Thirty years ago, retired business owner Richard Claus began collecting tin toy boats dating back to the turn of the 20th century. In a 2012 auction, a toy boat he had purchased in 2007 for $103,500 sold for $247,250.
Quite an investment, right? Well, yes and no.
Claus, of Gwynedd Valley, Pa., said half of the 550 boats in his collection yielded sale prices below what he had paid for them. The other half, he said, made up the difference.
"I'm not convinced that, as an investment, it's a particularly good idea," Claus said.
"Appreciation like that is not common," said Michael Bertoia, whose family-owned Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, N.J., specializes in antique toys and handled the auction of Claus's boats.
Nevertheless, Bertoia and other industry watchers say the appeal of antique toys as an investment exists.
A 2012 survey by Barclays Wealth and Investment Management and Ledbury Research showed that 21 percent of wealthy collectors invest in such treasures or financial security if conventional investments fail, and 18 percent said they are purely an investment.
However, 62 percent of respondents said they simply enjoy owning their treasures.
The buyers of Claus's boat collection ran the gamut from die-hard collectors who only wanted display pieces to those who view the items as investments.
Indeed, if someone goes about it right, collectible toys can yield returns. Experts say the trick is knowing what you're doing.
"It's like the stock market. Can anyone really time it?" said Terry Kovel, co-author of "Kovels' Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide." He added: "It's the same with investing in collectibles — you have to time it right. It takes a lot of research and time."
Kovel, who has been involved in the industry since the 1950s, said the toys bringing in money now are mechanically complex examples from the 19th century.
For instance, mechanical banks. Basically, these banks were produced to encourage kids to save their money — put a coin in a slot, pull a lever, and the coin drops into a bank.
In 1998, Bertoia saw a mechanical bank fetch $426,000.
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"Top-of-the-line collectors think nothing of spending thousands on a toy," Kovel said. "I've been at plenty of auctions where you just stand there with your mouth open while two men battle over a toy."
Also sought after are transportation-related toys, including trains and cars, depending on the manufacturer. Tin windup toys also are popular.
"We've also seen early European tin toys that are handmade and hand-painted taking off in value," Bertoia said.
According to Kovel, any antique toy in the original box has added value. "Sometimes it's because the box has great pictures on it," she said.
Also important with toys is that the original finish is intact and was not repainted or refinished. "Nothing is in mint condition if a kid has played with it, but it can be in excellent condition," Kovel said.
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Toys that were mass-produced in recent years carry more value if they are in their original packaging and have never been played with. But it's difficult to predict what will increase in value. According to Kovel, some Star Wars figurines that no one wanted in the 1970s are now valuable because so few of them were produced.
Financial planner Clark Randall's philosophy is that if people decide to invest in collectibles, whether toys or other treasures, they should have a love for what they are collecting and know a lot about what they're buying.
"The problem with collectibles is their value is based on the whims of individuals," said Randall, owner of Financial Enlightenment in Dallas.
Indeed, what's hot one day might be unappealing to collectors the next. For instance, Kovel said, robot toys made in Japan after World War II took off in price for a few years, but then interest dropped off.
"If you're investing a small part of [your portfolio] in a collectible and it gives you joy, that's great," Randall said. "But I wouldn't count on that kind of investment funding your retirement."
Lewis Altfest, certified financial planner and CEO of Altfest Personal Wealth Management, also is leery of viewing collectibles as investments.
"Don't look at it as an investment," said Altfest, who excludes collectibles from clients' investment portfolios. "Look at it as a way to enjoy something you love."