Steiff:
Over 100 Years
& The Tradition Continues


Above: Steiff Animals from the 1940's-1950's


 

By: Tim Luke

When it comes to collecting teddy bears, miniature animals or even felt dolls, there is one company that continues to raise the bar for collectors who continually seek out fine and rare examples manufactured by the German company Steiff.  This becomes quite evident by the record-breaking price set in 1994 for an apricot-colored mohair 1904 Steiff bear named “Teddy Girl” with a center facial seam and measuring 18” that sold for $171,600.00.  The reason it sold for such an outstanding price is a combination of excellent condition and fine provenance or background the bear possessed.  The bear had belonged to a British Army officer, Colonel T.R. Henderson.  The story goes that from a very young age, he became inseparable from the bear, traveling everywhere with it.  He later became instrumental in promoting the organization Good Bears of the World.  The new purchaser of “Teddy Girl” was Japanese businessman Mr. Sekiguchi, who bought it for his museum in Japan.  He received international publicity for the purchase and the entire Steiff collectors market received a huge boost in popularity. 


Example of A Steiff Felt Doll

To better understand the desirability of Steiff products, we can first examine the background of the company’s founder, Margarete Steiff and then venture into the history of her company.  Margarete was born 1847 in Giengen, Germany afflicted with polio causing her to be confined to a wheelchair her entire life.  Her illness never dampened her industrious spirit.  She became an accomplished seamstress with her own dressmaking company.  The young entrepreneur would collect remnant pieces of felt from the dresses and turn them into animals for the children to play with in her neighborhood.  It was a felt elephant pincushion that became a neighborhood favorite and was put into larger production on 1880. 

The Margarete Steiff Toy Company was established with the help of her brother Fritz and eventually Fritz’s children, devoted to the production of felt toys.  In the early 1900s, Margarete’s nephew, Richard, an accomplished artist and longtime lover of bears, convinced his aunt to produce a jointed mohair bear he designed.  Mohair is the wool from an Angora goat and is a very durable natural fiber that requires little maintenance.  Margarete agreed and when the toy was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1903 the overall reception was mixed; some even ridiculed the toy.  Fate intervened and at the conclusion of the fair, an American buyer from the George Borgfeldt & Co. noticed the bear and ordered three thousand pieces on the spot.  That was the lucky break every company hopes for but only few can pull off.  That order put Steiff bears into mass production and the company continued perfecting their designs resulting in the bear becoming the best seller in the Steiff toy line.  Steiff continued to successfully produce teddy bears in a variety of styles, as well as animals of nearly every known type, and felt dolls of very fine craftsmanship and quality.  The company obtained a license to produce Mickey Mouse in Germany in 1931, and also produced the German comic-strip characters Max and Moritz and their friends from Wilhelm Busch’s popular cartoon, beginning in 1909.  The dolls manufactured by Steiff are all felt, with a seam down the center of the face and represented sailors, soldiers, clowns and a wide variety of nationalities, including Native Americans and Eskimos. 


White Steiff Bear, circa 1920

All the varieties of the items manufactured by Steiff have one thing in common.  From the earliest years the company placed a button in the left ear of every piece in produced, which helps to identify a Steiff item.  Along with the buttons, paper or cardboard chest tags where attached to the items, however, these are often missing today.  The button and chest tag are ways to aid the inquisitive collector if what they stumbled upon is indeed a Steiff item.  There are other clues to assist the weary collector in identifying their Steiff treasure.  Steiff used certain buttons during different time periods.  The following is an approximation of dates and type of buttons used by the company.  A button with an embossed elephant with upright trunk was used from 1904 – 1905, while a blank button is attributed to 1905 – 1909.  A metal button with STEIFF printed in raised letters with a trailing underline on the final F or also referred to as an underscored F, was used from 1905 –1940s.  STEIFF in raised script without the underscore was used in the late 1940s to 1960s.  A silver button with Steiff in incised script was used from 1960s – 1976 and Steiff incised in script on a brass button from 1977 to the present.   

The high quality mohair along with the other materials used by Steiff in the manufacturing of playthings over the past century has contributed to the durability of the items produced, increasing its desirability exponentially with collectors around the world.  The care of these items is the responsibility of a good collector to maintain the items in a constant stable environment, making sure there are no excesses of heat, moisture or humidity.  Direct sunlight should be avoided because in can fade mohair and felt used in Steiff toys.  Older Steiff items should be examined for insect damage that is noticeable by little pinholes on the felt pads or significant losses to the mohair.  If you are not sure where the bear has been or are buying a vintage bear new, there is a sure fire way to rid your collectible of any suspected insects.  Place the bear into a zipper freezer bag and put the bear into the freezer overnight.  This will eliminate anything that may have taken up residence inside.    

If you are interested in starting a collection of Steiff items, be sure to educate yourself by reading books, going to flea markets and Antique shows, talking to other collectors and dealers to gain as much information as possible.  This will lead to other sources of information and make your collecting a fun and fulfilling adventure.  In today’s market, early Steiff teddy bears from 1905 – 1910 are the most sought after by collectors and prices often exceed $10,000.00 depending on condition.  The novice collector may want to start off with some of the other animals Steiff produced.  These can range in the $50 – 400 range depending on the animal and the condition.  Collectors do pay a premium if the button and chest tag are in tact and of course the condition is good.   

Today, Steiff continues to manufacture a myriad of animals and teddy bears on its original grounds in Germany.  This German company was originally founded on the motto, “For our children only the best is good enough,” and over one hundred years later, collectors of Steiff bears, animals, and dolls continue to pursue these quality collectibles with verve and passion. 


About the author:

The author, Tim Luke is president of TreasureQuest Auction Galleries, Inc. in Stuart, FL, is a participating appraiser on PBS’ “Antique Roadshow”, is an accredited member of the International Society of Appraisers and can be contacted at Tim@TQAG.com


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