Ever thought of investing in teddy bears? Before you collapse in a fit of laughter, consider the fortunate person who found a large Steiff teddy bear abandoned in a skip and took it to Christie’s, where it sold for over £7,000. Or the person who sold a Steiff ‘teddy girl’ to the Yoshihiro Sekiguchi Museum in Japan for £110,000. Or the collector who succumbed to the fascination of a Steiff hot-water-bottle teddy bear made in 1907 and spent £33,000 on it.
A surprising number of people invest in teddy bears. The managing director of one UK auction house has bought a collectible teddy bear for each of his grandchildren. These are not things to be kicked around, left out in the garden or smeared with chocolate cake during make-believe tea parties. These are valuable pieces, to be looked at from a distance and handled with care. When the children are old enough they will have the option, if they are not too sentimental, to sell their bears and, with luck, raise the deposit for their first flat.
The Steiff is the Rolls-Royce of the teddy- bear world — Rolls-Royce being, of course, a German-owned marque these days. Margarete Steiff was a wheelchair-bound seamstress in the small German town of Giengen who built up a business in the late 19th century making felt animals, and whose nephew Richard Steiff — despite Margarete’s reservations — developed the company’s first bear, with jointed arms and legs, glass eyes and fur made of mohair plush, in 1902. Bear PB, as it was called, turned out to be a particular hit with American buyers and won gold medals for Margarete and Richard at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, where orders were taken for no fewer than 12,000 of them.
‘Steiff limited-edition bears can turn out to be very valuable if they are in good condition,’ says Kathy Taylor, the dolls and teddies expert at the Vectis auction house in Teesside. ‘You can tell the difference from the label: the limited-edition bears have white labels, and the ordinary ones have yellow labels. Some of the special-edition bears are very few in number. Quite often there are only 1,000 of them out there. These are highly collectible and the older ones can be worth tens of thousands of pounds if they have been well looked after.’
So who exactly buys these things? ‘Teddy collectors are a bit different,’ Taylor admits. ‘Some of them develop a deep attachment to the bears and find it hard to sell them, others are hardened investors who buy only bears that are in pristine condition. They then sell them on to museums or to the big collectors.’
Christie’s has been selling rare antique teddy bears, most of them pre-second world war, since the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that sales of bears really took off. Most of the top-priced pieces are made by Steiff, but bears made by other leading soft toy manufacturers such as Farnell, Bing and Merrythought have also fetched remarkably high prices.
In 2000 Christie’s sold an exceptionally rare Steiff teddy bear from 1912. It was a plump and luxuriant black creature and it fetched £91,750. ‘We assume that the reason for its black mohair was that it was made just after the Titanic sank on 14 April 1912,’ says Daniel Agnew, the teddy bear specialist at Christie’s. ‘Many people knew someone who had died on board the ship and much of London was in mourning. People wore black clothes, shop windows were swathed in black, and so people also ordered black teddy bears. They even had black eyes with red felt behind, which was actually rather scary for children.’
But you won’t find a teddy bear that dates from earlier than 1903. If you do, then you can be sure that it’s a fake. Mere ‘bears’ could be bought from the late 1880s, when the process of making soft toys out of manufactured ‘plush’ materials was first developed. What distinguishes teddy bears from mere bears is that they have articulated joints and can be bent over to stand on all fours.
The term ‘teddy bear’ dates from Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, when one day he was out on a game hunt and no bears could be found. When a gamekeeper caught a bear cub, tethered it to a tree and suggested the president shoot that, Roosevelt refused, and the incident was recorded in a cartoon in the Washington Post, captioned ‘Teddy’s Bear’. Within days an entrepreneurial toy company had asked permission to make and sell a small bear called the Teddy Bear. It is perhaps from this date that the president developed his strong dislike of the nickname Teddy.
When it comes to selling teddy bears, a clear provenance helps. ‘We recently sold a cheeky little bear from 1957 for £450,’ says Taylor. ‘The reason it fetched such a high price was because it came with a photograph of one of the bear’s first owners, a little girl, who had found him on a beach in a rock pool. If there are photographs of the bears with their original owners, no matter who they are, that gives them a history which adds greatly to the value.’
If you like the idea of storing your children’s future wealth in their toy cupboard but you don’t like teddy bears, then there are plenty of other options for collecting: Star Trek memorabilia, Action Men or Matchbox cars. Barbies, those stick-thin dolls with pointy toes, crafted in durable pink plastic, are popular collectors’ items too; an original 1959 Barbie sold at Christie’s last month for £2,880.
But in the end, as Agnew points out, almost everyone has had a teddy bear at some time, and they have universal appeal. And even if you don’t feel inclined to invest thousands of pounds in one at auction, you may just find that there’s a small furry bundle worth a fortune already sitting in your attic.