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Hobby leads to international Matchbox convention

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes, the smallest of things can make the biggest of differences in our lives.

For Albuquerque’s Jim Gallegos, the little thing that marked a huge turning point in his life was a die-cast, Matchbox toy model of a Greyhound bus. Matchbox toys, introduced in 1953 by the British company Lesney Products, were designed originally to be small enough to fit into a matchbox.

Lensey Products, a British company, introduced Matchbox die-cast miniature vehicles in 1953. This is an early German Matchbox gift set.

Gallegos, now 59, got his miniature Greyhound in the late 1960s when he was about 10. It fascinated him.

“There were other (Matchbox toys) before that, but that was the one that got me going,” Gallegos said during a recent phone interview. “I had never been on a Greyhound, but I had seen them. The (Matchbox Greyhound) was realistic, something I could relate to.”

Just weeks after obtaining the Greyhound, he got a Matchbox Ford GT and his passion for miniature wheeled vehicles started shifting into high gear.

This Ford GT and Greyhound bus are the Matchbox models that got Jim Gallegos hooked on miniature wheeled toys when he was kid. (SOURCE: Jim Gallegos)

Today, his collection of miniature vehicles numbers in the many thousands and the Matchbox Convention he started in Albuquerque in 2003 will hold its 15th gathering Friday through Sunday, July 21-23, at the Albuquerque Marriott.

Gallegos said the Albuquerque event is the only Matchbox convention, other than one in Germany, that the Mattel toy company actively supports. Mattel, which launched the miniature vehicle Hot Wheels line in 1968, purchased Matchbox in 1997.

A display shows vintage Matchbox models from the 1950s and 1960s. Although Matchbox toys still sell new for only a dollar, collectible models may sell for thousands of dollars.

Gallegos calls his convention the Matchbox Collectors Annual International Gathering of Friends. He said about 30 collectors from throughout the country attended the first one and there were about 20 tables at that initial convention’s toy show. Two hundred collectors are registered for this year’s convention, and there will be 100 tables at the toy show, which is open to the public.

“It has grown slowly and this year’s convention will be our largest one ever,” Gallegos said. “All the top collectors will be there. They come from the United States, Japan, Brazil, Germany, England, Belgium, Mexico and Canada. We have an 82-year-old man and his wife who come from Japan each year.”

Gallegos said he believes it is the bond of friendship among collectors more than their shared interest that makes the convention successful.

This miniature 1971 Nissan Skyline was designed by Matchbox expecially for collectors attending the convention dinner at the Matchbox Collectors 15th Annual Gathering of Friends, which starts Friday in Albuquerque.

“That’s why I started it,” he said. “Before the Internet got popular, a group of us collectors communicated by phone and mail, but we rarely got to see each other.”

The convention provides an opportunity for face-to-face exchanges among members of the collecting community.

Gallegos, a 1975 graduate of West Mesa High School, is retired from AT&T and works now as a sales manager for Presbyterian Health Plan. Dating back to that Matchbox Greyhound bus, he has collected all kinds of toy vehicles and antique toys.

When you consider how much space it would take to display a collection of miniature toys as large as the one owned by Gallegos, not to mention the amount of time required to dust it, it’s fortunate that his wife, Vicki, and his son, Shaun, now 32, share his enthusiasm for toys.

A miniature 1980 Volkswagen pickup designed by Matchbox is for sale to dealers working the toy show and sale at the Matchbox Collectors convention in Albuquerque.

“Vicki has several different collections,” Gallegos said. “She collects vintage plastic toys and antique toys – anything from old wind-up toys and different mechanical toys that date back to the turn of the (20th) century. There is a lot of history, engineering and art in toys, and Vicki really appreciates that aspect of it. She used to play with her brother’s Matchbox toys.”

Back in the 1990s, long before Gallegos launched his Matchbox convention, he and Vicki did antique toy shows around Albuquerque. That’s when they really got into the immense universe of collecting. Gallegos said his database contains the names of 12,000 collector friends in 72 countries.

When he was a kid, Gallegos said, Matchbox toys sold for 59 cents to 69 cents each. They cost only about $1 today. But some models – depending on rarity, condition and popularity – sell for big bucks in the collectors market today.

“It’s not unusual to find Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars selling for $10,000,” he said. “The highest price paid for a Matchbox toy was $25,000 for a one-of-a-kind fire engine.”

The record price for a Hot Wheels toy is about $70,000 or so, paid for a rare Volkswagen Beach Bomb, a VW microbus with a pair of surfboards poking out the rear window.

Gallegos said none of the toys in his collection are for sale. He still owns that Greyhound bus and the Ford GT. He said they are not worth much to collectors, but to him they are priceless. They changed his world.