Vintage Teddy Bears
If you know what you’re looking for, these treasures could bring more than just snuggles
By Michael and James Fry, Brown Button Estate Sales
With cooler weather upon us we decided to write about a topic that would inspire warm, fuzzy feelings in our readers: the teddy bear. First produced in the early 20th century, the teddy bear was a simultaneous, but independent, creation of Richard Steiff in Germany and Morris Michtom in the United States. The name, coined by Michtom, is a reference to a hunting trip in which president Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that his hunting party had tied to a tree. Our 26th president deemed the action unsportsmanlike, and there was much coverage of his decision in the press. Michtom, seeing a cartoon depicting the scene, was inspired to create a small plush bear cub. Accompanying the bear in his shop window was a sign reading “Teddy’s Bear”.
While the honor of naming the bear goes to Michtom, it’s Steiff who perfected it. With a company motto, “Only the best is good enough for children,” they created bears internationally known for their quality of craftsmanship. The hyper attention to quality has made Steiff a sought after brand over the last century for both collectors and resellers alike.
Steiff bears, from 100+ year old teddys, to those made recently, hold a surprising amount of value. This is especially true when Steiff is compared to other stuffed animal brands. As with most collectibles, the older bears are the highest prized as there are far fewer of them on the market. Pre-1950s Steiff bears in good condition can easily sell for more than $1,000, and significant bears have even been sold in such notable auctions houses as Christie’s.
When you know what to look for, Steiff stuffed animals are fairly easy to identify. The most obvious feature of any Steiff is its trademark “button in ear.” The company starting sewing metal buttons in the left ears of its creations in 1904 to identify their animals from other competitors mimicking their designs. Thankfully, the specific design of the buttons has changed over the years and you can date the piece by its button. Have a bear with an 8mm iron nickel-plated button that reads “Steiff”? It was made between 1925-1934. How about a nickel button with “Steiff” written in script font? It was created between 1952-1972. In addition to the ear button, the company included a cloth tag in the ear or the chest seam. Like the buttons, the tags have also changed over the years. Most recognizable as a yellow tag with red writing, they’ve also been printed in red, white, and beige. The most common tag language includes,”Steiff Original,” “Made In Germany,” and “Made In US-Zoned Germany.” Depending on how well loved the bears were, it is possible that both the button and tag could have been worn away or removed, thus material composition is also important to understand.
As different generations of bears were produced, the materials they were created from changed with the times. The earliest bears can be found with Victorian style buttons for eyes. From around 1910 to 1960, Steiff used glass eyes, and then switched to plastic. From the earliest production to 1943 the bears had mohair or angora hair for fur. After 1947 synthetic fibers were used as fur. The four year gap in production was due to the German government forcing the Steiff company to manufacture items for soldiers instead of stuffed animals during World War II. The internal stuffing can also be used to date the animals as all bears prior to 1960 were stuffed with wood-wool. Wood-wool is a material made out of wood shavings that is often mistaken for straw. From 1960 to 1970 foam rubber and artificial stuffing was used. All bears since 1970 have been stuffed with synthetic fibers.
At a recent estate sale in Overland Park, our team ran across a small collection of Steiff bears. All of them were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so they were definitely not antique and not even vintage by most standards. We sold all five bears for prices ranging from $65 – $110 each. As a comparative note, we usually sell stuffed animals for a dollar or two. Steiff animals are special in the stuffed animal market as almost all of their animals, whether made a few years ago or decades ago, have relatively high values. That said, it’s the oldies that can sell for some crazy amounts. Auction houses have sold pre-1940s Steiff bears in quality condition for anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000. One of the most notable Steiff auctions occurred in 2000 when a 1912 Titanic bear went up for auction by Christie’s. Only 600 were produced as mourning bears after the Titanic sank. This specific example was in excellent condition and sold for a whopping $121,724.
So as you shop those garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets, don’t just search for the sterling mislabeled as plated, or the undiscovered classic first edition book. Take a moment and stick your finger in the left ear of that dusty old teddy bear up on the shelf. You never know what you might find, and if nothing else, maybe you can warm a child’s heart with a gift of a cuddly teddy bear.