Ozzie Bilotta collects vintage toys and is set to open a museum of vintage toys, arcade machines and related memorabilia called The Bilotta Collection in Florida this autumn.
He has collected for 36 years and previously worked in sales, manufacturing, and commercial real estate. From 1997, with his wife Kristine, Bilotta ran the website Ozzie’s Robots selling vintage toys – now just a reference site – and developed a YouTube channel.
Bilotta featured in ATG (No 2543) after he bought back a Popeye and Olive Oyl tank and box at a Milestone auction for $87,500 (£67,310) – having sold it 20 years previously.
Here he discusses his collecting habits and his museum plans.
ATG: How and when did you get the collecting bug?
Ozzie Bilotta: I can honestly say I’ve been a preservationist and collector all my life.
For example I still have original Odd Rod Cards & Wacky Packs [trading cards and stickers] from the late 1960s that I had owned as a young child.
The vintage toy bug hit me specifically at a kiosk in a mall in Fort Lauderdale in 1986 during a general antiques show. I met Phil and Ann Meyer, who had numerous toys including 1950s vintage battery toys and robots.
I was amazed. I had never seen anything quite like them. I was particularly attracted to the lithography on the boxes.
Which toy characters did you like as a child?
Popeye, Batman, Speed Racer, Mickey and the Japanese Iron Man (Tetsujin or Gigantor).
What drew you to the type of toys you collect?
At some point I was made aware of specialist publications and dealers and books such as Battery Toys: The Modern Automata by Brian Moran. When I first started I would buy any vintage battery toy and robot I could find provided they appealed to me aesthetically.
The tin design, colours and lithography has to appeal to me.
Now my main core area is Japanese toys with a special emphasis on the late 1940s through to the early 70s, though not exclusively.
The toys have to have characteristics that I find artistic, beautiful, mechanically intriguing and appealing overall.
What elements do you look for when making a purchase?
Condition, rarity, desirability, the box art, the mechanical aspect or the ‘actions’ as well as any historical or cultural significance or relevance.
Where do you find items to buy?
Originally I bought toys during business or vacation travels when I would scour antique stores. Later I would frequent vintage and antiques shows in places such as Atlantic City. Eventually eBay became a hot source. Lately it has been primarily back to buying at auction houses and through private dealers.
What is the most you have ever spent on an item?
I purchased the boxed Masudaya’s ‘gang of five’ Giant Machine Man robot in 2020 at Morphy’s which set the record for the most expensive toy robot ever sold [at a hammer price of $130,000/£102,700, as reported in ATG No 2463]. Objectively I believe it is the nicest example of that toy I have ever seen: it looks like it was made yesterday.
I also have two Tetsujin toys that both broke $100,000 at a recent Mandarake auction.
How large is your collection?
I honestly don’t know since everything is boxed and packed up waiting for the collection space to be completed so they can be opened and displayed for the museum.
If I had to guess, well over 1000 toys, and for the core high end of the Bilotta Collection it is perhaps 500-600.
Would you classify your habit as ‘buying the best there is/the best you can’ or are you driven by the thrill of finding something others have missed?
Since I am opening a public collection, my focus is to acquire the rarest and most exclusive items to make a visit to the Bilotta Collection a worthwhile endeavour and a bucket list item for toy collectors.
To my knowledge there is no multi-million dollar public collection in the US with this level of rarity, sophistication and value. Kitahara would be the most analogous (the collection of Teruhisa Kitahara in the Yokohama Museum of Tin Toys in Japan).
What advice would you give to a young collector?
It sounds like a cliché but buy what you like. Don’t buy with the intention to flip for a profit as that may never happen – so if you’re stuck with an item make sure you enjoy looking at it!
Condition is critical. Rarity doesn’t really matter if a toy is rusted beyond repair. If you can stretch for the original box, do it.
Remember to have fun: it’s a hobby. I recommend joining groups of like-minded collectors on places like Facebook. I’ve met some very dear friends in the hobby.
When did you decide to open the Florida museum?
In late 2019 because my collection outgrew display in a normal home environment.
Alongside the significant toys in your collection, what else will be on show?
It will also have a collection of approximately 50-60 arcade machines including some of the rarest fortune tellers in the world, rare and restored rocket rides, autopede saucers, original toy-related art and rare vintage movie posters.
There will also be full-sized robots like Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot, the Lost in Space robot, Maria from Metropolis and Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still as well as artist-created full-size and toy-size robots.
Tell us more about the museum…
I’m driven by the thrill to offer a unique experience that sophisticated collectors will truly appreciate but anyone can admire.
The plan has been well under way for nearly two years now. The collection space is approximately 3000 sq ft within a 22,000 sq ft building.
We hope to have a soft opening in September.
My son Andrew will handle customer relations and artefacts and my wife Kristine will manage the gift shop area. There will also be vintage toys for collectors to purchase as well as part of a membership perk.
We aspire to use social media and interact with other collectors and the public. There are some very interesting collectors that have great stories to tell.
It’s been a challenging endeavour as there is no template for this type of structure.
A Dunkin’ Donuts would have been much easier and cheaper!