Stuffed with value

Teddy bears aren't just for children. Winifred Carr looks at an expensive hobby
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The Independent Online
When President Theodore Roosevelt spared the life of a bear cub on a hunting trip in 1902 and a political cartoonist drew the scene for a newspaper, a latent yearning was roused in many Americans for a small, cuddly creature of their own.

Within weeks Teddy's Bears, as the first copies of the lucky cub were called, were being made from sawdust-filled plush fabric with black-metal boot buttons for eyes and being sold all over America.

Soon after, a German toy maker, Margarete Steiff, began to make teddy bears, each with a button clipped to one ear. The button is still used today as identification by the same firm, which has become the world's most famous maker of teddy bears.

Steiff had been making bears at least 10 years before this: dancing bears in cinnamon and gold-coloured mohair, polar bears in white plush and little brown bears which turned somersaults when their front legs were wound up. From the beginning, Steiff bears were given swivel limbs to make them easy to cuddle, a protruding black snout and leather or felt pads on their paws. Many had a humped back and some had stomachs fitted with a growler box.

Those early bears look more like the real thing than modern bears with snub noses and stitched-on smiles.

In 1908, the Grand Duke of Russia bought a red Steiff bear for his daughter, Princess Xenia Georgievna, which she called Alfonzo and which, in 1989, was sold at Christie's for the then record figure of pounds 12,100. The buyer was Ian Prout who had left the Stock Exchange to set up as an antiques dealer and switched to bears when he found there was a growing market but no specialist shops selling them. The shop he opened in Oxfordshire, Teddy Bears of Witney, was the first to specialise in old and new ones. Alfonzo is on permanent display there together with other rare bears including Captain Hay, an English-made specimen from the First World War which is dressed in the contemporary uniform of a captain of the Gordon Highlanders with a Hay tartan kilt and sporran.

Alfonzo's price was eclipsed in December 1994 when a Japanese museum paid a world record pounds 110,000 at Christie's for a 1904 Steiff bear made from curly cinnamon-coloured mohair with boot button eyes and a black stitched snout. The bear had belonged to Colonel Bob Henderson who called it Teddy Girl and took it with him to the British trenches in the Great War.

Although Steiff bears are the most valuable to collectors, those made by the English firms of Chad Valley, Chiltern, Dean's, JK Farnell and Merrythought fetch good prices. A brown mohair bear made by Farnell in about 1925 will cost from pounds 800 to pounds 1,000, a Merrythought Cheeky Teddy with bells in its large ears, made in 1950, from pounds 250 to pounds 300 and a 1920s Chad Valley one stuffed with kapok up to pounds 500.

Even modern copies of old bears rapidly increase in value. When Steiff made a limited edition of 5,000 replica Alfonzos two years ago for Ian Prout they sold out quickly at pounds 164. This autumn they are fetching more than pounds 300 as they come back on to the market. Britain's most famous bear, Winnie the Pooh will be 70 years old on 14 October; AA Milne's book was published on that day in 1926. Among the anniversary Poohs which are bound to increase in price as they are resold is one by Methuen in a limited edition of 2,500, at pounds 110.

At these prices, bears which used to be bought as first presents for small children are now collectors' items to be displayed on shelf or table, never to be hurled around a garden or taken to the beach. When Ian Prout opened his shop in Witney 11 years ago, new bears were still being bought as children's toys, but more than 90 per cent of his customers are now serious collectors who come from all over the world to browse around the large stock of old and new.

Specialist shops for arctophiles, as they like to be called (arktos being Greek for bear and philos meaning loving), are now in other towns such as Henley and Woking, and last month a chain of shops opened in Singapore and Malaysia where, as with Japan, bears are considered not only an investment but a friend for life.

Value apart, early bears should not be left within reach of small children since many have button or glass eyes attached by wires which can be pulled loose.

Old bears bought at sales are often soiled with gritty dirt which can damage the fabric, or have holes in their fur. Specialist cleaning and repair using similar fabric will improve their looks and not reduce their value.

Just in time for Christmas, Sotheby's in Bond Street will have a sale of teddy bears on 20 November and 9 December. Christie's in South Kensington will sell a bumper collection which it has been putting together for three years.

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