Nostalgic collectors are a ready market
Vintage buyer Joel Magee visits the Bay Area to traffic in memorabilia from childhoods past.
Vintage toy buyer Joel Magee carefully examined the two dozen boxes of hand-painted miniature toy soldiers, which in the 1950s marched in pretend battles across the bedroom floors of children.
This army had seen better days, and the lead-based paint and sharp edges are no longer considered safe. But Magee knows there are toy collectors who would pay top dollar to relive childhood memories.
“These are in very good condition,” Magee told his customer. “I’d be willing to do $700 for these.”
Magee, who bills himself as “America’s Toy Scout,” is in the Bay Area this week as part of a nationwide tour seeking to buy antique toys and dolls that, like the lead soldiers, may have been sitting in dark attics or dank basements for decades.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident makes his living buying vintage toys, restoring them and selling them to collectors — toy flipping, one might call it. Their monetary value is tied to the sentimentality they inspire.
“We get a lot of executives who I sell to now, and they’re like, ‘You know, I run a multimillion-dollar company, but ... being able to run my train set just takes me back, and my blood pressure goes down,’ ” Magee said.
Magee, 55, specializes in older toys, comic books and memorabilia from the 1970s and earlier, from vintage Barbie and Madame Alexander dolls to Hot Wheels cars and Tonka trucks.
He’s also in the market for hard-tofind items, like the first set of “Star Wars” action figures rushed into stores
after the original movie premiered. One Chewbacca doll from that set that he bought for $350 is worth about $425 on the collectors market.
Most old toys need restoration work to get them back to their former selves. Magee even refurbishes empty toy boxes that have been soiled by moisture.
During a stop in Sacramento on Monday, Magee bought a set of “Star Trek” toys from the 1960s, including a plastic scale model of the Starship Enterprise that lay in pieces in a plastic bag.
Magee said he will spend from $5,000 to $15,000 per day buying old toys. While in San Bruno and San Francisco this week, he paid $400 for a Batmobile from the 1960s TV show “Batman.” And he paid $500 for a battery-operated robot from “Lost in Space,” another 1960s TV show that generated some of the most popular toys.
He also paid $1,100 for a set of 1960s-era Hot Wheels cars that a contractor found under an attic floorboard of a San Francisco home he was renovating.
But some older toys, like scale model railroads, are going down in value, Magee said, because they no longer resonate with generations who grew up playing with video games.
Magee, who wraps up his Bay Area tour at the Hampton Inn in Alameda on Friday, said his collection, built over 30 years, includes a firstedition 1938 Superman comic book worth about $100,000.
Toy industry expert Stevanne Auerbach of Berkeley said Magee is the only vintage toy buyer who tours the country. But she advised that anyone who wants to sell to a buyer like Magee, or to vendors at a doll and toy show, should first do some research.
Like buying and selling a car, “You should know what your toy is worth,” said Auerbach, known as “Dr. Toy” and author of “100 Years of Iconic Toys,” published in November.
“It’s a business. He gets them as cheap as he can and sells them for a much bigger price,” she said. “But he might buy it from you for $10 and it’s worth $1,000.”
Ann, a Daly City resident who gave only her first name, said she was skeptical when she came to Magee’s San Bruno stop to sell the toy soldiers. But she was pleased that the price he offered was in line with what she found online beforehand.
For her, the tiny army represented many childhood memories. Her father used the finely detailed soldiers to teach her and her brothers about history, including why certain soldiers wore particular uniforms.
“We spent years marching them across our bedroom floors, and ended up with wonderful life experiences and history,” she said.
But her brothers are no longer interested in the soldiers, which she kept for years camped in their boxes because of “the stories they tell.” However, she said she’s at a point in life when she knew it was time to sell the soldiers, and she didn’t want them thrown out as garbage.
“I guarantee we’ll be having these looking very nice and going to a very worthy collector,” Magee told her.
Carol Murphy of San Mateo came in with a collection of carefully preserved sports trading cards, including a 1965 Willie Mays card, and several “Wizard of Oz” edition Barbie and Ken dolls chosen by her late son-in-law. Magee bought the set for $500.
“We’re saving a piece of history,” he said.
“Toy Scout” Joel Magee looks over a 1937 cast iron Yellow Cab from Arcade at a stop at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
Lee Trusty (left) of San Francisco shows Joel Magee his collection of die cast and cast iron toy vehicles from as far back as the 1920s.
Magee, a vintage toy buyer, looks over items at Fort Mason in San Francisco.