Collecting Marx Figures
A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE HOBBY
The hobby of collecting is of course an ancient one. Collecting Marx figures is a branch of the larger hobby of collecting toys that is further narrowed to collecting Toy Soldiers (sometimes called Model Soldiers or Military Miniatures). Because the toys are manufactured items, this is a sub part of the hobby of Industrial History Collecting, which also includes collections such as advertising art, thimbles and tools. This hobby of collecting Toy Soldiers was just beginning in the 1950's and has grown considerably to a major hobby today with thousands of collectors in the United States and around the world. When we refer to collecting Marx figures, we are talking about the toys produced by the Louis Marx Toy Company of Glen Dale, West Virginia, and U.S.A. The Marx Toy Company produced thousands of high quality toy items. Production began in the early 1930's and ended in 1979. The toys were produced in a number of locations in the United States and abroad including Mexico. Marx is most famous for its line of play sets that included figures and all kinds of accessories. The most commonly collected figures are the 3D figures molded in plastic in 40 mm, 45 mm, 54 mm, 60 mm and 6 inch sizes. Of these sizes the 54 mm are by far the most common and are of a quality that rivals the best produced anywhere. The vast majority of the figures were sold unpainted in plastic bags with from 30 to 70 figures and accessories or in play sets.
FORMS OF COLLECTING
When we speak of the forms of collecting, what we are talking about is answering the question - Just what is it that we will be collecting? Clearly part of the answer to that question in this case will be collecting Marx figures. This is the theme of the collection. It is best to stick to a theme when collecting. Better to have a complete or near complete collection on a single theme, than many different types of pieces. Collecting Marx figures is itself a theme. Within that theme can be many sub-themes around which the collection is built. Marx’s figures can be collected in four forms. These four forms are Playsets, Diorama, Unpainted figures and Painted figures. We will discuss at length the advantages of each of these forms of collecting. Within these forms there are many sub-themes. Some collections remain broad, while others may narrow the collection by period, topic, scale or poses. Collecting pose sets is the most popular. A pose set is simply one of each pose for a certain type of figure. Since it may often be necessary to acquire a group of several figures to get the few needed to finish off a pose set, you will often have some extra figures to trade or sell. E-Bay makes that easy. Another sub-theme might be collecting rare Marx. Here the goal would be to collect only the rarest figures.
Play sets: Collecting Marx play sets is a popular way of building a collection. Marx is most famous for its play sets. The goal of this form of collecting is to build a collection of play sets that as closely as possible matches the play set as it was originally sold. Finding a complete play set today is quite rare. The effort and fun of this form of collecting is to acquire a play set box and all the figures and accessories that where in the original play set to reproduce it for the collection. Just learning what all the items where in the original play set can be a challenge. Most sets had a list of parts, but these are sometimes incomplete. The task is made more interesting by the fact that even within a play set they were not always identical. Play sets made at different times or at different locations might have had a slightly different set of components. The components needed to build a play set collection are available on e-Bay. Playsets in good condition generally sell on e-Bay in a range from $75 to $400.
Dioramas: This is the least common form of collection for Marx Figures. At the same time; however, one might well think of it as the most artistic form of collecting. Diorama collecting is sometime referred to as Museum Quality Collecting since most museum collections are in the form of dioramas. A diorama is an artistic model built to depict a scene in miniature. In our case the figures used in the model scene would be painted Marx figures. While not many people collect dioramas exclusively, they are often used to highlight a painted or even unpainted collection of Marx figures. A beautiful, artfully created diorama can add a great deal to the presentation of any collection. Think of it as the centerpiece to bring attention to the rest of the collection.
While discussing dioramas I want to mention composite figures. A composite figure is a figure composed of elements from another figure. Perhaps the head, arm or weapon from one figure is used on another figure creating a new figure made of those elements. This is not an uncommon technique in diorama building. It in no way detracts from the value of the diorama. Dioramas are valued for their artistic quality rather than for their authenticity of the figures used. Some people collect composite figures for their artistry and the added variety they add to the collection. Finding dioramas of Marx figures is not easy, but from time to time they are available on e-Bay. They can be quite costly; however, I have seen examples of small, but very artfully built, dioramas at prices less than $50 on e-Bay from time to time. Dioramas are quite fragile and need great care in their handling. Some collectors prefer to cover their dioramas with glass or clear plastic display boxes to keep them clean and safe.
Unpainted Figures: This is by far the most popular form of collecting Marx figures. The vast majority of the figures were sold unpainted in plastic bags with from 30 to 70 figures and accessories or in play sets. For collectors of unpainted figures, they will consider painting a figure ruining it. They feel that since the figures were manufactured unpainted the only correct way to collect them is in the original unpainted form. The most popular way to collect the unpainted figures is in pose sets. A pose set is simply one of each pose for a certain type of figure, for example one of each pose for the Marx 54 mm Indians. Marx produced a fast array of poses in several different scales. The most common scales are 40 mm, 45 mm, 54 mm, 60 mm and 6-inch sizes. With 54 mm being the most used scale for Marx figures. Many of these are quite common, but there are also a good number that have become quite rare. In collecting pose sets you are striving for one of each pose in good or better condition and, wherever possible, all the figures in the pose set should be made from the same color plastic. The more muted colors are more desirable than the brighter colors.
Unpainted figures must be vintage, not newly made recasts. Telling the difference is no easy task in some cases. The recasts are made from the original molds and are thus identical to the vintage figures. Sometimes the recasts will be made in a different color or type of plastic than the vintage, but not always. Markings are not a good indicator either. In fact markings have never been a reliable indicator of vintage for Marx figures. Many recasts still retain the original markings that were on the mold. Some people who recast remove the original markings others do not. The best way to tell a vintage figure is to know where it came from. Most e-Bay sellers indicate the source of the items they sell. Those making recasts generally state that they are recasts and not vintage. Some reliable sellers will issue a certificate of authenticity that guarantees you will get your money back if the item is not as described as to vintage and condition. One advantage of unpainted figures is they are quite rugged and do not need much care in handling.
Painted Figures: This form of collecting Marx figures has been growing in popularity. Collectors of painted figures will insist that the hobby of collecting military figures, from which they feel collecting Marx figures is a natural extension, has always been collecting painted figures. Thus in their eyes unpainted figures have no place in a collection. Figures painted with attention to detail and artistry bring out the details of the casting and greatly improve the attractiveness of the collection. Each figure becomes a little work of art. Most painted collections use the same pose sets form of collecting as is popular for unpainted figures. There are two styles of painting figures, one stresses color and attractiveness. This is often called the "early style" of the 1950's and 1960's. The second style or "later style" stresses realism. This style uses mostly flat, more muted colors and dry brush and wash techniques are often used to enhance realism. This is a later style that became popular after 1970. Both styles have been used to paint Marx figures and both make fine collections. A mix of the styles in the collection is completely acceptable to most painted figure collectors. Of the two styles, the early style is a bit more popular because the figures were produced in the 50's and 60's and Marx figures were intended to be toys, not military model figures. Figures can be painted using either oil-based enamel or water based latex. Both are acceptable, but enamel tends to have better adhesion and is preferred by most painters. Painted figures are much more popular outside the United States.
Almost all military figures or toy soldier collections are painted figures. Collectors of Britains, Reka, Heyde and other military figures who expand their collections to include Marx will only want painted figures. Vintage is not as important with hand painted figures as it is with unpainted figures because the artistry is the most important factor. Some people collect painted composite figures for their artistry and the added variety they add to the collection. Still some collectors prefer vintage figures even if newly hand painted. Marx hand painted figures are much more rare than unpainted figures. Because rarity is such an important factor in the long term value of a collection, they are popular among collectors who have a eye toward the collection as an investment. It is important to treat a painted collection with far more care than an unpainted collection. Painted figures scratch and chip rather easily if poorly handled so you want to be careful with them.
CONDITION OF FIGURES
The condition of figures is not a complex problem as it is with many other collectibles like coins and comic books. There are only 5 generally accepted terms for figure condition.
Mint: This term should only be used for perfect "factory-fresh" items that have no flaws of any type and have never been removed from their original box. Notice that new is not good enough. They must be perfect in every detail. As a practical matter this term should almost never be used. I have never seen a mint Marx figure. The "like new" figures you sometimes see auctioned on e-Bay should be described as Near Mint.
Near Mint or Excellent or Very Good: All three terms mean the same thing. This is a figure that is just like new. Clean, no sign of damage. If painted it must have no defects and good original like finish to it. This is the best quality most collectors are likely to ever find. Newly hand painted figures fall into this category. This is the quality you should try to collect, but as a practical matter most collections have most of their pieces in the good category. Finding a full collection in Near Mint condition is no easy task.
Good: These figures show signs of having been played with. They might have a minor flaw or a repaired minor break. They are still quite acceptable in any collection. Painted figures might have a small chip or scratch that does not detract from the overall appearance of the figure. On old painted figures more than 90% of the original paint remains.
Fair: These figures are well played with and have scuffing, but only minor damage. On old painted figures more than 75% of the original paint remains. Figures in this category should only be used as placeholders until a Good figure can be found.
Poor: is anything worse than Fair. Such a figure would only be acceptable in a collection where a better figure cannot be obtained because of its extreme rarity. Figures of this quality in the more common figures are used for composite modeling and for making diorama elements, etc.
Though it is not used a lot for collecting Marx figures, I have seen people use a condition "C" scale that rates condition on a 1 to 9 scale. I would compare them as: Poor = C1 or C2, Fair = C3 or C4, Good = C5 or C6, Near Mint = C7 or C8, Mint = C9.
I want to talk a little about repairs. It is my opinion that a well-made repair that is virtually undetectable or does not detract from the appearance of a figure is completely acceptable. Well made repairs can move a figure from Poor or Fair to Good condition for unpainted figures and even to Near Mint condition for painted figures. Of course I am only talking about well-made repairs that are virtually undetectable. A poorly done repair does nothing to improve a figure’s quality. All Marx figures should be clean. There is never an excuse for a dirty figure.
The Marx Company used a range of identification marks on their figures. These identification marks are numerous and are no guide to the authenticity or date of issue of the figures. Many Marx figures had no identification marks. Many figures produced in different places and at different times carried different identification marks.
The earliest marks are found on the tin-plate models. These marks are Marline or Marx or Mar Toys often in a circle divided twice diagonally and with Marlines underneath. The most common mark on plastic figures is two indented circles on the bottom of the base, one indented circle was also used. Another very common mark was Louis Marx Company, Inc. in a circle with a Roman numeral date and sometimes USA. Another common mark is Mar or Marx in a circle surrounded by USA. Other less common marks are Loumar, Line/Mar/Toy, Flextoys, Made in USA, Made in West Germany, Made in Hong Kong, Made in Mexico and MPC for Marx Plastics Company. MPC is often confused with MPC Multiple Products Company, another toy company producing plastic figures.
Not only was the use of the mark to inconsistent to be of much value in determining authenticity, but also some figures are being reissued from original Marx's molds. Some of these recast reissues have the original marking that was on the mold and some do not.
COLLECTING AS AN INVESTMENT
It is always best to think of collecting as a hobby for the pleasure of the activity rather than as an investment. That having been said it is clear that collecting can have considerable financial reward. When considering the possible future increase in the value of a collection, one must consider the popularity of the figure line and the rarity of the figure. It is best to stick to a theme when collecting for an investment. Better to have a complete or near complete collection on a single theme than many different types of pieces. Collecting Marx figures is itself a theme. Within that theme can be many sub-themes such a collecting modern army soldiers. Another might be collecting only western figures, etc.
When a collection is made up of unpainted figures, it is best to try to collect figures with the same color plastic. Matching sets are always preferable. When collecting hand painted figures the artistry, detail and painting style are of prime importance. As a general rule painted figures will increase in value more quickly than unpainted figures of the same type. This is because rarity is the primary determinate of value in a collection of any type and hand painted Marx figures are much less common than unpainted figures. Painted figures also add factors of artistry and attractiveness that add to the value of collector pieces. In addition collectors of toy soldiers and miniature military figures in Europe collect painted figures almost exclusively so when they expand a collection to include Marx they always want painted figures.
This brings us to the question of what factors determine the value of a collection. The factors are rarity, popularity, condition, theme, artistry, vintage and nostalgia.
Rarity: This is the single most important factor in the value of any collection. The value increases in rare items always exceed those of more common items other factors remaining equal. If one is interested in collecting for an investment, choosing to collect the more rare items is a very wise choice.
Popularity: As in all things the popularity of collecting certain items tends to cycle. Marx figures have been on the rise since the 1970’s and seems to be becoming even more popular now. The reason popularity is important in the value of a collection is simple supply and demand. As more people seek collections, the demand rises relative to supply and values rise.
Condition: Better quality collections rise in value faster than collections of lesser quality. One should always strive to build a collection of Good or Near Mint quality.
Theme: A collection build around a theme is always more desirable that a collection of unmatched pieces. Play set and Pose Sets are the two most popular sub-themes in collecting Marx figures.
Artistry: Artistry applies primarily to Painted Figures and Dioramas. Well-painted figures bring out beautiful detail in the casting. Each piece becomes a miniature work of art. No two hand painted figures are exactly the same thus creating an additional element of rarity. This is the reason hand painted figures tend to rise in value faster than unpainted figures.
Nostalgia: This is perhaps the least important factor, but a factor none the less. Many of the baby boom generation remember the Mark playsets and figures from their childhood and some collections are build with an eye to the nostalgic pleasure the memories invoke.
My advise is to collect painted figures for investment purposes. The reason is three fold. First and foremost is rarity. Hand painted Marx figures are far more rare than unpainted figures. The supply is unlikely to increase at a rate equal to demand due to the requirements of skill and time to paint a figure of collector quality. Second is artistry. Artistry adds value and well-painted figures are little works of art that add attractiveness to the collection. The third reason is related to condition. Newly hand painted figures fall into the Near Mint quality. The color of the plastic and very minor scuffing and such are no longer a factor. It is important to treat a painted collection with far more care than an unpainted collection. Painted figures scratch and chip rather easily if poorly handled so you want to be careful with them.
A WORD ABOUT PURISM
Purism in collecting refers to a strict observance or insistence upon traditional correctness. For some collectors of unpainted figures, they will consider painting a figure ruining it. They feel that since the figures were manufactured unpainted, the only correct way to collect them is in the original unpainted form. On the other hand many collectors of painted figures will insist that the hobby of collecting military figures, from which they feel collecting Marx figures is a natural extension, has always been collecting painted figures. Thus, in their eyes, unpainted figures have no place in a collection. For these collectors painting the figure is necessary for the figure to have any value at all.
Some collectors will only collect figures that were produced in the Louis Marx Toy Company plant in Glen Dale, West Virginia, and U.S.A. Sometimes only collecting figures produced before 1972 when the Quaker Oats Company became the parent company of the Louis Marx Toy Company. Others will accept those made only in Marx plants in the U.S.A. Others will accept any Marx figure produced under license. They feel that since so many Marx toys were produced and sold in Mexico and Asia, excluding them from a collection would not be representing the true history of Marx figures. Still others accept figures that were made from original Marx molds no matter where or when they were made.
There certainly is an argument to be made that any figure that comes from a Marx mold is a Marx figure. Diorama collectors also accept composite figures made from Marx and non-Marx figures. Who is correct? I believe they are all correct. One should be free to build their collection in any fashion that gives them pleasure. The form of collecting has very little to do with its long-term value. The value of a collection is determined by the factors rarity, popularity, condition, theme, artistry, vintage and nostalgia. This is not just true for collecting Marx figures, this is true for all types of collections.
What is a vintage figure? Like everything in collecting there is more than one opinion on this. Some people believe that a vintage Marx figure is any figure produced by Lewis Marx before 1979 when the company stopped regular production. Some also believe that only figures produced in Lewis Marx's plants in the United States should be called vintage. Others believe licensed production should also be included. Another view is that vintage figures should include all Marx figures produced from Marx molds and produced as toys. This includes those figures produced from Marx molds in Mexico and Asia before 1990. Only one thing is agreed upon, that recast or reissue figures made from Marx molds for the collector hobby are not vintage figures. These figures were produced after 1990. For the purpose of this guide, I consider all figures vintage that were produced from Marx molds before 1990.
By George V. Schubel