Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: The Berkshires' professional toy collector


The 2015 Hanukkah and Christmas holidays have passed as have the sales of decorations and leftover toys. Shelves are now filled with Valentine items and candy for the next holiday.

Back in the 1950s, one of my favorite holiday gifts was not found on store shelves. It was the Sears Roebuck holiday toy catalogue which, itself, didn't cost my folks anything. I used to ogle at the cool toys I never had, most of which are now collectibles or (shudder) "antiques."

It was only as an adult I began collecting some of these "wishes." As an "amateur" toy collector, I love those post-World War II plastic and cast metal cars and trucks, the electric trains and the Marx Playsets with cowboys, circus figures, spacemen, military men and presidents.

But my meager collection of what had been labeled as "toys for boys" is nothing compared to those of true professional collectors. One of the largest private toy collections in the U.S., if not the world, was right here in the Berkshires until a few years ago.

It was that of the late Donald Kaufman who was born in Pittsfield in 1930. Donald was a professional toy collector.

After attending college at North Adams State and a stint in the Army in the mid-'50s, he joined the family business, Kaufman Brothers. The firm was located in his hometown and was founded by his father Harry and Uncle Joseph in 1922.

The Kaufmans originally sold candy, but when sugar prices went up during World War II, the brothers went into the toy business. The next generation, e.g., Donald, his brother Richard and cousin Howard Kaufman, all worked in and eventually ran the family business headquartered in Pittsfield.

It became known as KB or KayBee Toys. Under their management, the organization became one of the leading retail toy companies in the country with outlets located in nearly every major mall including the Allendale Shopping Center and the Berkshire Mall.

Donald was the family toy collector and was so for more than 58 years, beginning with a $4 truck he bought in Canaan, N.Y., in 1950. He specialized in large toy vehicles and pedal cars from the late 1800s to mid 1900s and was known to go to toy auctions with a big van and trailer that he would park just outside the auction house door. If Donald wanted a toy, it was his no matter the price.

After years of building an immense 7,000-piece collection, with the help of his wife, Sally, he decided it was time to allow others to enjoy the toys. Donald always saw himself not as the owner of the collection, but as the interim keeper.

Although the Kaufman toy collection would have made a wonderful museum in the Berkshires, it was not destined to be. In 2009, Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey, specialists in toy actions, arranged five separate sales over two years to sell the entire collection, and it brought in a record $12 million in total.

Donald never got to see the disposition of all the pieces as he sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 79, just between the second and third auctions.

Unfortunately, he did live to see the demise of the KB Toy Company in 2008. It was bought and sold a couple of times since it was first acquired in 1981. A combination of factors led to a loss of this hometown enterprise. But people will always fondly remember Donald, his family and all the Kaufmans for their contributions to the community and local economy. Incidentally, the Bertoia auction bidders chipped in and bought Donald's first $4 truck as a gift to his widow, Sally, as a piece for the family to keep.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to berkshirecarousel.com.


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