London's toy museum to be broken up

David Lister
Saturday 27 February 1999 00:02 GMT

TWO EXHIBITS in the London Toy Museum tend to catch the eye immediately. One is an early Paddington Bear, made by Shirley Clarkson, an art teacher from Doncaster, for her young son Jeremy, who now presents Top Gear.

The other is a clockwork pig given to the future prime minister Stanley Baldwin, inscribed: "For a good boy, love from Mummy and Daddy". But their celebrated provenance will not save these two childhood toys, nor the other 7,000 exhibits, among them television favourites including the first Womble and the original Bagpuss.

The museum, which attracts 120,000 visitors a year, will be closed tomorrow by its Japanese owners and its collection sold off by Sotheby's in July for an estimated pounds 3m.

The star item in the sale will be the museum's pride and joy, a "working" coal mine four metres long and three metres high, complete with pulleys and even little leather men eating their sandwiches. The model, which includes 200 moving figures, takes up an entire room. It was made by a Welsh miner called William Phelps, who began his project in 1902 and finished it 20 years later.

The ships and boats gallery is full of tin-plate toys - the rarest are the seagoing kind because poor-fitting propeller shafts usually sank them. And there is the tin-plate clockwork dog that does doggy paddle, kept afloat by its cork lining. In the garden, there are model steam engines to give children rides at weekends.

The museum was founded in 1982 by two collectors, Alan and Nerissa Levy. Seven years on, it was bought for pounds 4m by the Fujita Corporation, the Japanese firm run by Kazuaki Fujita, a toy collector who died in 1995.

The firm spent pounds 5.5m on refurbishment but has now decided it can no longer afford to maintain the museum. Its buildings - two town houses in Bayswater, west London - will be redeveloped into flats, the toys will be sold and the 30 employees made redundant.

Glenn Sharman, museum manager, said: "We have heard rumours about 11th- hour rescue offers, but the likelihood is that we will close this weekend. It's a terrible shame. It's not only a wonderful collection of toys, but every day we run educational projects for 90 schoolchildren on Victorian toys."

Among the pupils who have been seen studying and enjoying the toys are Princes William and Harry, and the children of the actors Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Michael Bond, author of the Paddington Bear books, is one of those unhappy about the sale. "It is a delightful collection of all sorts," he says. "Paddington would be at home there. But sadly he wouldn't be able to buy it for that price."

Loyd Grossman, the television presenter and a member of the Museum and Galleries Commission, is also concerned. He says: "I like the museum because my kids love it. But it is not registered with the commission, so the collection can be dispersed or taken into private ownership and hidden."

Allen Levy says the London Toy Museum's collection sets it apart from other, more whimsical, collections in the capital's other toy museums, the Victoria and Albert Collection at Bethnal Green and Pollock's Toy Museum in central London. "We were the heavy metal - boats, trains and cars. They had more dolls and dolls' houses," he says. There is, though, a spectacular dolls' house at Bayswater made 10 years ago by a prison inmate called Paul Woods, who spent 5,000 hours on the intricate woodwork of his Palladian creation.

Mr Levy has his own unarguable logic for the museum to continue. "More people have played with toy trains and cars than have looked at a Rembrandt," he says.

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