Vintage Tin Toy Robots



2015-06-26 10:34:13

Vintage tin toy robots emerged during the 1950s, out of a culture fixated by technological advancement and notions of modernity. Many older examples of tin toy robots are clockwork, however, most Japanese models are motorised, requiring batteries in order to function. Both battery operated and mechanical robots feature moving parts, the former may also feature lighting parts. Designed to preoccupy children, vintage toy tin robots are now coveted by specialist tin robot collectors and toy collectors alike. Many vintage tin toy robots relate thematically to notions of space exploration. The vast majority of post WW2 tin toys were manufactured in Japan.


Historically, Germany was the main manufacturer of tin toys during the 19th century. However, following the outbreak of World War I, and with anti-German sentiment running rife, Japan and the United States began to make a dent in the market. Since a great deal of metal was required for the war effort, tin toy manufacture all but ended during WWII. Following the war, production resumed and Japan became the pre-eminent tin toy manufacturer, remaining so well into the 1950s. Newly developed plastics subsequently superseded tin as the primary toy making material.

Vintage tin toy robots reflect the thematic preoccupations of the period in which they were manufactured: modernism dominated in terms of both architecture and literature, while an increasing reliance on new technologies (such as the washing machine) pervaded in the home and the workplace, as well as popular culture and individual imaginations. Space travel became, for the very first time, a genuine possibility, with advances in the field of robotics enabling the development of functional satellites and space crafts.

Culturally, the robot replaced the cowboy as a key symbol of American ideology (an idea further explored in Walt Disney's animated film Toy Story, during which a cowboy toy, Woody, is replaced by Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut toy).

In 1996, an outstanding array of vintage toy tin robots were auctioned at Sotheby's, from the collection of Matt Wyse. His Masudaya Machine Man alone sold for $42,000. Sotheby's involvement imbued the sale, as well as the robot collection, with prestige; garnering a great deal of press attention and increasing interest in vintage toy tin robots.

Reproduction robots have been in continuous manufacture since 1990. Many reproductions are sold as such, and some collectors specifically collect these significantly cheaper reproduction models. However, reproductions are also sold dishonestly, as bonafide vintage toy tin robots, and can be difficult to spot. Collectors are advised, wherever possible, to personally handle any vintage toy tin robots before a purchase in order to guard against such fraudulent activity.

Collecting vintage tin toy robots

Since the sale of Matt Wyse's robot collection in 1996, interest in collecting vintage toy tin robots has soared - moving the practise from the sidelines into the mainstream. Limited edition and super limited edition robots are naturally more valuable then non limited edition models due to their scarcity. Condition, whether boxed or unboxed, age and eye appeal are all, of course, high on the agenda in terms of valuing a vintage toy tin robot and a huge number of published reference works are available on the subject. Previously unknown robots which appear, as if from nowhere, at auction never fail to do well. The afore mentioned Machine Man appeared as an unacknowledged extra to the Masudaya Gang of Four, transforming the established fab four into a fivesome overnight and, in doing so, bringing almost $50,000.

Unfortunately the days of discovering a valuable vintage toy tin robot in a yard sale or thift store have all but gone. Specialist dealerships and online auction sites remain the best places to hunt down specific models. These days, always expect to pay what the vintage toy tin robot is worth - thanks in part to the successful sale of the Matt Wyse collection, bargains are few and far between, though still not completely unheard of.

Price guide

Close reproduction robots can be purchased for as little as $20.

Genuine vintage toy tin robots sell for a great deal more than this, with the least coveted robots usually achieving between $50 and $350 at auction, middle range toys bringing anywhere between $350 and $500, and rare, valuable robots often selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

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