NEW YOR – Over the summer months, The Hot Bid revisits antique and vintage collectible items that set world records in the past. Today’s subject: an out-of-this-world robot.
What you see: A tin lithographic Machine Man Japanese robot toy, circa 1960. Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, sold it in March 2019 for $86,100 – a record for this toy and for any “Gang of Five” Japanese robot toy.
The expert: Tommy Sage Jr., head of toys and trains at Morphy Auctions.
What is the “Gang of Five,” and what Japanese mid-century toy robots belong to the Gang of Five? They were all made between the late 1950s and early 1960s, by the same company, Masudaya. They’re kind of all uniform. They’re called “large skirt” robots because it looks like they’re wearing skirts. They’re all the same body type.
Is it the latest of the Gang of Five robots? Probably. It had to be ordered specifically. You could not buy it from a catalog. The other four, you could. It was fairly expensive for the time. It was probably over $10.
Do we have any notion why Masudaya made the Machine Man robot toy? Why would they make something oversize – it’s 15 inches tall – and not even put it in their catalog? Probably because the first four they made did sell well here. Maybe they figured this one would too. It would make logical sense. As for the catalog, maybe it was a test thing, to see how many people would want to get it.
How did the consigner receive the Machine Man robot toy? How old was he? He got it in 1960 on Christmas morning. He was 9. He doesn’t remember getting it with the box, which would be worth $40,000.
How did the consigner display the toy? What restraint was needed to keep it in this good a condition? He didn’t play with it much. He took good care of it. He put it in a closet. And he was an American guy, too. They had to order it special for him. I don’t know how they did it in 1960, but they did. You had to be in the know.
Was his father a toy retailer or something? How did the adults in the consigner’s life know enough to get this for him? I talked to his dad, but I didn’t ask that question. Maybe he knew somebody who had a toy store 60 years ago.
Is this the only robot toy the consigner got? It was. He’s lucky he got the best one. It’s crazy. He kept it all these years. He’s probably 67 or 68 and decided to sell it now.
Do we have any notion how many Machine Man robot toys Masudaya made, and how many survive? I don’t know that, but as far as what’s out there, there are about one dozen, including two boxed ones. For the other four [in the Gang of Five] there are many, many more than that.
How did this example of the Machine Man robot toy come to you? A friend of mine who also deals in robots knew he was going to sell and talked him into selling at auction. I don’t know the guy personally, but he did.
So, how often does a Machine Man robot toy come up at auction? Every five to seven years? In 16 years, this is the second one we’ve had.
Is the Machine Man robot toy always red, or are there variations? They’re all red. You never see variations. With any Gang of Five robot, they’re all the same.
The lot notes described the toy as a “stunning example” and “Near Mint – Mint.” Could you elaborate? It’s one of the best ones known, and the best ones I’ve ever seen. It’s just about mint.
Does it work? It works. When you turn it on, it moves in a pattern. There’s a metal circle on the bottom with wheels and spins around in a little pattern.
Does it light up or make noise? It just moves.
Do its arms move independently? They do, but they kind of swing. They don’t move up and down.
Is it heavy? It’s not heavy. It’s all tin litho. It’s very well made for what it is. It’s actually quite beautiful. It’s almost like the weight of a baby. Most robots are half this size. Most are 6 to 12 inches.
What is it like in person? It’s beautiful. It’s very red, very colorful, very vibrant colors. I can imagine being a kid, getting it, would be incredible.
What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with the winner. I’ve been friendly with them for 10 years. They asked my advice. I said, “When are you going to get another one this nice?”
The Machine Man robot toy sold for $86,100. Did that surprise you? No, it didn’t surprise me at all. Personally, I thought it would bring $80,000. If it had had its box, it would have sold for $125,000. The box is incredibly important.
How long will this record stand? What else is out there that could meet or beat it? A few other really rare robots from the 1950s and 1960s I’ve never had at all might push the $100,000 barrier.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? We get a lot of stuff, but we don’t get a lot of things that are quite so special. If you approach $100,000, that’s a lot for a toy. The person who bought it is very, very happy, I can tell you that.
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor.