It's a little-known fact outside of Disneyana collectors and historians that the first Disney collectible came about as an advertising idea because then cash-strapped Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, needed money. The story, told by Walt and confirmed by Roy before Walt's death in 1966, states that on a business trip to New York in 1929, "a fellow kept hanging around my hotel waving $300 at me and saying that he wanted to put the mouse on the paper tablets children use in school," (as reported on the website, The Walt Disney Family Museum, www.waltdisney.org).
Fooled By Fakes
Disney and his colleagues had produced the first three animated shorts featuring Mickey Mouse in 1928. The first two were silent films, The Gallopin' Gaucho and Plane Crazy, for which Disney couldn't interest a distributor, but when sound came in, he added sound and music to Steamboat Willie. Walt personally gave Mickey his first voice, and the cartoon was a huge success. Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy were then developed in 1929 and introduced in the cartoon Silly Symphonies.
Taking that $300 may have been one of the smartest marketing moves in Disney's young career, giving birth to the concept of merchandising cartoon characters. However, Roy and Walt's initial reason for putting their characters on merchandise wasn't to make a quick buck, it was to protect the characters as their company's property. This was in reaction to an earlier partnership that resulted in Walt's original character of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit being stolen.
That merchandising groundwork expanded and led to the huge field of Disneyana collectibles we know today. From Mickey Mouse phones and Disney-themed games to character lunch boxes and lapel/hat pins, there's almost no type of collectible that Disneyana hasn't embraced. All are adorable, charming and desirable, but not all are authentic Disney.
Take, for example, Disney collectibles purporting to be from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. There are a few renditions of a Mickey Mouse pocket knife, including one marked USA and another marked Taylor Cutlery. The pocket knife marked USA, with a red and black Mickey, was actually produced in the 1970s and can have some natural signs of age that tend to fool collectors. The knife stamped with Taylor Cutlery is an even later fake and may have a smaller second blade marked China; on this knife, Mickey's image is black. Both knives are marked "World [sic] Fair 1933." (You can find lots of these knives in online auctions selling for up to $200.) Disneyana experts say neither Mickey Mouse, nor any other Disney image, was used on any items from the 1933 World's Fair. It should be noted that Mickey Mouse's image was put on pocket knives made by the Imperial Knife Company in the 1930s, but these were not marked World's Fair. Another fake Disney knife marks the opening of Disneyland in 1955. This is a total fantasy item of modern production.
Lapel/hat pin trading and collecting is a popular hobby, and there's no shortage of Disneyana in this category. There's also no shortage of fakes, especially in limited-edition pins. Because fakers want to churn out as many pins as possible at as low a cost as possible, the quality of the pins can suffer. Look for misspellings (on the pin itself and on its card, if it has one), off-center or illegible maker's marks, and rough or sharp edges. Multiple small indentations in the paint are another giveaway of poor workmanship and not up to Disney standards.
One of the most famous fake Disney items is a brass belt buckle signed "Tiffany Studio, New York" with the date 1933, Mickey's five-year anniversary. The buckle depicts Minnie Mouse looking through a telescope at a Mickey-shaped star in the sky. In fact, these belt buckles were made in England in the 1960s-70s and were not authorized by Disney. They were being sold for hundreds of dollars by the scammer who made them until U.S. Customs caught him, but he'd written a book legitimizing his creations under the name Percy Seibert. Despite the fact that this is a fantasy piece (never made by Disney or Tiffany), it still holds a value of around $100 just because of its notoriety.
On a more dangerous note, Britain's Daily Mail reported that back in 2015, fake figures from the Disney movies Maleficent and Frozen contained toxic levels of phthalates (18 times the legal limit), a plastic softener that disrupts hormones in children and leads to life-threatening conditions later in life. This occurred in the shopping season leading up to Christmas, when the market is hot for such items. This illustrates why it's safer to buy from trusted, reputable sources, where only legitimate products are sold.
In an unusual and more extreme case in April 2018, fake wax Disney figurines (along with legitimate ceramic-type figurines) were confiscated by the DEA and Homeland Security. Inside these figurines of such characters as Pluto, Tigger and Donald Duck, which were coming into the U.S. from Mexico, authorities discovered over 500 pounds of methamphetamine. It is also interesting that the legitimate figurines were used as a "cover load" for the shipment.
Photos are property of author.
At A Glance:
Signs of a fake, fantasy or reproduction:
1. 1933 World's Fair items
2. Belt buckle signed Tiffany
3. Pins with poor craftsmanship
4. Pocket knife purportedly from Disneyland's 1955 opening day
Reference books, websites and collecting groups are the best ways to keep from being fooled by fakes. Here are a few: Disneyana Fan Club (disneyanafanclub.org); Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958 by Robert Heide and John Gilman; The Walt Disney Family Museum (waltdisney.org).