Dollar rate deters American teddy bear enthusiasts: Daniel Agnew, the teddy bear specialist at Christie’s South Kensington (17.5/10% buyer’s premium), felt the market was a bit softer than usual for the first of his bi-annual teddy sales on June 10.
The situation was not helped by the strength of sterling against the dollar that made it difficult for some overseas buyers to compete with UK collectors and dealers. “Some American buyers were saying to me they simply couldn’t touch a lot of the entries,” said Mr Agnew.
Nevertheless, a strong private collecting base in the UK and Germany as well as in America, coupled with some interesting early Steiff entries, ensured 75 per cent of the 265 lots found buyers and the sale totalled £130,200.
Steiff bears and toys routinely fetch the highest prices at teddy bear auctions and three early Steiff entries took the top slots here.
The biggest money was reserved for Bagi, a 1908-1911 golden mohair girl teddy bear clad in her original blue felt white trim jacket and skirt.
“It was not the bear that was rare, it was her outfit,” said Mr Agnew, who gave her a punchy £15,000-20,000 estimate.
Not every collector placed the same value on Bagi’s wardrobe, and when she sold on her reserve at £10,000 to a well-known European collector, Mr Agnew said: “I was disappointed, it should have gone for more.”
Bagi, along with her tongue-twisting friends Babad, Baho, Basi, Basa and Bastro, were originally conceived for Steiff promotional postcards and
produced from 1908-1917. Bagi was given to her owner, a little boy, when he was 12 or 13. As the jacket is more faded than the skirt, it is likely that he removed the skirt to make Bagi into a he-bear.
Wheelchair-bound after suffering from polio, Margarete Steiff first started making felt elephant pin cushions as gifts for her friends but demand for this work led her to develop the business, first making toys and later teddies.
She conceived the idea of the bear in 1902 and began selling them to the public the following year. Steiff bears have always had international appeal and the American market was initially given a boost by President Theodore Roosevelt adopting the bear as his campaign mascot.
Steiff’s “bear boom years” date from 1906-1908 and Christie’s sale included a c.1909 golden mohair example in excellent condition. The bear’s deep-set, black button eyes lent it an intense expression and it sold well above estimate at £8500 to a collector.
“If it is the right sort of bear with the right sort of look it can make good money,” said Mr Agnew.
Steiff also produced quality toys and a notable bid was placed to secure a set of rabbit skittles, c.1906, which went to a UK-based buyer at £5800.
Eight of the velvet rabbit skittles were cream coloured with pink noses and with the kingpin dressed in a red felt
tailcoat with matching crown. All bore the company’s trademark button in the ear.
Collectors often pay a premium for teddies catalogued with additional information about the original owner, especially if their story is a poignant one.
“I always ask if there are photographs of the original owner with the bear,” said Mr Agnew, who knows of many friendships which have developed after buyers contacted vendors to research the bear’s childhood playmate.
Collectors paid over the odds to secure two bears whose owners had both died tragically young, age 21. A Steiff teddy, c.1913, very sun-faded, consigned by the family of the little girl who originally owned it and who had died from a sudden illness, was accompanied in the catalogue by
photographs of her holding the teddy. Estimated at £3000-4000, it fetched £5000 from a Canadian collector. “The bear makes you aware of how fragile life is,” said Mr Agnew.
A more run-of-the-mill German teddy bear called Green Ted, c.1922, accompanied by two photographs of its young owner who was later killed serving as a Canadian Army officer in the Second World War, was taken to £1100 by an English collector against a £200-300 guideline.
Condition as well as provenance also has a bearing on value although a balding bear does not necessarily mean a bought-in bear. Buyers still value teddies that have been treasured. One collector went to a double-estimate £1200 for a Steiff bear, c.1910, despite large holes to its muzzle, worn arms, foreheads and pads.
Areas that struggled were the 1950s Steiff teddies and the Merrythought cheeky teddy bears. Of the latter, Mr Agnew said estimates would have to be re-adjusted for Merrythoughts in future sales as the £300-500 examples that failed to sell here would have made £800-900 a couple of years ago.
The highest-profile casualty was a Steiff teddy bear tea cosy, consigned by an American vendor, which had been expected to fetch £10,000-15,000.
Although the body was different from any of the known Steiff designs, the catalogue entry suggested that the cosy may have been exported to the US as a prototype and was never sold. Pre-sale doubt as to whether this was, in fact, a later conversion resulted in this star lot remaining unsold at £5500.