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1850s-1930s Mechanical Banks Still Draw Interest

December 10, 1987|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

Question: In collecting mechanical banks, what production years should I look for if I'm searching for banks most wanted by collectors?--C.A.

Answer: Veteran collectors say mechanical banks produced in the period from just before the Civil War to the Great Depression of the 1930s attract the most attention. In this period, several hundred types of ingenious designs were produced.

Most popular were the cast-iron variety, especially if the banks had moving parts that allowed a mechanical routine to be performed before the coin actually dropped into the bank.

When such imagination was combined with historical significance, such as a bank featuring a famous political figure of the time, value can soar. In recent years, rare mechanical banks have sold for thousands of dollars.

In the you-never-know-what-you'll-find-in-the-closet category, Karen Boriski of North Palm Springs was rummaging through the closets of an old house she bought four years ago when she discovered four dozen boxes of what were known many years ago as guild puzzles. She recounted in a recent telephone conversation also uncovering an old camera in excellent condition--"a Baby Brownie Special," she said--and a number of road maps from the 1920s.

"I bought the house from (the family of) a lady who had passed away," she said. "It had been empty for two years."

Boriski estimates the batch of collectibles to be about 50 years old and welcomes reader comments on the value and history of the items, particularly the jigsaw-like guild puzzles, produced by the Whitman publishing company and which show a number of outdoor scenes in a 12-by-12-inch format. Her address: P.O. Box 392, North Palm Springs, Calif. 92258.

When Clara Johnson Scroggins' husband died a few weeks before Christmas 25 years ago, she began searching for a way out of her gloom. A few days later she saw the light in a jewelry store in the form of a sterling silver cross Christmas tree ornament.

It wasn't long before Scroggins developed a passion for collecting tree ornaments, an interest that has elevated her into one of the nation's leading experts on the subject.

The 56-year-old Houston resident says her collection has grown to approximately 40,000 ornaments, including ones made of porcelain, pewter, tin, paper and crystal.

"The ornaments chronicle our times," she said. "They bring a smile to your face. And they're something to pass down to the children, so they create family history too."

Quite naturally, Scroggins--who decorates no less than five trees in her home every December--has written her third book on ornament collecting. Called "Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments" ($9.95, third edition, 210 pages, indexed), it's available at Hallmark shops.

The book contains a year-by-year listing, along with color photos, of every ornament Hallmark has produced since it went into the ornament business in 1973. Also listed are each ornament's dimensions and price. Histories of the ornaments are in the front of the coffeetable book.

Scroggins, who visited Los Angeles recently to promote and autograph her book, said her most valuable ornaments are in the $800-$1,000 range. Among them are two silver bells, less than two decades old, produced on the East Coast.

Thus, she said, unlike some other collectible categories, ornaments don't have to be old to be valuable. Even so, her oldest ornament, a glass ball approximately 147 years old, is quite valuable, she said.

Although she is a paid consultant for Hallmark, Scroggins said Hallmark ornaments constitute only about 8% of her collection. Much of the balance, she said, comes from Europe, particularly Germany, which has a rich tradition in designing fine Christmas tree ornaments.

She estimated that there are "a few million ornament collectors in this country"--making ornaments one of the most popular of collectibles.

Scroggins confirmed what we mentioned in a recent column, that "it's very difficult to tell if an ornament is a fake or real" in terms of origin and age. For its part, the Hallmark company says in her book that in 1982 it began marking its collectible ornaments with a tree-shaped symbol and numbering them to facilitate identification.

Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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