Reliving “Childhoods of the Past”
Bucks County’s Noel Barrett Talks About Antique Toys
By Donald H. Sanborn III | Toy photographs courtesy of shutterstock.com
“Childhood’s joy-land, mystic merry Toyland,” rhapsodizes the title song of the operetta Babes in Toyland. The lyrics warn us, “Once you pass its borders, you can never return again.”
Arguably, longtime Solebury Township, Bucks County, Pa., resident Noel Barrett has made a career out of challenging that idea. A collector, seller, and appraiser of antique toys, Barrett — who has been described by the Bucks County Herald as “the grey-haired, pony-tailed toy expert on Antiques Roadshow” — has described toy collecting as “the best anti-aging medicine I know.”
Noel Barrett (Photo by R. Scudder Smith, courtesy of Antiques and The Arts Weekly/The Newtown Bee)
Barrett says that toy collecting makes it possible to “relive your childhood — or your parents’ and grandparents’ childhood. You’re in touch with childhoods of the past.”
“Toys have a lot to tell us about the past,” Barrett observes. “They tell us about the prejudice and pastimes of our forebears. The toys reflect the period in which they were made, just as almost all antiques do.”
History was Barrett’s favorite subject in high school, and he received his Bachelor of Science degree at Columbia University in American history. “That’s one of the reasons I love antiques,” he enthuses. “Because of what they tell us about the past.”
Prior to his work with antique toys, Barrett became involved with film production. “I studied film in school, and eventually became a part owner of Gemini Films based in Alexandria, Virginia, my hometown; we made a feature film, Music City USA, a musical travelog of Nashville, Tennessee,” he recalls, adding, “but independent films are seldom moneymakers. It became our first and only movie, but it was an interesting experience.”
“When that folded, I went to work learning film editing, working in Washington D.C. in two different agencies, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Navy,” he continues. But as “the government’s film producing divisions started fading away,” Barrett gradually pivoted to the antiques business, specializing vintage playthings.
He adds, “We moved to Carversville in April 1983. I wanted to be in Pennsylvania — better for antique business than Virginia. My then in-laws lived in Warrington, from which I visited a wonderful little antique shop in Carversville, my introduction to where I have lived since 1983.”
Barrett is often asked how he came to specialize in old toys. “It all started when I found one my favorite toys in an Alexandria antique shop,” he says. “I had to have it, took it home, put it on a shelf — and it looked lonely. One toy led to another; thus, I became a toy collector!”
Child in a police pedal car, circa 1964. (Courtesy of Shutterstock.com)
Barrett recalls, “While still working in Washington my wife and I opened up a little antique shop in Alexandria, a bit of a hobby in a way. It is not an uncommon path for collectors to become dealers. You start collecting, and then you have to start dealing to support your habit.”
“So I started as a collector, then I became a part-time dealer,” Barrett continues. “When it came time to go full-time, I realized being in Northern Virginia wasn’t the optimum place; Pennsylvania is really one of the major areas of antiquing.”
He explains that Pennsylvania is a robust market for antiques because of “early industrialization. Just as in New England, another antiquing hotbed. There was a lot of manufacturing and a moneyed economy and a resultant middle class that could buy stuff and, not like today’s throw-away culture, much of what they purchased survived.”
Barrett adds, “I fell in love with Bucks County. So I found a building I could live in and have a store, and that’s how I ended up in Carversville.”
His love of film was reflected in his shop’s name. In both Alexandria and Carversville, his store was called Rosebud Antiques. In the film Citizen Kane, “Rosebud” is the name of a sled that the title character had as a child and was forced to leave behind. At the end of the film, the sled is burned along with some of his other possessions. Barrett pensively describes the sled as the “ultimate lost toy.”
Barrett’s home and office are in a storefront building said to have been the first department store in Bucks County. A 1985 New York Times article reports that two years prior, he and his first wife, Lynne, “bought the old Pickering & Walton department store, moved into an apartment on the second floor, and turned what had been used as a pipe-tobacco factory into an antiques shop. In the window they put a bigger than life-size clown puppet juggling the letters A-N-T-I-Q-U-E-S. Inside the shop … a life-size Betty Boop relaxes in red amusement-park bumper car.”
A 2021 Bucks County Herald piece reports that Barrett lives above the store with his current wife, Anne. Observing the “photo studio … walls lined with a personal and reference book library along with a scattering of vintage toys and some of his personal antiques collections,” the article notes that the “third floor loft houses a “large collection of vintage toys, folk art, and commercial antiques.”
Asked whether the store is still open, Barrett tells me, “No, that’s a thing of the past. I’ve had two stores, but over time much of the antique trade moved to the auction houses and I followed staging auctions of major collections, a highlight being two 2005 sales of the Walt Disney animator Ward Kimball’s train and toy collection grossing $5 million.” Semi-retired from the auction business, Barrett keeps his hand in helping Pook & Pook Auctions in Downingtown, Pa., stage toys and collectibles auctions. His website, noelbarrett.com, announces, “Now accepting consignments for our fall 2023 toy auction.”
Barrett points out that among the biggest events for toy collectors and dealers are antique toy shows. “Thirty years ago, there were a lot more shows, but the internet and auction online bidding have really almost killed the shows. The best remaining is in Allentown, Pa., held twice a year at the fairgrounds. It attracts dealers and collectors from Europe and California and points in between.”
Commenting on changes in the antique toy business, Barrett notes: “There are so many toy auctions; the main journal for the world of antique toy collecting is Antique Toy World, which is a good 60 pages — it’s almost all auctions. It’s taken the wind out of the sales for antique toy shows.”
He continues, “I used to go California for the annual Glendale show; and to Chicago twice a year, for the Antique Toy World shows. There were toy shows in Florida, New York City — but they’re a thing of the past. There were major antique shows, like the old Atlantic City show, that had a strong toy contingent. But with the exception of Allentown, toy shows are a shadow of their former selves.”
Barrett observes the effect of the internet. “You can stay home and bid online, and never have to go to a toy show to find a toy. Now, if you have 20, it’s a big crowd — because everybody’s staying home!”
He notes that the importance of images, and the ease with which they can be exchanged online, have had a major effect on the retail antiques and collectibles market.
“With the quality of photography you can now do, and the number of pictures you can show somebody when they are looking for something that’s in your auction, bidders can get such a clear indication of the condition of the item that they are very comfortable bidding in auctions online,” he says.
Noel Barrett, right, appraises a Crandall hobby horse ca. 1880 in Raleigh, NC, on June 27, 2009. (Photo by Jeff Dunn for GBH, WGBH 2023)
Based on a British (BBC) show of the same title, Antiques Roadshow premiered on PBS in 1997. Barrett was part of the American version from its beginning, and he continues to appraise for it. “In the first season, we went to 13 cities,” he recalls. Eventually it went down to eight cities, in summer, “which was more than enough.” He adds, “In the first year or so, there were very few people coming in. But by the second season it just took off, went crazy. The third season, too — we just had incredible turnouts.”
Barrett was the first appraiser on PBS’s premiere episode. The first guest brought in an item which she thought might have belonged to her grandmother or great-grandmother: a kaleidoscope, which Barrett describes as one of his “personal favorite toys” and “a real treasure.” Describing it as “the first and best American kaleidoscope,” Barrett identifies it as having been manufactured in the 1870s by the Bush company, in Providence, R.I. (The item had a patented reissue date of 1873.) Taking into account a few missing or damaged parts, Barrett values it at $1,500 at that time.
Asked about the research and thought process that the task of appraising an antique entails, Barrett says, “It’s interesting; when I first got into business, there weren’t a lot of price guides for the material I was interested in. I was buying, as a collector, stuff that just spoke to me. When it came time to start dealing with stuff, I would buy things that I thought would speak to somebody else — and maybe be worth more than I’d paid for it.”
Now, dealers and collectors can refer to auction records online. He explains that when he started on Roadshow,
“I had to carry binders of back issues of my catalogs to the roadshows, so I’d have reference material.”
In the days before cell phones and the internet, he says, “You couldn’t be at the roadshow in Topeka, and call a friend in Ohio, and ask him what he thinks this is worth. So there was a very limited ability to do research. Of course, that all changed; and now, there are so many records online, and it’s fairly easy to narrow down values on most anything.”
Later he adds, “Now, there are so many price guides and reference books, it’s just staggering.”
When I surmise that it must be somewhat difficult to know which reference to trust, because it is possible to get varied, conflicting prices for the same item, Barrett replies, “Well, if you’re in the business, and you’re going to antique shows and following auctions, it’s often not too hard to get a rough idea of values. You have to take into account various things in addition to sales results particularly in gauging the effect of condition issues on those results. When you see prices online, you must also look at the auction house; you’ll find that some auction houses have higher-end clientele and true expertise in the items on offer. You have to weigh these factors in making an evaluation.”
One of Barrett’s favorite items that he appraised on Antiques Roadshow is a set based on the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, manufactured by Heyde, a German toy company in 1903. Two decades before appearing on the show, the owner had bought the set for $400 at an auction (he recalls that at least one family member thought he had overpaid).
In an episode (based in Providence, R.I.) from 2005, Barrett evaluated the surprisingly untouched set with an estimated auction value of $15,000 to $20,000. A complex toy in near mint condition, it is comprised of painted lead characters and buffalos, and outfitted with covered wagons, a stagecoach, and numerous trees. In a short PBS video, the astonished owner recalls that he thought he had paid “a lot of money” for the set, but he thought, “I like it; I’ll just buy it.” (That was in 2005; in an Antiques Roadshow price update segment Barrett put the new auction value at $30,000!)
This echoes a piece of advice that Barrett offers to beginning collectors: “Buy what you love if you can afford it,” he says in a Visit Bucks County interview. “You can always get rid of something you lose interest in, but you can seldom get that item you loved and passed up when you had a chance. Malcolm Forbes, a great collector, said, ‘I never regretted something I bought, only the things I didn’t buy.’”
Of his life in Carversville, Barrett says, “I find that I’m extremely lucky to know Bucks County.” As an enthusiast of history, as well as theater and film, he appreciates the area’s “rich cultural heritage, having become home to such mid-20th century luminaries as George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Hammerstein.”
Barrett has been active in the Carversville community. In December 2021 he concluded a six-year term as a member of Solebury Township’s board of supervisors. Additionally, he has served as co-president of the Historic Carversville Society; and he has been a judge for an annual Carversville Day pet parade.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Bucks County,” Barrett concludes. “I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I got here.”