Time to dig through the attic. You may have a piece of rare history more valuable than gold.

Can you imagine a bunch of throomers huddled closely together, perhaps cradling a tumbler of scotch, or a glass of wine, or beer in their hands, having an intense conversation about their toy collections and paint chips?  Well, if not, you might be interested to learn a little more about antique mechanical banks and the eclectic ladies and gentlemen who are exceptionally passionate and extremely competitive when it comes to collecting these rare gems.

A Delightful Way to Save

Toy mechanical banks were first introduced in the mid-to-late 1800s, designed to encourage children to have fun while saving money.  Sculpted by an artist, they had moving parts, springs, and levers to create an action that would encourage children to use them time and time again.  The period between 1869, when the first mechanical cast iron bank, known as Hall’s Excelsior, became available, and 1910 was known as the golden age of mechanical banks, when most were produced.

You’ve probably seen them but may not have realized it, and what you’ve seen may have been reproductions rather than originals. The most common bank has a dog that holds the coin and, when the lever is pressed, jumps through a clown’s hoop, depositing the coin into a barrel.  Other examples involve a soldier firing a coin from a cannon into a fort, William Tell shooting an apple off the head of a child, and animals that swallow a coin when prompted.

Reflections of the Past

The designs were typically historic in nature, and were intended to entertain, educate and influence. Many banks portrayed current events, such as Teddy Roosevelt hunting a bear or lion, Union and Confederate soldiers and circus performers; or depicted members of various ethnic groups such as Native Americans, African American, and Asians.  With themes including baseball, football, hunting, fishing, politics, and religion, there were forms and actions to appeal to all children and parents. While many of the banks had racist overtones and offensive names, this was a reflection of our country’s history at the time they were manufactured rather than a reflection of those who, today, collect these rare pieces of history.

Most mechanical banks were made of cast iron and painted by hand in three factories: Shepard Hardware, J&E Stevens, and Kyser & Rex.  Originally, the banks were offered for pennies.  This is evident from trade cards and other sources issued to advertise banks that were for sale.

Beloved Toy Turns Collectible

Over the years, mechanical banks became a highly sought-after collectible, attracting such luminaries as Walter Chrysler (Chrysler Corporation), Leon Perelman (American Paper Products), Edwin Mosler Jr. (Mosler Safe Company), Covert & Gertude Hegarty (automobile dealerships), and Wally Tudor (Sears, Roebuck & Company), among others.  Banks owned by these collectors have become prized possessions, with most sold at auctions to the highest bidders.

Several reference books were published as a guide for collectors, but the first book that offered color photographs was written by Bill Norman in 1985.  Norman’s book enabled collectors to focus on quality rather than quantity which was the norm in the years prior to the book’s publication.

Value today is typically determined by rarity, form and action, and percentage of paint remaining, with most major collectors interested only in original banks without any repairs and with the original paint.  Most original mechanical banks have lost their original paint or eventually became damaged due to their repeated use over the years.

Since that time, color photographs have become the norm in the classic mechanical bank books written by Al Davidson in 1987, and Dan Morphy in 2007.  In fact, major auction companies, led by Bertoia Auctions since the mid-1980s, have continued the trend towards displaying close-up photos that allowed collectors to judge the quality of the banks prior to the auction.

While most long-time collectors have countless stories of how they stumbled upon their prized banks at antique shows, or how they made trades with other collectors to enhance their collections, today’s best banks are typically sold to the highest bidders at public auctions.  This is the most desirable route for the sellers as the bank will be shown in the auction catalog, will be highly publicized on-line and in print ads, and many buyers will pay higher prices at auction than in private transactions. It is also the safest route for many collectors, as the major auction houses possess the required expertise or engage other long-time collectors to assess the banks that are offered for sale.

Unfortunately, as mechanical banks became more and more valuable, reproductions were introduced into the marketplace by a company called Book of Knowledge, whose banks can be easily identified by the notation and the engraved circle on the base of the banks.  Also, many banks that appear to be in original condition have been repaired or repainted, neither of which may be visible to anyone other than the most seasoned collectors.

Hot Commodity for Collectors

It seems that every few years, one of the classic collections becomes available at auction, and the prized possessions are passed from one generation of collectors to another. In recent years, this has been most evident at Bertoia Auction’s sale of Bill Norman’s collection in 1991 (398 lots, $2.2 million) and the Stanley Sax collection in 1998 (251 lots, $4.2 million); and Morphy Auction’s sale of the Steven & Marilyn Steckbeck collection in 2007 (489 lots, world record of $7.7 million).

Today, mechanical banks that originally sold for pennies can now fetch tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction!  For instance, Bertoia Auctions holds the record for the most expensive bank ever sold, with the Old Woman in the Shoebank fetching an incredible $426,000 in 1998.  There are perhaps 15-20 additional mechanical banks where the best examples can fetch over $100,000.  However, many examples are available for thousands, and some for only hundreds of dollars.  It all comes down to rarity and condition, just like any other collectible in the antique or art world.

Keeping Collectors Inspired

The best examples of mechanical banks have maintained their value despite numerous economic cycles and the fluctuating art and antique marketplace.   The reasons are many — there are hundreds if not thousands of collectors, many of whom are members of the Mechanical Bank Collectors Association (MBCA), they are fun to demonstrate, and they are pieces of history, reflecting the climate of days gone by.

Several collectors who prefer to remain nameless have provided photos and/or videos of some of the best of the best.  We hope you will enjoy them, and we thank the collectors who have made them available. These are provided by members of the MBCA, which can be viewed at www.mechanicalbanks.org.  Finally, a word of warning and prudence — if you have any questions regarding mechanical banks, contact the MBCA and utilize their resources prior to spending your hard-earned money.

Check out this amazing video of this mechanical bank!

Click through the gallery below for more great mechanical banks!

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