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Seeing Things in Black and White with Steiff’s Amazing Penguins

by Rebekah Kaufman (11/08/10).

A collection of early, post-war Peggy penguins, including two red-footed versions in 10 and 22 centimeters, and a grey-footed version in 10 cm.

Without getting too black or white on the subject, it is no stretch to say that Steiff penguins are among the company’s most delightful aquatic creatures. Although they are a “relative” latecomer to the Steiff line, making their debut almost 20 years after the publication of the company’s first catalog in 1892, they have certainly made up for lost time with their popularity with collectors. Let’s take a look at the history of penguins in the Steiff product line, and learn why the company had to go to the ends of the Earth—literally—to get people interested in this sweet polar pal.

Penguins had their debut in the Steiff line almost 100 years ago. In 1912, the company produced a 15-centimeter standing white and black felt penguin egg cozy, but produced it only for one year. (One of these just sold at an October 2010 Christie’s auction for $950).

In the late 1920s, penguins hit the Steiff scene in a big way. Why? All the news of Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd’s exploration of the South Pole and the remarkable creatures associated with that far away place. In response to worldwide interest in “polar creatures,” Steiff introduced two models of penguins in 1928. The first was standing, gray-and-white mohair, detailed with orange leather feet, wings and beak. The second was standing, black-and-white mohair, and detailed with black leather feet, wings and beak. Both were unjointed and produced in 17-, 22-, 28-, and 35-cm; the gray and white version was in the line through 1930; the black and white version through 1932. Two black and white versions were also featured lots at the October 2010 Christie’s auction; the large version sold for $2,177, while the small version achieved $831.

In 1931, Steiff introduced a more comical, less literal penguin named “King Peng.” His body was made from mohair, his open beak was felt and his wings and feet were velvet. He was produced in a variety of jewel colors, had felt-backed google eyes, and featured a tail-turns-head mechanism. He also had a hook in his mouth, which could be used to attach messages. King Peng was produced in 15-, 18-, 23-, 29-, and 36-cm through 1936. According to records, only 1,675 models were made, making King Peng quite the rarity. Three King Pengs were sold at the Christie’s auction; a small version for $2,770, a medium version for $3,562, and a large version for $ $1,088.

Following the Second World War, by far the most popular and well-know Steiff penguin was known simply as “Peggy,” who made her debut in 1952, but was updated shortly after in 1956. The original Peggy was made from mohair, standing, very chubby, and had black velvet wings, a red felt beak and large, comical red felt feet. She was produced in 10-, 14-, and 22-cm through 1956. She is quite rare in good form and a collector’s favorite. In the mid 1950s, Peggy got a makeover. The “new” Peggy was now a bit more angular and realistic looking; she had more airbrushed details, mohair wings, a pointy beak and grey feet. She was also head-jointed. New Peggy appeared in the line from 1956 through 1975 in 10-, 14-, 22-, 35-, and 50-cm. She was also produced as a studio edition at 80-cm for a few years in the 1960s.

Steiff’s modern Pingu and Pinga set(left and right, respectively), and Bobo the Penguin (center), made as logo promotional items for several global brands.

Since Peggy, Steiff has continuously had penguins in its line to this day due to the popularity of the species. Most of these birds have been of the soft plush or play types designed for children. Exceptions include a huge 90-cm king penguin studio piece and a few limited edition mohair penguins, including replicas and Christmas tree ornaments made especially for the U.S. market.

Of course, penguins are very popular cultural and logo figures today. Sports teams, companies, and even technologies use this endearing aquatic bird as their mascot. In the past few years, Steiff has artfully recreated several of these more “commercial” penguins in the most delightful way. Some readers may recognize the penguin duo of Pingu and Pinga, the famous “pingunese-speaking” claymation cartoon characters from the TV show “Pingu.” Pingu (the slightly larger, more black boy), and his sister Pinga (the slightly smaller, more white girl), are both head-jointed and made from mohair. They have felt feet and beaks. Pingu is 13-cm and Pinga is 12-cm. They were made as a 1,500-piece, limited-edition set for Sony in Japan in 2000. Pingu originally ran for six seasons for a total of 156 episodes; it remains popular worldwide due to its universally understood language and simple story themes. Perhaps lesser known is “Bobo,” the logo for a ski school for children, which is located in the Austrian Alps. Bobo is 15-cm tall, unjointed and made from woven fur. He was produced in 1999 only, making him a relatively rare bird in the Steiff line.

In terms of pricing and value, pre-war Steiff penguins are quite in demand, as the hammer prices from Christie’s mentioned previously reflect. Early Steiff red-footed Peggys, depending on size and condition, may value in the $100 to $300 range. Newer, grey-footed ones, which are much more common, depending on size and condition, may value in the $50 to $150 range. The Pingu and Pinga set, because it was made for the Japanese market in such small numbers may value in the $300 to $600 range; plush Bobo may value in the $75 to $150 range.

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.

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