“Everyone, young or old, can relate to Popeye," observes Miles King, co-owner of Milestone (20% buyer’s premium) in Willoughby, Ohio.
“Since first appearing in a 1929 comic strip, Popeye has amused and entertained audiences in a way that sets him apart from other comic or cartoon characters. He’s an eccentric guy who seems to wander naively into one misadventure after another, always getting out of a scrape at the last minute thanks to a can of spinach.
“Many of his exploits have translated to toys over the years, and collectors want them all.”
And one collector who is particularly keen is Ozzie Bilotta. When King contacted him to say that he had a Popeye and Olive Oyl tank for sale as part of a collection of toys relating to the famous character, Bilotta recognised it as the very same example that he had bought in the early 2000s on eBay.
“The box had the same small characteristics, the same scribbled numbers on the price tag – there was no question that it was the same toy”, he said. Bilotta recalls having to pay $14,000 or $15,000 for it which he says was a record-setting price for a Popeye toy at the time.
Bilotta had sold the tank privately around 20 years ago when his interest turned to space toys but was determined to secure it once again for his collection.
So much so that in Milestone’s Spring Toys auction on April 9 he outbid the competition once again, this time to the tune of $87,500 (£67,310) hammer against a $30,000-40,000 estimate.
The price, says the auction house, is a new auction high for a Popeye toy.
The battery-powered tank was made by the Japanese firm of Linemar, the post-Second World War subsidiary to Louis Marx & Co, measures 11in (28cm) in length and comes with the original pictorial box. When in operation Olive Oyl’s head emerges from the turret of the tank as Popeye flips the vehicle over.
It is now destined to become one of the exhibits in a private toy museum that Bilotta plans to open in Florida this autumn.
Row your boat
The tank will be joined by another Popeye toy from the Milestone auction: a 10½in (27cm) boxed rowing boat, also by Linemar, that came complete with oars and remote control and was in exceptional condition. This realised $11,000 (£8460) against a $2500-3500 estimate.
A number of other Popeye toys also achieved prices in excess of the estimates.
They included two tinplate clockwork toys made by the firm Chein that demonstrated Popeye’s legendary spinach-fuelled muscular strength, both of them with their original boxes.
One was an 11½in (29cm) heavy hitter depicting him as a strongman testing his strength on a fairground machine, the other an overhead puncher with the original celluloid punchbag. Each realised $9500 (£7310).
A third Popeye toy from Linemar featured among the best-sellers at $8750 (£6730): a clockwork Air-OPlane again with the original box.
Another example of a Popeye rowing boat was also among the top lots. This was a 14in (35.5cm) long tinplate clockwork example made by Hoge and retaining the original oars, rudder and Hoge decal. It sold for $8000 (£6515) against a $3000- $4000 estimate.
The sale offered 81 lots of Popeye related toys in total, all bar one from the same collection.
Push the boats out
At Ivoire Chartres (20% buyer’s premium) in France two days of sales devoted to toys on April 23-24 included a collection of 51 toy boats assembled over a 40-year period between 1960-2000 by the enthusiast R Gallier that yielded a premiuminclusive figure of €215,000 and some substantial individual prices.
The collection was led by the rare early Märklin model of a live steam-powered battleship produced in 1910 for the Italian market and accordingly given the name Giulio Cesare (previewed in ATG No 2537).
The largest boat in the collection at 2ft 10in (86cm) in length, this sold for €39,000 (£32,775) against a guide of €20,000-30,000.
There was intense competition for a smaller Märklin creation with a more modest estimate, a 17¾in (45cm) pleasure boat with 12 passengers that was guided at €700-1000. Bidders pursued this to €20,000 (£16,805).
Also keenly contested was a 2ft 5½in (75cm) steam-powered boat from the German manufacturer Bing named Oceanic which overshot its €3000-5000 estimate to sell for €24,000 (£20,170).
The auction house also offered some more recent, larger model toys created by the automaton artist Jean-Pierre Hartmann in the 1980s for Au Nain Bleu, a Parisian toy shop.
L’Orient Express Maharajas de Baroda was a Hartmann steam and electric-powered recreation from 1982 of a 19th century paddle steamer, measuring 5ft 4in (1.64m) in length and featuring a functional swimming pool with a water jet on the upper deck and over 200 lights. This realised €7500 (£6300).
And moving from boats to trains, a Hartmann recreation of a train from c.1840 comprising an electric-powered locomotive, tender and three carriages together with its station measuring over 9ft 10in (3m) in total length realised €13,100 (£11,010).
£1 = $1.30/€1.19