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Chicago Toy Show 2017 Review and Trends

Chicago Toy Show 2017 Review and Trends

Fresh from the toy collecting and research field of Chicago, I pause to reflect on a great journey to the Chicago Toy Fair held at the Kane County Fairgrounds.  Most younger toy collectors or distant toy buyers may never have a chance to visit this behemoth in person; but I finally did and wanted to share the details.

As owner of I felt that I needed to pull out all the stops and visit one of the premier events in the country.  Flying, rental car, food, lodging, and time penalties were high on paper, however I knew it would be worth the effort.  This Chicago gathering is “only” about 1500 miles from my Florida home and a bit intimidating.  Stories pass from collector to collector about how “’ve got to make it there at least once”, there are “only over 600 exhibitors in 6 buildings .”  Lore is that you can find about any toy there, just for the right price.

My early reservation with Diana was extremely professional, polished, and very pleasant.  She helped me through the early hotel details, suggestions on what days to attend, the pre-events, dealer events, pre-pre events, earlybird events, and final day events and methods.  There was quite a bit to this storied show!

I learned that may serious buyers liked to arrive before Sunday and visit dealers at their hotel room.  I learned that buyers liked to privately meet, inspect, and pay cash for superb toys ahead of the official event.  They would meet in the comfortable surroundings of our hotel and with the familiarity of friends to inspect toys.  Oh, and I found out that for this Sunday event, quite a few people liked to meet up and scout for toys at the hotel pre-pre-pre event on Wednesday!

My business plans afforded an early Thursday arrival, but that was a balancing act with other events.   We flew into Chicago O’Hare directly from Tampa an early 6AM in order to be at the hotel around 10 AM Central.  The flight was flawless.  The, get this, $9 a day deluxe SUV rental was superb; and Diana’s directions were spot on.  We made the travel with wonderful weather and were thankful to be there.

-Aside- Yes, TSA scanners are wonderful and can identify toys without having to crack open your carry-ons.  We chose to carry on two roller bags as well as a soft shoulder bag a piece.  Kudos to TSA for their relatively painless screening over.   The extra staff at Tampa and Chicago really helped us have pleasant travel.

Now back to the Thursday pre-show.  The dealer comment that stuck in my head was that “Don’t worry about the whales at the show.  The whales are here [deep pocket buyers].”  So I quickly stepped into the thick of things.  At 10AM the hallways of the three story rural hotel were humming.  The show organizers carved out three floors of about 30 rooms per floor for sellers.  I started by pre-checking in and then taking ten steps away, turing left, and then jumping in with both feet.  Seller tease items were often just outside the door (think blinking lights, cardboard props, and eye catching door-stop toys).

My first sellers had toys laid out on the bed.  Many of the toys were pressed steel vehicles, cast iron goodies, a mix of modern toys, trains, and mid-century goodness.  There were toys laid out on the plastic racks that were placed against the wall. Toys were on the entrance floor.  Toys were on the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rack oh-so-perfectly wedged into the room.  The second, third, …. to thirtieth room had a similar packed-to-the-the gills feel until I moved upstairs.

A few vendors downstairs, but many vendors on the second floor rocked my world.

‘How much is that?’

“Five thousand.”

‘Beautiful! It looks early century German Carette, how much?”

“Eight thousand.”

You get the drift.  The second floor had fewer toys (as a generality), but definitely had some historical and rare baubles.  Here I will note a trend– I simply did not see a younger collector fork over heavy cash.  I’ll define younger as ‘younger than 45 years of age’.  Quite possibly I have an improper sample, but I’m going with my personal observation on trends– These buyers were over 60, highly successful entrepreneurs, leaders in business, and often ones with vast collections.  Most seemed to either enjoy real life autos or be real life recreational pilots.

The third floor had a stronger presence of mid-century toys and 1970’s toys.  Most of the other new toy dealers arrived Saturday at the fair ground.

So among the chaos of the 100 or so people walking the hall ways (plus sellers and hotel staff), I founds some beautiful toys.  I purchased a well painted early 1900’s german tin for under $100.  My Ohio early Hill Climber made me smile, and my two Marx toys were all purchased from great people; supremely knowledgable sellers, and the kind of people I could spend all week with (and did).

I enjoyed time meeting with one seller that had a vast promotional model collection.  My father and I really liked the cars, enjoyed viewing the vast collection, and worked a great bulk price.  All the regulars will know this outspoken guy that works hard to find incredible deals.

I truly enjoyed time with some of the storied names in the Antique Toy hobby and private collectors that had encyclopedic knowledge & museum quality items.  Sellers and collectors quickly became friendly and felt like old friends.  I greatly appreciated the invitation to visit a collectors home (or should I say historical exhibit).  We had fun!

Saturday was a 6:30 AM car line and swap meet in 45 degree F weather.  Dealers and early-birds then stacked in lines to file into the fenced in building around 9 AM.  Then the business of set-up and toy scouting began.  We had yet another chance to swap toys and cash within the buildings during Saturday set-up day.  The buyers that paid for early entrance were serious about the hobby and once-again, great people.

Then on Sunday, it all began again with the official show and dealer presence around 7AM or so.  There was pre-scouting in case new toys were put out, and then a sale day from about 8AM to 3PM Sunday.  The traffic flow was swift and from our West building, it looked to be a great show.  Most buyers were hyper focused on specific toys, and frankly, didn’t seem to have time to pass more than twice during the day.  Try to image at least six rows of shopping over about six buildings.  Or in another estimate, I would say that we had three to four Super Wallmarts of toy shopping space.

There were definitely quite a few vendors of 80’s and 90’s toys.  I will estimate that 40% of the event had “Star Wars and Hotweels” sellers.  Yet this said, the fresh products  keept youth flowing through the doors and the event very strong.  I noticed more than one buyer walking up to the antique toy tables and gaining an appreciation for older toys.  They just needed time to prosper in life and step up the food chain of buying.

-With that comment I’ll state the obvious trend.  Toy collecting still seems like a pyramid to me.  The cheaper the price, like a base, the more buyers there will be.  The higher the price, the fewer buyers will be there and then things top out with only a handful of people paying above $3000 for a single toy.  Many of the incredible older toys have been priced out of the hands of the young buyers.  eBay and Auction sites have set record prices, but they are so high that many buyers walk away with sticker shock.

Conversely, the young buyers of the early 2000’s paid an obscene price for “newer toys” that were mass-produced.  I know of a few stars and starlets that rocked the price guides and spiked sales.  I wonder how much hang-over there will be when modern toy collectors start to review production numbers, define what is truly rare, and then see prices drop with a toy case find.  Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and heavy money will just stay with 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s toys.  I personally believe the run up in these modern toy prices is too fast and too much based on historical observations.

So my hope is that younger buyers can see the foolishness in paying exorbitant prices without truly knowing what the word “rarity” means.  My hope is that older toys somehow find a price range that doesn’t require a private bank representative to carry the cash.  My hope is that the word “toy” can still continue in the physical world and not require a pad, and phone, a computer or new digital invention.

The Chicago Toy Show was superb, but as the world modernizes, I hope that it retains a large quantity of great old toys and buyers that appreciate vintage items.  I hope that vintage toy collecting stays vibrant and popular throughout the world and throughout all ages.

As I say this, I wonder if we will be uploading the “experience” of toy shows in the future and 3-D printing our next physical toy fix.  This, or will the world of toy collecting morph into a fresh trend just as it has for the last 80 years.

My hunch is that history will perpetuate demand for superb quality toys.  The Chicago Toy Show will likely celebrate its 150 year anniversary without a hitch.  We will likely just have a continued refinement of tastes  and demand with so much information on the digital ethos.   The show will likely lose a few more sales to online medium; yet get filled with another new assortment of vendors and items.

My request is for collectors is to be sure and visit physical toy events.  Continue to meet each other in person.  Know that meeting the people is a greater asset than the toys; visits will overshadow the acquisitions.   See you in Chicago or local toy show soon …. and in person!

Best Regards,


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