Tips of the Trade
Loving Lehmann Toys
Lehmann: synonymous with small, colorful toys.
All Lehmann toys are marked.
PAAK-PAK is one of the most affordable Lehmann toys.
Lehmann toys are known for their bright colors.
Collectors Love Lehmann
A tin toy car with a horn that blows. A miniature tap dancer who actually taps. A monkey that climbs a pole. These are the kinds of fun-to-play-with collectible toys that are synonymous with the well-respected Lehmann company (pronounced LEE-mun), a German toy manufacturer that has been making tin toys from the late 19th-century to this day.
Expert advice on collecting these ingenious German antique toys
"They have colorful lithography, great mechanics, and they are usually very entertaining," says Tim Luke, an independent collectibles consultant based in Jupiter, Florida, about the toys whose appeal to yesterday's children seems to be matched by their appeal to today's collectors.
Founded by Ernst Paul Lehmann, the company distinguished itself in the early part of the 20th-century by producing small, lightweight tin toys that were more affordable than those the competition produced. In the early 1900s, many competitors were making far heavier iron toys.
"In the United States, cast iron was king," says Tim, noting that the Lehmann toys further distinguished themselves with strong spring mechanisms that powered fun movements. In the "Naughty Boy" car, for example, a man driving the car swipes his son, apparently the "naughty boy" who is sitting next to him in the passenger seat. We asked Tim what collectors should look for in Lehmann toys. Here's his advice.
Easy to Identify
One of the nice things about Lehmann toys is that collectors don't have to worry much about fakes, a feature that separates them from most other antiques and collectibles.
"All their toys have the Lehmann logo—an "e" surrounded by a bell—or the name itself embossed on it," Tim explains. "That makes them much more difficult to fake than other toys." Tim adds that the names of each toy, such as "Tut Tut," and "Balky Mule," are printed on each toy, a labeling that makes identifying individual pieces a less-than-taxing endeavor.
"A lot of their names were wonderful," Tim notes, and they were part of the toys' broad appeal. Unlike many of the cast iron toys, which were marketed to young boys, Lehmann made a strong effort to make toys that girls would want too, such as "PAAK-PAK," which consisted of a duck pulling a bucket of water with her three ducklings, which swam when wound up.
"They put zebras, ostriches, mules and donkeys and all kinds of fun people into their toys," Tim says. "They really crossed a lot of the gender lines to produce them, and boys and girls bought them."
To weed the desirable Lehmann toys from the less valuable ones, Tim suggests taking a hard look at condition. As in so many toys, a surviving original box in good condition adds significantly to value. Since the parts on these toys are replaceable, he also recommends making sure that a figure's arm or a head hasn't been replaced or repainted.
"Look for paint that looks newer or too bright," Tim says. He also notes that a broken or a replaced mechanism, such as a toy's coil spring, can reduce a toy's value by as much as half.
The material Lehmann toys are made from, tin, also makes them vulnerable to rust. "They've often been left in damp cellars for years," Tim explains. "You want to make sure there's no rust," he adds, as a little rust can often spread like a slow-growing mold, ruining more and more of the toy over time.
Most Lehmann toys that were made before 1900 are hard to find in working condition, as "children tended to over-wind the toys" and break them, Tim explains. "A lot of them haven't lasted."
The Lehmann toys that are most attractive to collectors today were made from the early 1900s through about 1950, a period when thousands of Lehmann toys were distributed the world over by a company that employed 800 people at its peak. In 1948, the company was confiscated by Russian occupiers, and the toys made after that date don't have the same cache as earlier ones, even though a cousin to the founder restarted the family business in 1951 in what had become West Germany.
The more affordable models, such as "Balky Mule" or the "PAAK-PAK" family of ducks, can fetch from around $100 in fair condition to as high as $700 in mint condition, says Tim. At a spring, 2001 auction Tim expects that 17 of the 20 Lehmann toys will sell for less than a $1,000.
A few in that batch, however, will likely sell for a few thousand—though still far less than the $33,000 that was bid on a figure Tim sold for Bill Bertoia Auctions in October 2000. That toy was one of the holy grails in the Lehmann collection, called "The Boxer." It consists of four Chinese men throwing a fifth companion up into the air on a blanket. But beginning Lehmann collectors shouldn't worry about having to play in that ballpark. Says Tim: "I'm pretty sure that sale was a record."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.