Toy collector offers cash for vintage playthings

Mike Thornton waited 40 years to get what was rightfully his: a German medieval knight set with 13 figures, two ladders and a giant shield on wheels.

He was denied this treasured toy by his mother on Christmas 1958, only days after a young Thornton had led his siblings on a toy jailbreak. They secretly unwrapped the gifts under the tree and then rewrapped them. The punishment was supposed to be temporary but it spread over four decades when his mother misplaced the box.

This event — and, subsequently, the toy set — obtained legend status in the Thornton family, becoming one of those anecdotes that was passed down to younger generations, his daughter Tiffany said.

Basically, Thornton, 61, never stopped talking about that toy. So when his mother finally found the unopened box, it became a priceless artifact of his childhood.

But on a recent Thursday, Thornton was willing to part with it. For the right price.

He wanted $500. He hoped that toy dealer Joel Magee, the host of the FX Toy-Buying Roadshow, would pay it.

Magee was at the Residence Inn Marriott earlier this month to purchase vintage toys from locals who wanted quick cash. The Florida toy dealer travels the country, buying vintage toys that he then refurbishes and sells to collectors.

This was his first toy show in Las Vegas. He didn’t know what to expect. Locals surprised him with some really good stuff, Magee said. On the first day of his four-day show, Magee scored a vintage Bullwinkle lunchbox, Barbie dolls dating back to 1959, “Star Wars” figures, superhero comic books from the 1940s and more.

Thornton approached Magee on the second day of the show, holding his cherished Elastolin knight set in a protective pillowcase. Thornton priced the figures on eBay and saw that three of them were selling for about $265. He reasoned that a complete set had to be worth a lot more.

“I would do $200 on this set,” Magee said after carefully examining the box and its contents.

Thornton was a little surprised and said as much.

“The box has never been opened,” he said, incredulity tingeing his voice.

Toy collectors have a term, “mint in sealed box,” which means a toy has never been removed from its original packaging. This greatly enhances toy value. That is, if the toy has value.

Thornton’s knight set was in a beautiful box depicting a painting of medieval knights jousting. But someone had put a piece of tape on it at some point and you could clearly see the mark it left behind. Any damage to a toy, even the wrapper or box, diminishes its value.

Magee would have to fix that blemish, he explained, and to pay Thornton more than his offer would put him at a disadvantage. Much of what Magee purchases from noncollectors needs some work, such as Barbie dolls that need heads or action figures missing weapons or clothes.

Thornton declined the offer, but Magee promised to put him directly in touch with a guy who collects Elastolin figures.

Most sellers who bring their toys to him have done some initial research online and they have a price in mind, Magee said. This is both good and bad. Sometimes, toy sellers will “fish” on sites such as eBay, listing toys far above their market value. People see this and think it means their similar toy is just as valuable.

The key to using auction websites as price indicators is to check prices on sales that have been completed, not on listings, Magee said.

Sometimes, people will overvalue their old toys because they have tremendous emotional meaning. Nearly every toy has a story and people want to share them with Magee. Unfortunately, meaning doesn’t have monetary value.

“I always think it’s worth more because it’s my collection,” Patti Barth said of the dozens of Popeye toys she sold to Magee. “You know?”

In 1981, Barth started collecting Popeye toys. Her friends helped her amass 18 containers full of toys by picking up anything and everything with the Popeye name on it. During the show, Barth wheeled in two containers full of Popeye stuff: bubbles, a Popeye shaving kit (for kids), a Popeye comb, a tambourine, a lunchbox, electronic game, and dozens of other games and toys.

Magee offered her $200 for all of it. At first, she balked. Surely the fully operational electronic game makes the pile worth a lot more?

Nope, Magee said. That’s maybe $30. Barth let out a hum of uncertainty and Magee upped his offer $10. “OK. It’s a deal,” she said.

Maybe the toys were worth a little more cash. But selling them to Magee meant that Barth didn’t have to track down a collector herself. That would take more time and effort than she was willing to invest.

“I had fun collecting them,” she said. “Now I’ve cleared some space in the house and I’ll move on to something else.”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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