World’s Top Toy Collection Seeks Home in New York City

New York, N.Y. These tin toys were objects to be played with rather than be looked at and consequently the vast majority were destroyed or damaged by their youthful owners.  All 19th Century and 20th Century toys are now rare objects that many people today have never seen.  –David Pressland, The Art of the Tin Toy

Marklin Station, ca. 1900.  Photo: The Jerni Collection.

I first met Michael Greene at the Harvard Club in New York.  It did not take me long to discover he was the son of Jerry and Nina Greene, who had created the world-famous Jerni Collection of mostly European toys and trains under their combined first names.  I had read about their collection last year in the New York Times when it was featured at Sotheby’s.  The Greene family runs, a music and video company based out of Pennsylvania.


A portion of the collection on display at Sotheby’s New York.
Photo: The Jerni Collection.

What I had not realized is that its owners, Jerry and Nina, had collected it partially to document and preserve the legacy of Jewish toy manufacturers whose firms had been snuffed out, one at a time, as the Nazis climbed to power.  The bright life of the collection belies the dark history of the Holocaust.  I was intrigued.  When Michael offered to return to New York to join me for lunch, I was delighted to accept.

As the editor of the Train Collectors Quarterly said, “I don’t know of any other collection that comes close to this, yet amazingly it has flown under the radar for so long.  It’s astounding!”

Another portion of the collection on display at Sotheby’s New York.
Photo: The Jerni Collection.

Michael Greene turns out to be a soft-spoken, sweet, earnest man who studied marketing and has worked mostly for his family’s Philadelphia-based music company.  He is also intently involved with finding a NYC home for the $50 million collection, curated by his father Jerry Greene, arguably one of the world’s leading toy experts.  Michael told me:

I grew up with my father’s toy collection.  As a kid they were just toys, but as an adult I appreciate them as being both historical and pieces of art.  I really had no idea how significant his collection is.

Very rare Rock & Graner Station & A Lutz Floor train, both ca. 1900.
Photo: The Jerni Collection.

Jerry Greene collected his first German Speilezugen in 1945.  He said:

Assembling this collection has been a fifty-year journey for me.  I put it together piece-by-piece, and my quest for the highest quality trains and toys took me to thousands of toy fairs and shows.  The collection has been my abiding passion but it is now time for everyone to enjoy and appreciate these wonderful objects.  I hope they bring as much joy to others as they have brought to me.

One of six rooms that house the collection. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

When Sotheby’s unveiled the collection, it was billed as “The World’s Greatest Toy and Train ‘Secret’ Collection Never Been Seen By the Public.”  According to the auction house:

Throughout January and February (2011), Sotheby’s will exhibit selections from the Jerni Collection, the largest and most comprehensive collection of magnificent quality European and American toys and trains ever assembled.  The exhibition takes up an entire floor of Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters, yet remarkably, what is on view represents a mere 20% of the tens of thousands of objects included in the collection.

Various Gebrueder Bing Toys on display at Sotheby’s. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

David Redden, Sotheby’s Vice Chairman, said of the exhibition (interview):

Imagine a vast space filled with the rarest toys in the most perfect condition.  The Jerni Collection is a passionate homage to the Golden Age of toy making, but on a scale that is breathtaking.  Tens of thousands of miniature works of art–trains, stations, villages, carousels, Ferris wheels–conjure up a privileged childhood world of beauty, magic and sheer happiness.  To see this collection is to be moved beyond words.

More Gebrueder Bing Toys on display at Sotheby’s. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

Joe Freeman, renowned toy expert and restorer, stated during the exhibition:

Of all the collections I have seen in over forty years in business, The Jerni Collection is by far the largest and most extensive with hundreds of rare examples I’ve never seen before.

One of six rooms that house the collection. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

The more than 35,000 objects in The Jerni Collection were assembled piece-by-piece over a 50 year period by a single dedicated collector – Jerry Greene – who placed an emphasis on quality and condition. The pieces date from roughly 1850-1940, and form an encyclopedic collection of toys and trains from every major European and American manufacturer operating during this period including Maerklin, Bing, Ernst Plank, Carette and Rock & Graner, chronicling the ‘Golden Age’ of European toy manufacturing.

Another of the six rooms that house the collection. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

It includes hundreds of unique handmade and historically significant European items, including depictions of actual rail stations, bridges and buildings, many of which were destroyed in the First and Second World Wars.

Yet another portion of the collection on display at Sotheby’s New York. Photo: The Jerni Collection.

It is obvious to me that my new friend Michael is a better human being for being raised by two global citizens, Jerry and Nina Greene.  It is my hope that the incredible Jerni Collection does find a suitable home here in New York City, and that Michael will continue to come up to offer his insightful and deeply personal private tours.

Click on theis link below to see the Jerni Collection featured on CBS Sunday Morning.


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