So How Do You Evaluate the Worth of an Old Toy?

Assembling a toy collection requires both enthusiasm and skill in selecting different types of toys. Whereas new collectors tend to follow their whims, experienced collectors usually concentrate on specialized areas. Some people collect toys made of a particular material, such as wood, tinplate or cast iron. 

Others focus on a particular theme such as banks, fire-related toys, trains, cars or pull toys. Still other collectors are interested in how toys work and select them according to the type of operation of the toys: friction, spring, clockwork, etc. Many of these classifications obviously overlap, but better to have some resemblance of direction than none at all.

Your choice of a specialization can also be affected by such issues as money and space. Very few people can afford to build major tier-1 collections in highly competitive toy areas, such as mechanical banks or even automata. One solution is to concentrate on the newer categories of a few toys that are a bit less coveted such as: small-metal toys, educational toys, or even board games. Many collectors who with limited room focus on smaller items such as bell toys, soldiers, or tops. But, even gathering large collections of even smaller items can present space problems. Whatever type of collection you choose, here are a few guidelines to help you evaluate old toys. 


Probably the single most critical factor in evaluating a toy properly is determining its rarity. Generally, more expensive toys, -- usually made in small quantities -- have a higher survival rate than cheap ones because the expensive toys were better made and treasured by the entire family. Cheaper toys often broke and were quickly trashed. Durable toys can be stored easily and the ones that had few small detachable parts are more likely survived. In well established toy categories of collecting, such as clockwork toys, early tinplate toys, and mechanical banks, the toys have been collected for so long and been so well researched and documented that both common and rare types are well known and can be found in many toy guides. However, in a newly emerging category like educational toys from the 1940s, '50s, and even '60s, it may be a bit hard to determine what is common and of real value.

Age of the Toy

Almost all American production toys were made after 1850, and the great majority were made after 1880. Because of this, age is less important for toys than for other antiques such as furniture. Although some collectors seek the earliest examples, most are more interested in condition, rarity, manufacturer, and other considerations such as general desire.

Dating Antique Toys

Most toys were mass-produced and can often be dated by checking patents, makers' marks, and country-of-origin marks. Though only a few toys were patented in the mid-1850s, after 1870 many American toys were patented or trademarked, indicating a copyright. Any embossed, stenciled, or printed patent numbers that appear on a toy or its box can be sent to the United States Patent Office. For a fee, they will supply information about the original patent application and give the name of the inventor or maker and the likely date range in which the toy was made. A good starting resource for determining antique toy value is, with 000's of old toys to look at and compare prices to. 

Toys also have had makers' marks ever since they were first produced in mass. However, many of the more valuable early toys only had paper labels which have long since disappeared. Often, only the box was marked and not the toy. Sometimes unmarked toys can be identified and dated by a reference to manufacturers' catalogues, retail catalogues and old retail-store sales brochures. Because collectors use them as dating tools, some catalogues of the most famous firms have been reprinted. 

Imported toys made after 1890 are usually marked with the country of origin. But, because marks specifying country of origin indicate place names only, they are useful only for broad dating and cannot generate a precise year or even decade for when it was actually made.


The standard of value in the toy field (antique as almost every field) is mint condition with intact finish, no repairs, and all accessory features -- not likely to be a common scenario when you do find a toy. True mint condition also means having the original box the toy came in with the instructions -- again, very rare you find this. Since so very, very few toys can meet this standard, the vast majority of collectors must settle for "good" condition or less. But, condition does affect toy price. A toy that has been repainted or has an improperly restored part is often worth up to 50% less than one in mint condition. 

Damage also effects antique toy value but it varies a great deal. Normal types of wear and tear, like fading of the paint, are regarded as acceptable -- especially on a the very rare pieces. If spring mechanisms or even small mechanical parts have been replaced properly, value is usually not greatly reduced. How much a collector will pay for a restored toy depends primarily on the quality of the restoration work done and the rarity of the toy. Hey... the older and scarcer the toy, the more tolerant collectors are of restoration. Very few early Ives or Brown toys have survived in anything close to mint finish, so collectors accept flaking paint and somewhat sub-standard conditions in these objects. However, the same conditions would be totally unacceptable in a 1930s Marx toy, since far more mint examples have survived. 

Restoration of Old Toys

Toy collectors generally do not all feel that they must preserve a toy exactly as they find it. Collectors of cast-iron banks and cars for example like to repaint faded examples in their original colors. But, generally you only want to do restoration at the level of only a careful cleaning and adding any necessary rust inhibitor where appropriate. 


In the field of toy collecting a toy may or may not be exactly what it is purported to be and is always a present question. Some of the more desired and popular objects, such as mechanical banks and cast-iron vehicles, have been reproduced by a few toy makers for many years. Even a number of toys are sometimes restored with reproduction parts and sold as being original.

Then there are the total fake -- put together either from parts of original toys or from parts cast from period molds, then then aged carefully and offered as originals. Generally only rare and valuable toys will be found and offer this way -- it's too much work to do for lesser expensive toys. A good rule of thumb is always... if it's too good to be true, it probably is. If you plan on making a sizable investment in an antique toy, you should get a written statement from the seller guaranteeing that the toy is as he or she represents it and be prepared for a legal battle if necessary.