Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Collecting the Golden Arches

QUESTION: My kids have all grown up. Recently, as I was going through some boxes in my attic, I noticed one filled with little toys that my children received in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Are these of any value as collectibles?

ANSWER: The answer is yes, but...and there’s always a “but.” To be of any value to a collector, Happy Meal toys need to still be encased in their packaging and not used. There are some rare pieces that have value even if out of their packages, but generally, as with other toy collectibles, mint in package is the rule.

McDonald's collectors aren’t simply food groupies picking up recent Happy Meal toys. Collecting McDonald's memorabilia can be a complicated affair. Categories are numerous and subcategories extensive. Items can be instantly available or hard to find. Prices range from a couple of dollars to thousands. As with any collectible, the law of supply and demand rules.

McDonald's memorabilia encompasses a vast amount of local, regional, national, international material-ephemera, advertising and print items, cross-collector character items, McDonaldland character items, restaurant pieces, books and comics, sports and non-sports cards, glassware , and plates, watches and jewelry, garments, vehicles, dolls, toys, and more. The list is almost endless.

The McDonald brothers started their fast food drive-in restaurant in 1948, so an item from the early 1950's  could carry a hefty price tag.

A novice McDonald's collector could amass hundreds of Happy Meal toys in a very short time.. For example, nearly 90 different toys had been in Happy Meals in 1996 alone, and millions of each toy had been issued. You can easily find toys from recent years selling for one to two dollars. A manufacturing variation or recall may create a toy of a little higher value, but even these are available in quantity.

Happy Meal toys and related display memorabilia remain are the most popular items to collect. Each Happy Meal has a specific and variable number of toys, including a special U3 toy which meets special standards for children under three years age, some bags or boxes, a stand up display and possibly counter displays, as well as banners, posters, and signs.

McDonald's collectors are as fussy about cleanliness, condition and completeness as any other collectible collector. Since McDonald’s had many of the items produced in the millions, prices for most packaged items remain low, and the package must be perfect. Loose Happy Meal toys have little value, especially once they’ve been tossed in a box, as the paint rubs off and are lost. Paper items need to be pristine and unmarked to bring top dollar.

Figurine Happy Meals toys are the most popular, especially those which feature well-known characters. Special packaging can also increase the desirability. The April 1996 Walt Disney Masterpiece Home Video Collection Happy Meal is a McDonald’s collector’s Holy Grail—eight nicely made classic figures, each in a fitted half-size videotape box, with well designed color cover artwork and McDonald’s logos. Dumbo is the U3 toy in the set. A single Happy Meal bag completes the set.

Happy Meals which feature books, buckets, or. little-known characters are usually of lessor interest to collectors, but there are exceptions. The four small soft cover Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit books from a 1998 Happy Meal, in mint condition, complete with the Happy Meal box are worth about $80 as a set. The Peter Rabbit Happy Meal was a "regional" which had limited geographic distribution. Any books that have been in children's hands are hard to find unblemished. Usually, this happens moments after opening the package as little ones’ hands are often sticky from eating fries and the like.

Elusive, scarce items can bring big dollars. The growing interest in fast food collecting has helped many wonderful older items to surface. However, many may or may not be valuable. Experienced McDonald's collectors look for complete older items in excellent condition and newer items that might be unusual or limited.

Most non-Happy Meal McDonald's collectibles feature the company name, one of the corporate logos, the trademark “M,” or recognizable characters.  Remember that a copyright date is only the year of first issue—a seemingly early piece may still be in circulation.

Early and scarce are the key words in McDonald’s collecting, although they may not occur simultaneously. Look for design features and characters no longer in use, such as Archy McDonald, the early character Speedee, items with the golden arch logo with a slash mark, and items related to the old style "red and white” restaurants. A 1966 Ronald McDonald costume with slash-arch logos, complete with makeup and wig, surfaced at an unclaimed storage locker auction. Needless to say, a collector paid several thousand for that hot item.

Most people think the same toys appear in all McDonald’s Happy Meals. In fact, they vary from region to region and country to country. This brings the total issued into the millions. And the more produced of any collectible, the less value it eventually has.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It May Not Be What It Seems

QUESTION: I’m a big fan of the Civil War. I’ve read a lot about it and go to re-enactments regularly during the summer. Recently, I started a collection of Confederate items. My most recent purchase was a cartridge belt plate with the letters “CSA” on the front. It looks real enough, but I’m not so sure. Can you tell me how to tell the fake from the authentic items?

ANSWER: As in all collecting, the more educated you are as a collector, the better off you’ll be. You must become an educated buyer. Purchasing on sight just because an items looks good and the price is right isn’t enough.

There’s a sucker born every minute. And when it comes to identifying Confederate militaria, there’s probably one born ever couple of seconds. In fact, someone once said that if the Confederates had everything that’s now believed to have belonged to them, the would have won the war and had a surplus.

Confederate items can be worth 10 times those that belonged to Union soldiers. So the market for Confederate fakes is ripe. Be wary of dealers that won’t tell you anything about an object, then offer it to you for what amounts to a bargain basement price. If the price is too low, the item most likely is a fake. Even selling it for a low amount, the dealer will make out on the deal.

To make objects look as if they’ve literally been in battle, some have minie balls hammered into them. A tell-tale gray ring will show that the ball had not been fired into the object.

Demand that a dealer authenticate a Confederate object. Ask if you can get the item appraised by a professional appraiser before agreeing to purchase it. Whether you plan on buying a $1 minie ball or a $10,000 Henry repeating rifle, it always pays to ask. If the dealer refuses to let you get it appraised, just walk out of the shop or away from his or her booth at a show. If the dealer is selling legitimate Civil War memorabilia, he’ll let you bring it back for a refund.

If you purchase what you think to be an authentic Confederate object for a relatively substantial price and it turns out to be fake, then you have the right to prosecute the dealer for fraud. Doing so will probably prove difficult, since fraud is difficult to prove, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Confederate coins are a good case in point. Unscrupulous dealers have hundreds cast, and sell them for modest prices. Coins are minted, not cast, so they’re fakes. But, then again, how do you prove that the maker wasn’t making honest reproductions to sell to re-enactors?

Sometimes labels on objects will reveal their authenticity. First, paper labels didn’t come into common usage until the turn of the 20th century. If an item has a paper label on it, it would pay to have the paper tested. You might just discover that the process used to make the paper didn’t exist before the 1930s.

As for belt plates, two types exist, excavated—dug out of the ground—and unexcavated. Fakers will use acids and brass-black to pour over the buckle and create a dark color to make a patina. Look for signs of liquid in tiny pits, or smell the buckle. It will have a harsh foul smell, like something rotting.

A faker often makes a reproduction of an unexcavated buckle by making it look damaged. You should look for evidence that parts have been filed off. The belt plate also should have the same color throughout and "no spots where the brass is shining through. Above all, be suspicious of any buckle marked "CSA" or "CS." And if it has a date like 1862 on it, it’s not authentic.

Within militaria, the Civil War is a problem because there are more items from it around. One way in general to tell if a product is fake is to judge its quality. Very few can duplicate the quality of merchandise that they had back then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Case of Romantic Identity

QUESTION: My husband and I recently purchased what looks like a plain sideboard while traveling through South Carolina. It’s smaller than a regular one and has only four legs instead of the usual six, plus it’s about 10 inches taller. It looks to be made of a more common type of wood like pine or elm and has little decoration. Can you tell me about this piece of furniture?

ANSWER: It seems you bought what some people call a huntboard and what most Southerners call a slab. Whether it’s antique or not is dubious.

The word "huntboard" conjures up visions of dashing red-coated Southern sportsmen sipping mint juleps from frosted coin-silver cups while engaging in spirited conversation with soft-spoken young belles—all gathered around a high four-legged serving table, an inlaid mahogany demilune sideboard, circa 1800, often found in Southern dining rooms.

But more likely the huntboard turned up beneath a spreading oak tree, conveniently placed so that overheated horsemen could grab a refreshing drink without dismounting. And every Southerner worth his or her riding crop knows huntboards were built a good five to ten inches taller than sideboards because men in high hunting boots couldn't bend their knees and found it more comfortable to eat standing up. Another equally practical explanation for the huntboard's height was that it kept food out of reach of high jumping hound dogs.

Both scenarios are completely fictional, devised in 1925 in a romanticized account of Southern furniture, part of the romantic, if mostly incorrect, Colonial Revival Movement, perpetuated by the grey ghosts of the Civil War. Imagine a tall, gleaming, highly polished walnut four-legged serving piece set with coin silver and transfer-pattem earthenware, complete with a long rifle, and you can almost hear the thunder of the horses’ hoofs and the hunter’s horn sounding in the distance.

If the term had been part of aristocratic Southerners' vocabulary at all, it would have been their name for the piece of furniture out on the back porch or in the back hall of the "big house"—not in the dining room of the plantation home. In the Southern mansion the hunt-board was a basic piece made of native poplar or pine, not a glamorous item of walnut or mahogany. And when meal-time came around, the humble huntboard was set with pewter, crudely fashioned wooden bowls, and crockery, not the costly imported earthenware and handcrafted coin silver.

In other words, in the wealthy Southern plantation home, huntboards were just utilitarian pieces designed for the servants and slaves to eat around—a "board," as in "room and board." This variety of 19th-century huntboard comes closest to the original purpose of a sideboard—a simple stand-up serving table.

During the mid-19th century, the agrarian South—unlike the industrialized North—had few cities to support major cabinetmaking shops. Modest farmhouses and the occasional plantation sprawled throughout the region. This spread-out population—and the abundance of Southern forests—meant that it was more economical for furniture to be made "on site" by a traveling craftsman or even a handy family member than purchased from a faraway joiner's shop. During those months when the crops were planted, dinner—as they called the heavy noonday meal—had to be served efficiently. So slaves at the plantation main house set out biscuits, gravy, and other vittles on a quickly, even crudely, constructed sideboard called a “slab.”

The term "huntboard" was born at a time when a falsely romantic image of the South was at its peak. During that time, the demand for Southern huntboards far surpassed the supply. There had been little reason to keep the plain, crudely made slab once the servant and slave society disappeared. And many middle-class families that held on to the better walnut and cherry serving tables during the bleak postwar days quickly discarded their "old furniture" after the economy improved. As a result, furniture companies produced fake and reproduction huntboards by the truckload in the late1920s and '30s. Those authentic slabs that survived were often found in deserted country houses. Though "huntboard" sounds great, there’s no evidence that people actually used the word during antebellum days.

So the piece you purchased most likely dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s. Age and neglect probably made it appear much older. One way to tell if it’s authentic is to check the wooden pegs used to join it together. If it’s old, the pegs will be slightly elliptical and jut out of their holes a bit. If newer, they’ll be round and flush with the surface of the wood.