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Estate Sale Collectibles: Mechanical Banks

Long ago, I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow with my parents. It included a man with an old, worn-out mechanical bank—the “Mason Bank,” according to the appraiser. Featuring a cast-iron brick layer and hod carrier, the bank operated by placing a coin into the hod. When a button was pressed, the coin was thrown to the bricklayer’s hopper, and inserted into a bank.

I was enamored.

A few months later, walking through a historic midwest town filled with quaint antique and gift shops, I spotted a “Trick Dog” mechanical bank. By placing a penny into the mouth of a cast iron dog and pressing a button, the canine would fly through a hoop and insert the coin in a barrel awaiting him on the other side.

It was heavy, as cast iron tends to be. The color was dark and solid. It was affordable—the mason and hod piece was worth thousands, after all—so at less than $100 this was a steal! Those shop owners clearly had no idea what treasure they had hidden on their shelves. I bought the trick dog, and gave it a place of honor in my room.

I was a fool.

Turns out the axiom is right—if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. My exciting antique discovery was a reproduction—something I, in my charmingly youthful ignorance, didn’t realize existed at the time. But now, of course, it’s painfully apparent.

I don’t know where the bank is anymore. I think about it often, and would buy it again if I could. I see them on EstateSales.NET frequently—I just have to wait until one makes an appearance near me.

Ray Haradin, secretary of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America and owner of Toys of Yesteryear, says the majority of the original mechanical banks are in collections. "That’s not to say you couldn’t find one there, but the vast majority have been in collections now since the 60s or even the 70s," he said. But other cast iron mechanical banks make appearances in estate sales with regularity.

Some reproductions from the 1920s and 30s are considered collectible. Haradin said some of them can bring several thousand dollars. “But in general what we refer to as a ‘reproduction’ mechanical bank is one that’s a copy of an original bank and generally made after WWII.” Those, he said, do not have near the value of originals and the early 1900 reproductions.

The original banks date back as far as 1869, after a middle class had emerged from the Industrial Revolution and parents desired to teach their children about the value of thrift.

They were intended as toys, to be enjoyed and used with regularity. And they still can be. Though original banks may ultimately be worth considerably more, the affordability of the reproduction means it can be enjoyed without fear. The key, is knowing what to look for, so you know what you’re getting, and have an idea of how much you should expect to spend.

“I get a lot of calls—people think they have an original bank and you tell them to turn it over and it says ‘Taiwan’ on the bottom,” Haradin said. “For some reason a lot of people don’t seem to pay attention to that when they’re actually looking at these sorts of things.”

This is a telltale sign to look for whenever you’re trying to identify the value of a potential antique. If you know the country of origin of a piece, you can often recognize quickly whether it’s an original or not. Most of the reproductions are marked as such in some way

When it comes to banks, another indication of the age of a piece is its construction. The craftsmanship on original mechanical banks is much finer than reproductions. “It was a much more elaborate technique,” Haradin said, one that resulted in tight seams between the different iron pieces and a very finished product. With reproductions, he said, you may find irregular seams, and sometimes gaps large enough to fit a pencil.

That’s not to say all reproductions are poorly constructed, but it is a telltale sign that it’s not original. Or, frankly, a high-quality product of any age.

Haradin also suggests checking the color of the bank for inconsistencies, which can be an indication of a number of things: a poor reproduction, an improperly-painted original, a seller attempting to hide imperfections in the work.

“The hardest thing to tell on a bank is when it’s been completely restored,” Haradin said. “That’s the most difficult thing, because you don’t have any baseline to compare other parts of the bank to it.” Touch ups can often be identified by differences in the paint, but a complete repainting, especially good ones, will require research and comparison to other banks of the same model.

And when something has been repainted, Haradin said, “Your next logical question is ‘Well, why’d they repaint it?’ Usually  they’re repainting it because they’re hiding some sort of repair or major blemish.”

If you’re interest in getting involved in collecting of any type, seek out the advice of others. . “Anyone who collects, they’re very generous with their time and information,” Haradin said. He suggests looking to The Mechanical Bank Collectors of America for insight into the hobby. “Really all you have to do is ask the right questions, and anyone will be happy to answer it,” he said.

So while I might have been laughed off the set of Antiques Roadshow with my Trick Dog reproduction (not really—I’m sure everyone is lovely there), I would gladly welcome that cast iron bank back into my life, both as a reminder to be wary of what I buy and as something to pass on to my daughter. Because in the end, though it wasn’t old, it was a pretty sweet bank.

All in-text images courtesy of the Mechanical Bank Collectors of America

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