniatures, and other children’s playthings, some dating to as early as 225 A.D. The collection was built over many years by businessman Thomas A. Gray and his mother Anne P. Gray, members of a highly respected family of North Carolina philanthropists. Both Tom Gray’s grandfather, James A. Gray, and his great-uncle, Bowman Gray Sr., held the position of chairman of the board of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. One would presume correctly that the museum’s toy collection ranked among the very finest of its type.
While the museum is now part of antique toy history after eight years of operation, the collection has one last public appearance to fulfill, which it will do when it is auctioned by Noel Barrett on Nov. 19-20 in New Hope, Pa. Proceeds from the auction will be used to acquire and conserve Moravian and Southern decorative art objects for the Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a restored 18th- and 19th-century North Carolina Moravian community that is part of a National Historic Landmark district.
Close to 900 lots will be offered in the Friday evening/Saturday auction sessions, with the main categories including early European and American toys, Erzgebirge carved-wood figures and sets, beautifully outfitted rooms and shops, Christmas and other holiday antiques, desirable German-made miniatures, and dolls’ houses.
While much of the museum’s focus is on German toys and dolls’ houses, Tom Gray also sought out great American toys. One of the treasures he acquired was George Brown’s Monitor. “Any aficionado would agree, this ship is an American toy masterpiece,” Barrett said.
“It’s one of the most highly prized pieces in the collection and will be auctioned together with an illustration from the George Brown Sketchbook.”
German toys of tin and other metals are highlighted by an incredible 33-inch-long Marklin child-size firepumper wagon large enough for two small children to pump simultaneously. It is the only known example, Barrett said. Additional key lots include a lovely clockwork
airplane roundabout with Wright Brothers-style biplanes and a lithographed American flag; and an oversize Fischer Bleriot-style airplane. Among the Marklin boats to be auctioned is a large-size Battleship New York.
At least 10 sets of German painted-wood figures in bentwood boxes reside in the collection, with Barrett’s favorite being a 19th-century Erzgebirge hunting set comprised of a hunter on his horse, a dog, eight trees with tightly curled wood shavings to replicate leafy branches, four deer and a wild boar. Described as being similar to sets depicted in an 1850 book, it is expected to make $8,000-$10,000 at auction. Also noteworthy in the section devoted to wood toys are: one of the most complete Schoenhut Humpty Dumpty Circuses ever to be displayed publicly, at least four different German-made menageries containing a wide array of miniature animals (mostly painted wood), and two rare hand-colored sample catalogs issued by German manufacturers.
“The two great strengths of the collections are the colorful painted wood toys from the Erzgebirge and the intricate miniatures made by premier European makers,” said Noel Barrett. “There’s a wonderful variety of miniatures by Rock & Graner, Evans & Cartwright, and many pieces of what are generically called ‘ormolu’ but recently were determined to have been made by Ehrhardt & Sohne for Marklin.”
Within the auction inventory’s many delightful miniatures by Rock & Graner are a jardinière with lithophane and serpentine front legs, and a squirrel cage that Barrett says is “even more elaborate than the one Flora Gill Jacobs had in the Washington Dolls’ House and Toy Museum.”