A Guest Blog Post by Kathy Martin This article was originally written for Rareburg, who in 2016, joined forces with hobbyDB to provide an excellent source of collectible knowhow for the community.
I’ve been a teddy bear enthusiast, aka an arctophile, for more than 25 years, having developed an interest in them when I started dealing in antiques in the late 1980’s. There’s something about the way an old bear slumps as his stuffing relaxes that I find immensely appealing, so here are my top ten collectable teddy bears.
Almost since the first teddies appeared in the early 1900’s, people have been quietly nurturing a fondness for them but it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the hobby has gone mainstream. Now there are thousands of arctophiles worldwide, supporting a small but significant community of antique and vintage bear dealers, bear artists and manufacturers of modern limited edition bears.
The strict definition of an antique is something that is more than 100 years old. Therefore, to qualify as a true antique, a teddy must have been made no later than 1915. The first teddy bear was created by Steiff, the famous German manufacturer, in 1902 but the new toy didn’t achieve widespread success until 1905 when the design was perfected. Just one year later, 400,000 bears had been sold.
For most collectors of old bears, however, it’s not so much a question of whether a bear is antique or vintage as whether it is pre or post-WWII. While there are many devoted collectors of post-WWII teds, the strongest interest lies in examples produced before 1939 and this is where the highest prices are paid.
What is a bear artist? In my 2007 book A Collectible History of the Teddy Bear, I defined a bear artist as ‘someone who designs their teddy bears from scratch, creating their own patterns and using their own skills to make the finished article. Usually working from home, these talented individuals spend hours honing different techniques in order to create bears that, in the best cases, are literally works of art. Bear artists sell their work via their own websites and at specialist teddy bear festivals. Artist-made bears can seem expensive but the prices reflect the many hours of intensive labor that have gone into their creation, as well as the costly materials that have been used to make them.
Renowned teddy bear manufacturers such as Steiff in Germany and Merrythought in the UK continue to produce high-quality teddy bears for their fans. Sometimes reprising designs from yesteryear and sometimes creating fresh, contemporary pieces inspired by the bear artists of today, these teddies are offered to collectors in limited editions. Editions can be as low as 50 and as high as 2,000+. High-quality materials are invariably used and many of the bears are hand finished in some way. However, every bear in the edition will have a uniform appearance and for some arctophiles, this makes them less exciting to collect.
My own collection features examples from across the teddy bear spectrum. Without question, the star of my collection is Edwina, a 19-inch Steiff bear made from white mohair in the late 1920s. Steiff, of course, was founded in 1880 by Margaret Steiff and started off selling elephants as pincushions. It was love at first sight when I found Edwina in a 2002 auction celebrating 100 years of the teddy bear. Not only is she a beautiful bear in good condition for her age, she also comes with excellent provenance, having belonged originally to a member of the Rockefeller family.
Steiff created two other bears in my top ten. Miles, my oldest who dates from 1908, draws much of his charm from his battered and threadbare appearance. The bears are required to be flame resistant and eye buttons must resist tension, which goes to show the impact Steiff Company’s motto had on their toys, “Only the best is good enough for children.”
Then there is Zotty, a 1950’s creation with soft, shaggy fur and an open mouth that seems to be smiling. Most animals were made with materials such as Alpaca, felt, woven plush, and mohair. Many were made with wood or glass eyes and wood shavings or polyester fiber for stuffing.
As well as German bears, I have a good number of English-made teds in my collection. First amongst these is Mungo, the 1930’s Chad Valley given to me by my husband in 1998 when our daughter was born. Chad Valley briefly made stuffed toys before World War I, mass producing them in Harborne.
Of later vintage are Paddington and Aunt Lucy, created by Gabrielle Designs in the 1970’s. (Interestingly, Shirley Clarkson, the woman behind Gabrielle, was the mother of Jeremy Clarkson). Both bears are sought after today but because of her relative rarity, Aunt Lucy can cost twice as much as her marmalade-loving nephew.
From my limited editions, my most special bear is Fifi, one of 20 cream mohair teddies created by Steiff in 2010 for auction at the V&A. Measuring 20.5 inches high, Fifi was dressed and signed by Twiggy before being sold to raise money for charity.
Pumpkin, a bear by Teddy-Hermann Original, has a less exciting background but is a favorite simply because he makes me smile. Based in Hirschaid, Germany, they are one of the oldest teddy producers, and come in Hermann Teddy Original, Miniaturen, and Herman Teddy Collection.
Finally, traditional Tivoli by Stier Bears and jazzy Joseph by Woodland Teddies represent the sheer diversity on offer in the world of teddy bear artistry. Kathleen Wallace started Stier Bears in Pennsylvania with her largest bear reaching an astounding 45 inches!
Woodland Teddies is fairly recent, about 1996. Rita Harwood creates a wide variety of critters out of felt and other materials. These two bears could hardly look more different yet both are unquestionably teds, that in a nutshell, is why I love artist bears.
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