Forbes: he had 10,000 men

Malcolm Forbes amassed thousands of toy soldiers which he kept in a place in Tangier. Now the collection is up for sale. Christa Worthington reports

Christa Worthington
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:55

The Late Malcolm Forbes, editor and chairman of Forbes magazine, the American business journal founded in 1917, was the overgrown boy of the boardroom - a playful leader of the establishment who took up riding a Harley Davidson at the age of 48. A war hero and political candidate who collected Faberge eggs, he was a friend of presidents, prime ministers and Elizabeth Taylor. As a collector of things great and small, he had the money to indulge a nostalgia for childhood on a scale others can only dream about.

From the Seventies until his death in 1990, he maintained a museum of military miniatures in a Moorish palace in Tangier, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. His "wee army" as he called it, that grew from 2,000 to 100,000 soldiers and figures, was displayed, amid Orientalist paintings, in turreted ornamental cases within view of the site of the Battle of Trafalgar. Forbes demanded spectacle and amassed an encyclopedic range of toy history, the sort rarely pursued by a single collector.

"Three times Malcolm Forbes ordered huge extensions to the palace for us and the museum just grew and grew and grew," says Peter Johnson, retired toy dealer, consultant to Phillips, antiques writer for the Sunday Times, and author of Toy Soldiers, who curated and built the collection with his wife Ann, at Forbes's invitation.

The contents of the Forbes Museum of Military Miniatures - 60,000 pieces in all - has now been divided up for sale. Part one of the sale took place at Christie's in New York last Thurs- day and the second part will be held at Christie's South Kensington this Thursday. The sales are flashy events in the arcane world of toy soldier collecting, a community described by one dealer as "balding white men" - generally middle-aged history buffs, teachers and retired military men, who thrill to subtle distinctions between a "version" and a "variation", and follow the chronology of production identification numbers with the fastidiousness of trainspotters.

Not since Douglas Fairbanks Junior sold his collection in the Seventies has a public figure entered the market, and rarely has a collection been so diverse. "These days toy collectors go from the universal to the particular, and collections get more highly specialised and duller to the outside world," says the head of Christie's toy department, Hugo Marsh. "No other collections have been on the market that have had such a wide range of material; or none as famous. Because Forbes had such broad interests, the collection reflected that." By last month, Christie's limited edition hard-cover catalogues had all sold out.

Every type of commercial miniature ever made is represented here, at estimates from $150 to $12,000 (around pounds 95 to pounds 7,500) a set. They include military and civilian figures by Britains, the renowned English firm that dominated global manufacture with the hollow-cast mould; older solid "rounds" in rare display sets from the great French firm Mignot and the German George Heyde; early German "flats", the form of toy soldier first made by Nuremberg pewterers; modern connoisseur models, made as collectables for adults and correct in every detail; pre-war German composition figures by Elastolin and Lineol, and American dimestore figures by makers such as Barclay and Manoil. Soldiers on foot, horseback, camel- back, in tanks or on ambulance stretcher depict battles from pre-Roman times to the modern - Waterloo, Gettysburg, and the Normandy Invasion. The collection contains elephants, dioramas, Zulu warriors running in arabesque, a rare set of Australian Lancers that never ex- isted in life, lots of Highlanders (Forbes's favourite) and oddities, such as the funeral cortege of JFK, are included along with Muslim militia, Moorish street scenes, desert caravans, and whirling Dervishes attacking an English Lancer. "We could not show the Foreign Legion winning the whole time," says Johnson.

"Forbes liked colourful arrangements and imaginative expositions of the troops. He was very generous spirited," says the museum's co-curator Ann Johnson, whose memories of Morocco are so fond she still describes the walk from the palace to the rocky shore as a relaxation exercise.

Forbes may have won a Purple Heart bravery award during combat, but he is best known for riding a purple motorcycle with Liz Taylor on the back. A gleeful capitalist, he inherited the means to fortune building from his father, a "rock-hard" Presbyterian from Aberdeenshire who founded the magazine in New York on the basis of a brilliant journalistic career. "What's the answer to 99 questions out of 100, son?" his father would ask, with a burr, "money."

"He also said that business was originated to produce happiness and not to pile up millions and I can honestly say I've taken him at his word," Malcolm Forbes wrote in More Than I Dreamed, an autobiography of his joy in ownership, which also serves as a guide to living large. Under tents in Tangier, or aboard the cruise ship, Highlander, Forbes entertained presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs with any excuse for a party. Forerunner of the Richard Branson school of risk management, he opened a hot-air ballooning museum on the grounds of his chateau, scene of annual gala weekends largely spent in the air. But in the small things that captured his imagination, one sees the true value of money: Faberge eggs to rival the Queen's collection, 400 toy boats, 10,000 more toy figures and soldiers (which will not be sold), and magical presidential papers and artifacts (Nixon's resignation letter; the top hat Lincoln wore on the night he was shot) are kept open to the public in the Forbes Magazine Galleries, in Manhattan. In its darkened halls of illuminated miniatures, you could be in the land of Narnia.

Toy soldiers and models began to be collected by adults in earnest when lead was banned from toy production in Britain in 1966. "The market shot up like a rocket in the late Seventies and Eighties, and peaked in 1987. Everybody's got all the pieces they want," says Marsh of Christie's. "You have a two-tiered market. People will buy at fairs and auction for one price, but get enthusiastic about special sales. They'll fight to the death to fill in those gaps. Special sales distort the market in the best possible way." The last one, Christie's 1994 sale of the archives of Britains, doubled pre-sale expectations and raised nearly pounds 120,000. (Britains has since been bought by Ertl, the American maker of Thomas the Tank Engine.)

Collectors scour specialised newsletters, Internet bulletin boards, and fairs, often scheduled, as is toy soldier manufacture, around the Christmas season. Far more than celebrity provenance, the mint, "eye appeal" and how well a piece has survived the bombardments of its youthful owners and whether or not it's in its original box are measures of value. A collector's interest is often "list" orientated. Because figures were made in similar form for so many years, it is the identification of specific variants and their year of manufacture that is the challenge. Collectors appreciate subtle developments in manufacture, such as the advent of a moveable arm, the shift from an oval to a square base; they relish valuable mistakes that add to rarity, such as a plume out of place, especially by Britains, a company which made few errors.

The family firm with the fortuitously patriotic name stole the miniature market from the French and Germans in 1893, when William Britain Junior invented the lighter, less costly hollowcast design that was easier to ship and, when broken into body part components, more amenable to variation. Endorsed by the Royal family, Britains shiny red boxes, in- filtrated British homes every Christmas. The company also exported to the US and Canada and other parts of the Commonwealth.

To a collector, a "Cellophane windowed monstrosity" is the official term for the see-through box that Britains introduced in the Fifties, and Britains' village idiot of the Home Farm Series, a pastoral village scene issued to relieve war-weariness, is one of the rarest figures. It was created when King George V, remarked upon viewing the set, "Where is the village idiot?" It was withdrawn promptly afterwards on the grounds of taste.

While Britains are still intensely collected, especially in the US, Steve Sommers, collector and publisher of the Old Toy Soldier Newsletter, in Oakpark, Illinois, reports their popularity has levelled. "The hotter items in the last five or six years have been German products - solid cast figures made before the Second World War by George Heyde, a firm destroyed in the bombing of Dresden."

Newcomers to the hobby are buying the plastic toys of their youth: Action Man in Britain, and GI Joe in the US. "I am sure that my interest in toys began out of nostalgia for childhood," Forbes said, having once tried to make a toy boat sail with him on an Atlantic crossing by holding a string from the ship's rail to the sea (it instantly sank).

At an auction in the Sixties he found his hand shooting up for a set of First World War "Dough Boys". In the Seventies, at Antiquarius, the antiques market on the King's Road, he came upon Peter and Ann Johnson. The meeting changed their lives. "He insisted on coming to the house (to do business) and stayed a long time with the taxi ticking outside," recalls Ann. "Then he wrote a letter saying how much he'd enjoyed being with us and would we like to put his 'wee collection' in order in an Arabian nights palace in Morocco. You don't say no to that!"

What began was a serious collection, using resources and attention rarely lavished on miniatures. The pieces were amassed at auction and from collections in France, Spain, Germany and America, with input from Forbes. Robert Gerofi, the late Belgian architect and designer, expatriated in Tangier, restored the then run-down palace to its former Islamic splendor, and then turned his talents to designing display cases. The museum spread over the ground-floor salons into extensions. Special pre- cautions had to be taken against the Mediterranean humidity, to prevent lead rot - the scourge of old lead soldiers. "My father liked knowledgeable people," says Robert Forbes of the collaboration with the Johnsons.

"People will say toy soldiers, model wars," says Peter Johnson, fretting under this interpretation from retirement in Dulwich. "They were very much toy soldiers. The fun of it is that you can put them up and knock them down, look at them, put them in pretty displays. You're not dealing with war or conflict. I think it's about organising something," he reflects, and then confesses to sadness about the sale by saying, "The only place I've ever served is in Malcolm Forbe's lost cabinet."

Toy Soldiers from the Forbes Museum of Miltary Miniatures, at Christie's South Kensington (0171 581 7611) this Thursday.

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