As adults, many of us hold onto a favorite toy or object associated with our childhood—a testament to the power of material objects to trigger memories and feelings. For some people the fascination becomes an obsession. In the case of Bruce Sterling, it was tinplate cars. The “Ford Battery Operated” and “Subaru 360,” two exquisitely modeled toy cars featured with their original packaging in MoMA’s Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000exhibition, are examples of the finest in Japanese tinplate toy production from the postwar period. They were generously lent to the exhibition by Sterling, a spirited collector based in New York whose collection of around 800 tinplate and die-cast toys is unparalleled. Sterling was inspired to begin collecting toy cars 40 years ago when his wife, Ava, gave him a miniature Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Since then, he has maintained an unwavering commitment to finding the best and most pristine models in existence. In the interview below, he reflects on the development of his formidable collection, the challenge and thrill of tracking down and obtaining a rare toy, and the ways in which collecting brought his family together.
What do you look for in a vintage tinplate or die-cast toy car and how do you know when you’ve come upon a true treasure?
I picked out what I thought were the most difficult, exotic, beautiful cars. These were the kind of toys one only saw in a book or at a museum. My focus was a bit intense, bizarre, and difficult, but over the years, I really managed to do it. And over the years, I acquired a reputation of having everything, which of course I don’t. What I have is the very best post-war toys. The goal was always to just have them perfect, which made it very, very difficult.
Why did you go after Japanese tinplate?
After World War II, Japan joined an industrial recovery, and it entered the golden age of manufacturing. Typically, tinplate toys from Europe were considered the best, but if you look at the Japanese tin toys of the 1950s and 1960s, the best of them are brilliant. They will match or outdo any other toy made—postwar or prewar, small or large. I saw their beauty, brilliance, and value; they also became breathtakingly expensive. The Ford selected for the exhibition is probably the most difficult to find toy manufactured after World War II. It’s the kind of thing that people hear rumored, “maybe it was made.” Well there it is, mint-boxed original. That’s what drew me to this whole thing. Because I had limited money, room, and time, I just wanted to do my best and feel that I had nothing but the best. That’s how this select, beautiful, and strange collection evolved.
Where did you go to find such rare examples?
I was going through different publications, making phone calls, going to toy shows. There was no Internet then, there was no eBay then. There was no easy, quick way to communicate. You’d get a name of someone in Japan or France or Italy at a toy show that you drove to somewhere in Pennsylvania, and you’d write to the person and hope the letter reached them and hope they took the time to answer you back. The whole thing was much less rapid, much less easy, and much more questionable. Over the years, I remember, my wife would go to sleep, and I’d be up late into the middle of the night writing letter after letter to different people trying to get these toys.
You mentioned that your wife inspired your collection of toy cars. Does your family share the same passion for them that you do?
The hobby forged a very close bond between my only son Ivan and me. I was forever dragging him and my wife to toy shows. Instead of being annoyed and rejecting it, Ivan fell in love with the toy cars. He now has his own collection. It’s an interest that we share together intensely. That was another nice thing about it—it was a way of bonding our family.