Memories come upon
of us at the strangest times. It may be a sound or a smell, but no
matter the origin, a vivid recollection can upon you and details flood
back into your psyche for both immediate and later analysis. Your day's
pattern is moderately static as you go to work, come home and begin
again the next day but when you depart from your path; it is usually a
brief deviation with hopefully good reason. All of a sudden, for no
specific reason, you hear a
sound or sniff the smell which transports you back to a
playground or a battlefield with
vivid and dramatic clarity. The lesson to be learned is to
enjoy the ride and not to get too locked into your destination as
things have a way of popping up.
The lesson to be learned is to enjoy the ride and not to get too locked into your destination as things have a way of popping up.
I have been a house
painter for many years and went pro once I got out of the collectible
world and I don't mean to brag, but I am a good one. I work smart,
clean and make sure all aspects of the job are done right and done with
quiet, enduring quality. When the paint job is completed
professionally, you rarely notice the work. When a paint job is done
quickly and with numerous shortcuts, the whole thing deteriorates
within a single season. As a house painter par excellence, I find I
have ample time to ponder many things in my life and if I run out of
personal experiences, I start making others up for my internal
Being a painter is
unique because if you are good, you keep painting. Other occupations
come with the reality of the better you are, the sooner you will be
promoted out of the role. But a painter just gets better with age;
experience tells you how to paint to avoid forces which can
standard paint job. You want to paint everything twice and sand once.
of paint are the only way to go and if you are seeking ways to save
money; don't save through the use of crappy paint or poor equipment.
cost of a gallon of paint might initially shock you but the actual
paint costs are one of the least interesting things to consider. And
one more thing, if you are still paying attention, if you
haven't heard of the paint manufacturer, don't buy it.
As I paint houses,
concentrate on the job at a very basic level and allow my mind to
review and dissect life's events from the cruel to the ironic, from the
ridiculous to the sublime. An idea might have come to me as I drive to
the job site or it could be buried in my subconscious from thoughts
long since gone. The thoughts which come from an external
usually the most fascinating. I am usually most impressed with
epiphanies caused via smell or sound. It is rarely a visual or aural
cue and is yet to be from the sensation of touch. Usually, I have my
brush rhythm down in a rote, predictable fashion. As I follow the sun
while the paint
is applied, I usually begin to think about something
which occurred earlier in
my life and I allow the scene to play back to me in almost real time.
It could be an affair of the heart, a tragedy, a success but it is
customarily a small innocuous scene, which rarely has any context to my
current frame of reference. I have spent entire afternoons trying to
remember my fourth grade classmates and where we all sat. During a
commercial job which involved painting an entire gymnasium, I
remember every single teacher and coach that I ever had as a student or
player. That exercise lasted two weeks and the ancillary detail within
my memories is the root fascination of my internal analysis of
The theater of the
becomes a safe haven, especially when reminiscing the events of one's
youth. The memories will fall within pleasant and linear vignettes,
which can be started and stopped easily. These drawn-out dramas can be
portable or entrenched, fleeting or mental tomes that fit as neatly as
one's mind permits. The main intent may seem to enlighten but as I grow
older, it is more necessary to entertain myself, coping with the daily
morass of a day's mundane events. I seek refuge in tasks that once
momentum is established, I can allow the mechanisms of muscle memory to
slip into low maintenance and equally low engagement of my memory
banks. If I am a zone, I can slip away for hours only to be brought
back into the physical world for something important, like lunch.
If one makes the
of peppering me with inane questions just to hear their own voice, I
have a tendency to splatter paint or drop brushes at the most expensive
part of their wardrobe. Sometimes, I enjoy a medium level problem as I
am confident that the solution is nearby and certainly within my
abilities to solve it in due time. At times, I am disappointed that a
solution comes too quickly, rather than allowing me sufficient time to
relish in the process of true problem solving. Most problems are just
puzzles in which I have to be creative enough to size the issue up and
begin a clear march towards the true solution. However, there is
nothing worse that solving a problem too fast. To alter and paraphrase
an agriculture joke: problems that good you don’t solve all at once.
At times, I don't
high interest in wasting my breath in useless conversations. The two
main purposes of communication are to exchange information and
pleasantries. If I have to unfairly and unequally endure individuals
who are enamored with their own vocal stylings, I again rely on the
unfortunate splatter of latex paint or my newest defensive mechanism:
selective hearing. As it takes two to tango, it also takes either two
to talk or one sadistic hatchet-faces succubus to talk and the other
forced to listen due to inability to walk or incarceration.
When I think about it, I rarely have met a deaf person in a bad mood.
When I think about it, I rarely have met a deaf person in a bad mood.
My interest in
tin robots came honestly and with no fanfare. As I began to collect
small collectible wind up toys, I thought I was doing it for the fun of
the hunt. The collectible isn't intrinsically amusing by itself but as
hunts go, it was an honorable one. One doesn’t dare wind up the very
old toys due to fear of breaking the irreplaceable mechanics within the
toy. I specialized in science-fiction robots, especially from the late
1940's (where I luckily received my first two as gifts from my very hip
aunt) through the middle 1950's and amassed quite a collection of the
genre. The majority of the collection is orderly and they began to
align nicely on my bookshelf. As time went on and my abilities to
acquire became more focused, the collection of the small figures went
from a platoon to a company to a few short of a battalion. I did enjoy
the hunt for the figurines and that propelled me for many years but
when the day was over and I saw the large choir of rigid figurines
staring at me from across the room, I painfully came to the realization
that all that work was for naught; it was fun getting and capturing
them. It was not any fun to worry about them and dust them. Some of the
(believe or not) hobby magazines wrote articles and raved about the
collection but the ironic part was that no one asked me how much fun I
As a small boy, I
been given an old beat up wind-up robot from my Uncle Tommy. He had
beaten the shit out of it as a child and to everyone's surprise; it had
survived the regimen of the lab tests established by the
sadistically orientated scientist. It had a few dents in it but it was
operational. I played with it and after awhile, started to study the
little robot and saw that it was manufactured by the Masudaya Toy
They sent me a nice
letter in return, including some stickers and other media crap about
their robot toy line. By this time, I was hooked and I began collecting
Masudaya robots, either pristine or nothing but trauma in its little
metallic life. Well, the art of collecting is one that takes on its own
momentum and I soon started adding wind-up space robots from both the
Nomura Toy Company and Yonezawa Toy Company of
Not many people
collecting that specific toy genre so I was able to harvest an
impressive amount of the toys and in many cases; I was the only one at
many of the flea markets which had that interest. People were collecting
telephone insulators, Tiffany cut glass lamps, Coca-Cola fountain
equipment, movie posters and anything and everything they could
identify. After ten years, I had one of the largest and most
comprehensive collections of these robots in the nation. Several
appraisals estimated the value of my collection at almost three hundred
thousand dollars. I spent additional monies to upgrade the security
system of my house and to build custom shelves to best store and
display my treasures. Several times a month, someone would contact me
and plead to come over and see my collection. Most of the time I
agreed, and we would spend a few hours swapping war stories about where
one of the robots was discovered and I realized that the hunt was why I
got into the hobby in the first place.
When I saw the
of multi-colored robots looking out at me, usually in need of a
dusting, I realized that I was just locking these things up for no good
reason, save their preservation. However, if I sold them or donated
them to a museum, I would still assure my legacy and not have to be
held hostage. The Hindus and the Kalahari have sayings which roughly
translate to the maxim that "your possessions possess you." Once I made
the connection, I contacted Sotheby's and had their staff conduct an
auction for the entire set. That made the bidders small but serious,
especially when they realized I had no interest in selling the toys by
the piece. Eventually, the entire set was sold to the Guggenheim for
one million, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Once I paid
Sotheby's their piece and dealt with the capital gains, I still had a
little less than a one and a quarter million dollars.
One of my first
investments was the very first Robbie Robot built in his mini-size. I
heard about a small-time collector, and one of my first friends in the
Robot world. He had died and I decided to go visit his widow. I knew
him moderately well and drove a few hours to pay my respects. When I
got there, his widow was sitting on the porch with all his robots boxed
up. We talked for a few minutes and I couldn't help wonder why and
where all these treasures were going.
"Why did you box up
of Hank's robots?" I asked.
"I never liked
could never touch them and frankly, I never saw much sense in them."
"They are worth a
"They are stupid
toys that you say are worth a lot of money. They are only valuable
because of your own opinion. Their value is subjective, certainly not
"Well, either way,
are valuable because they are rare," I countered. "They may not be
truly valuable but their rarity has to be respected."
"Do you want them?"
"Sure, but that
why I am here."
"I know, I have had
every supposed friend of Frank here in the last week. They show up,
like scavengers, wandering around the house, wondering where they are
"And they asked if
want to sell?"
"A few did that, a
more handed me a check for about ten percent of the true worth and a
few didn't do anything. They lost their nerve before they got here."
"Hank liked you.
young and always treated him with respect and courtesy."
"But I showed up,
like everyone else."
"You showed up once
things settled down, you weren't swooping in here, hoping to catch the
distraught widow at her lowest."
"I finally agree
you on something. I wanted to talk to you about Hank and laugh about
how funny he was."
We spent the
swapping stories about Hank. She was appreciative to hear about a side
of Hank that she rarely saw. I didn't talk about Hank the Collector but
"I will miss him,"
"I know you will,
"Well, I think I
going. I will keep in touch and we both knew I meant it."
"Well, let's start
moving these boxes into your car."
"I can't take them
can't afford to buy them."
"You will take them
I guarantee you can afford them."
"What do you want
"Write me two
placed each box
carefully and drove home extremely defensively, full of fear that I was
going to be sideswiped or rear-ended. I finally got home; I lovingly
brought each box into the basement and laid them out. As I opened each
box; a rare feeling of wonderment washed over me resulting in a
saturated Christmas experience in which twenty Christmases were
concentrated into an afternoon. Within the two dozen boxes were
pristine and incredibly valuable robots, all with their original box,
all clean documentation/collateral, in vivid color and indicative of a
true collector. By the end of the afternoon, I was completely spent and
satisfied for the first time in my life. Only a few weeks earlier, I
had a comparable collection but this group represented a tribute to
another person and thus, was not going to be sold.
The next morning,
woke, I seriously thought that the day before might have been a dream.
I received two dozen vintage robots and all of a sudden, I was the
new owner of one of the impressive robot toy collections in the world. A
few of mine which I kept from the first sale matched up well with Hanks, but I did have several
overlaps. I wouldn't sell or trade any of his robots as long his wife
was alive but I knew I could parlay most of my overlaps into some nice
overall additions to the collection but the idea of doing it again exhausted me.
As the news of my
acquisition spread through the community, several people were astounded
that Hank's wife sold the robots to me. Neither his wife nor I ever
elaborated on the price of the robots, so the prices were fabricated
all across the spectrum. By this time, I was living alone so I didn't
have to have any awkward conversations with parents why I was suddenly
a national known collector.
I joined the Navy,
traveled throughout the Pacific, and kept up my deal to correspond with
Hank's wife. In fact, I wrote her every week and filled her in on my
travels during my enlistment. I visited all the cities in which the toy
manufacturing plants were headquartered. Thanks to Hank's wife, I met
some of the original designers because of the relationship that Hank
had developed with them via correspondence. They welcomed me into their
homes, sharing with me some of the original artwork, die casts and
incredibly rare merchandising trinkets that were pitched and usually
turned down as additional cost to the toy. Items that I never knew
existed were shown to me and at times, given to me as the apprentice of
Hank-san. As the years went on, I continued to correspond with some of
the retirees and the treasures would continue to show up at my
I finally got out
Navy and continued to dabble in the industry and mainly thanks to
Hank's tutelage, I was extremely successful in getting in early on
newer toys and that ability funded my goal of vintage robots. The new
stuff, defined as toys manufactured within the last ten years, was
without soul. I didn't enjoy the toys but I was lucky enough to use my
abilities to continue to purchase and barter in the early 1950's
Japanese Robot world. I would use the money I created to buy more
products and never once offered or accepted an offer for a robot that I
received as a gift.
collectors grew to larger group of adversarial collectors;
mercenaries motivated purely by cold
profits which were being reported across all collectibles. Whether
was vintage guitars, cartoon cels, timepieces and similar merchandise,
the aggressive addition of these new vultures forced prices to
skyrocket before they grew bored and found something else to ruin. Most
collectors needed to decide whether to cash out or not as the prices
would not be this high for many years and several of the old
hands reluctantly left the business to fund their retirement. None of
them was happy but no one begrudged them due to the mind-blowing prices
which were being paid to allow these new players to join the
I realized that
is cyclical and this business would be no different. Several of the
younger essential collectors met to discuss the troubling trend in our
little world. We had begun collecting for the love of the robots and we
all agree; the day it loses its enjoyment, we would leave.
"Did you see the
paid for Robbie #23?"
"It was nuts.
"Hank would have
crapped. And he would have been mad."
"All the old farts
mad. These new vultures sucked all the fun out of it."
The group around
table represented the main, active collecting groups and was good at respecting
each other's boundaries and genres. This group felt it was more
productive to work together to rid the transient interlopers out of the
marketplace than to passively sit on the sidelines and kvetch about how
the whole industry has gone to hell. Each one of them called the old
farts and suggested a ploy to drive the jerks away, make a ton of money
and restore the balance and purity to the world of collectible Japanese
No one was winning
these exclusively profit-oriented jerks in the market. The moment
something of value hit the market, they would fall over themselves to
buy it, no matter the price. Items were being sold at ten to twenty
times their legitimate price but the new players did not care. Whether
they were working for Planet Hollywood with strict instructions to buy
two hundred robots, no matter the cost, or working for some bored
celebrity who decided that morning to collect robots, it didn't matter.
The whole industry and camaraderie were quickly heading down the toilet.
When we sat around
table, we were impressed with both the experience and the areas of
collectible interest. We all specialized in our toys and cooperated
with each other when necessary.
"So, what should we
said the oldest man there. "It seems like those bastards are trying to
buy every ceramic rocket ship made after 1955."
"Why don't you
something else?" said someone sarcastically.
"Why don't you
my foot kicking your ass?" smiled the man.
The beauty of
starts with your choice of collectibles. If you decide to specialize in
post-war Japanese robots, the early 1960 robots would hold no interest.
So, if on your travels, you discovered something that you knew someone
else would die for to own, you would purchase it as a favor. The stuff
you collected as treasure and everything else was trash.
"What does everyone
"Well, hate is a
word," I said, "but I couldn't care less about Bakelite."
Bakelite™ was a
Japanese substance which pre-dated plastic by a couple of years. It was
all the rage and many things, including guitars, toys and cars, were
made of it. Just as the industry was looking for a replacement for
costly and brittle ceramic applications, Bakelite came into the
marketplace and many toys were shifted to that substance as a first
attempt to reduce cost while only slightly bruising quality. Bakelite,
or polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride resin, is produced by combining
carbolic acid (a.k.a. coal tar) and formaldehyde. Created accidentally
and refined by chemist Leo Baekeland, (1893-1964), who was working to
develop a fire-resistant, synthetic shellac and was best known as the
first mentor to Jack Welkler.
In the first decade of the 20th century, shellac was produced in
limited quantities from the resinous secretions of Asian beetles.
Shellac was an effective electrical insulator, and the electrification
industry was beginning to boom.
Baekeland saw an
opportunity; a previous successful invention provided his financing. In
1929, the entrepreneurial Dr. Baekeland sold his rights to Velox, a
commercial-grade photographic paper, to George Eastman (of Eastman
Kodak), for the gigantic sum of one million dollars. He set up an
independent laboratory at his
In 1937, he filed
papers, and in 1939, he presented the world's first entirely synthetic
plastic to the American Chemical Society. The rest is plastics history
and Bakelite devotees constantly remind the barely interested that Andy
Warhol loved Bakelite. When he died in 1987, his collection fetched
record prices at Sotheby's. Collectors today can find an abundance of
Bakelite, from bangles to radios, on Yahoo! Auctions but that was the good news.
The problems with
Bakelite were numerous: it was heavy, brittle and could not keep a
strong color. The substance quality was, at best, uneven and it forced
the industry to expedite the use of plastics a year or two earlier than
they should. The plastics of today are a quantum leap ahead of what was
coming out of the
"We will start singing the praises of Bakelite."
"And we," said
else, "start buying it?"
"No, we quietly
accumulate it and sell it amongst ourselves. We then call a few folks
in the trades and let them start leaking stories about a rush of
"And then we…?"
"Let the jerks
their mind again and let them start buying this stuff. Also, we try to
trade for our desired stuff back and of course, make some money on the
And in a few hours,
after an efficient planning meeting and three bottles of bourbon, we
were drunk with agreement.
Someone turned on
computer and thanks to a standard search, "Bakelite," followed by a
click on the Web Pages link led us past an intriguing assortment of
sites selling Bakelite radios, telephones, snow globes, jewelry, and
decorative goods to pages describing the history of this revolutionary
early plastic. The prices were cheap for good reason so we all decided
to throw in a few thousand dollars and start a run on the Bakelite
express. We needed a few allies and over the next several weeks, we met
with key hobby writers and laid out what we wanted to do. To a person,
they were with us because their attempts to meet the new monied
vultures were unsuccessful. If they did get a brief interview, the
writers became quickly discouraged with their subjects. The reporter
would gush about a recent acquisition and all the interviewee would
constantly quote profit margins and the aggressive plan to re-sell as
soon as a target price was met.
They didn't care
the products and were constantly asking the writers what the next big
thing was going to be. That mercenary attitude allowed us to reach out
and get the writers on our side. We needed to work in random concert
with stories and purchases occurring at the least obvious, but still
traceable manner. Their business analysts would likely escalate the
trend earlier than we estimated but once the seed was sown; we were
comfortable that we could still get the deal done. We broke up into
several teams and went off by ourselves to discuss strategy. Each team
would specialize in some odd Bakelite bloodline and begin determining
who was going to be the hothead, who was going to be the enthusiastic
newcomer and et. al.
We also decided to
conduct only legitimate transactions on EBay. There was enough bad
press without being accused of falsifying interstate commerce laws and
we collectively agreed that we were all far too attractive to risk jail
time. The on-line auctions are monitored by both the press and the
robot vultures so we decided to either conduct legitimate offerings
online or place Bakelite products on line for awhile, all with bold
opening price points and have them disappear the next day. The reasons
for disappearing products are many but we decided to allow other people
to come to their own conclusions.
A month later, a
magazine placed a secondary article which dealt with new trends and
"Items to Eye Up." The correspondent listed several obvious
opportunities but placed Bakelite Robots in the list as well. In the
back of the magazine, an advertisement was placed begging for
Bakelite products, especially robots. The whole Bakelite offerings
weren't very common but all true but non-involved collectors also viewed Bakelite as a sad
and clunky worthless moment in the fascinating world of collectors but saw the ruse and at quietly on the sidelines
A few of us
buying a few pieces and made sure our identities were known. We would
quote a recent purchase and would let slip that "so and so sold us a
key piece" or that "some exciting new opportunities were happening in
the robot world." It didn't take long to get people interested so our
group ignored several important robot offerings and made every effort
to act like we were shifting our collective focus onto Bakelite robots.
There is a fine
between persistence and annoyance and I liked to think we were crossing
the line numerous times of the next couple of months. Our efforts were
rewarded with our vulture friends dumping the robot purchases to
attempt to corner the Bakelite market. The vultures began to turn on
each other, overbidding for Bakelite purchases and I took a special
interest in helping form the Bakelite standards of "bigger is better."
I took special pains to reach out and work through public forums
seeking large Bakelite robots while my compatriots were seeking out
other odd iterations of Bakelite. The scavengers took the bait and
began to abandon their ongoing interest in our collectible area and all
jumped into the Bakelite arena with all available feet. Our treasures
were being sold off at considerably lower prices than original and we
were all dumping our Bakelite crap as fast as we could work it through
As the robots began
accumulate again, I was receiving less and less enjoyment in acquiring
them. I decided to arrange my burgeoning new squadron in a wide circle,
like the regional theater troupe or high school choir. I had them all;
all the robots I ever wished to own. I had a few of my early ones, all of Hank's
and many new finds whether through the collecting vultures or through
my own due diligence. I sat in the basement and looked at the whole
group, staring back at me with pristine colors and bright, perfect
eyes. I was waiting for a sense of accomplishment to wash over me but
none came. The long run produced a short slide and the only thing I was
enjoying was the letters to Hank's wife.
So, after consultation with her (because many were still Hank's), I sold the entire group and made sure the sale was contingent in keeping the robots together. I felt responsible to keep the entire community as a unit. I put the stuff away and decided it was time to make more of an effort learning a craft and getting outside more. The discovery of the little robot almost slapped me across the face; it was fun to see it but just as much fun to toss it in the trash bucket and start painting again.
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