NEW YORK — A penny saved is a penny earned.
While that notion may now seem old-fashioned, mechanical banks became popular in the mid-19th century, helping children learn the value of thrift and encouraging them to save.
Usually made of cast iron and outfitted with clever moving mechanisms that created an action when a coin was dropped in, the banks often depicted historical or everyday events and people. They were colorfully painted and sometimes were quite whimsical or not politically correct by today’s standards.
“These banks taught children that to save pennies was meaningful. Pennies became dollars and this was the same period when their fathers went to work and made only 80 cents a day so a dollar was a lot of money,” said Steven Weiss, the “S” in RSL Auctions, Oldwick, N.J., which is one of the leading auction specialists in antique mechanical banks and toys.
Prior to the Great Depression, only a few people, mostly bankers, collected mechanical banks. Today, thousands eagerly covet choice examples, trading lesser pieces for better ones, constantly refining their collections.
According to the Mechanical Bank Collectors Association of America, sales of antique mechanical banks at auction over the last 22 years have totaled over $54 million, since the association started keeping a list in 1994. Data came from the three leading US auctioneers specializing in banks: RSL Auction, Bertoia Auctions and Morphy Auctions.
Among best-selling mechanical banks are Darky Kicking Watermelon that earned $264,000, including the buyer’s premium, as part of the renowned Max Berry bank collection in March 2015 at Bertoia’s and a three-figure bank, Clown, Harlequin and Columbine, which sold at RSL Auction for $216,000 in October 2014, setting a world auction record price.
The Berry collection was one for the books that longtime collectors still talk about. Sold in three parts, the collection’s second session yielded not one but three banks that broke $200,000. Besides the Darkey Kicking Watermelon bank, the top prices featured the only known example of a Zig Zag bank at $210,000 and the historically important Freedman’s Bank for $228,000. The latter toy bank was inspired by the actual Freedman’s Bank that President Abraham Lincoln established for newly freed slaves in March 1865.
“They were always the blue chip of the antique toy world — the most sought after, the highest rung of the antique toy world,” said Weiss of mechanical banks. He and his twin, Leon, the “L” in RSL Auctions, got into collecting American mechanical banks and toys around age 10. When their friends were buying trading cards and bikes, the boys were buying antique toys, working a paper route, shoveling snow in the winter and mowing lawns in the summer.
“The market in today’s world is still almost exclusively only very strong for very high-quality banks, particularly if you find them with their original wood boxes,” Steven Weiss said. “As a purveyor of this material, I do believe truly that it’s a good time to jump in and buy the A- bank.
He went on to explain that in the 1980-90s, the market showed five to six different pricing gradations depending on a bank’s quality with the best of the best being an A+. Today, the market does not significantly differentiate between a B- and an A- and prices are high for the very best quality examples. He says new collectors can now get A- banks for close to the same money as a B+ bank but the flip side is there is no market for pieces ranked below that level.
Among whimsical banks, a perennial favorite is Girl Skipping Rope. Top-rated examples by the MBCA have sold in the high five-figures, including a “pristine plus” one sold by RSL Auction in June 2014 for $60,000 and a “near mint plus” example sold at Morphy’s in 2007 for $92,500.
It’s interesting to consider that a bank made for saving pennies a century and a half ago today can bring thousands and thousands of dollars.