Meet WorthPoint’s Über-Collectors: Jennifer Frankhouser, Steiff Teddy Bears & Animals

Über-Collector Jennifer Frankhouser of Marysville, Wash., who collects Steiff stuffed animals, with her small Jocko chimpanzee that she bought after earning money all summer when she was 9.

Passion, energy, excitement. The thrill of the hunt. It seems that everyone infected with the collecting bug shares these same traits! True enthusiasts—or “über-collectors” —spend endless hours building their perfect collections and becoming experts in their areas of interest. To celebrate this form of remarkable commitment, WorthPoint is initiating a series of interviews with über-collectors from across North America so we can all learn what makes them, and what they collect, so interesting. Our second conversation is with a woman from the Northwest who specializes in vintage Steiff (German button-in-ear brand) collectibles.

WorthPoint: Please tell us your name, where you live, and a little about yourself.

Über-Collector: Hello, my name is Jennifer Frankhouser. I am 23 years old and live in Marysville, Washington. I am a domestic engineer, and my hobby is reselling various antiques and collectibles at a local antique store.

WP: I understand that you have a fantastic Steiff collection and are really passionate about the brand. Can you tell us what about these items you really like, and a little about your collection?

Ü-C: I have been collecting Steiff animals since I was 9. Today, I have more than 400 different animals in my collection. In addition to collecting the company’s soft plush and mohair items, I also own a wooden Steiff racecar, wagon and scooter; several larger, wheeled riding animals; as well as an F.A.O. Schwarz tree house store display.

Ever since I was a little girl, I had a huge love for toy animals. Steiff’s animals are so lifelike and uniquely made; the minute I was introduced to the brand, I immediately fell in love with it. In particular, I found the company’s choice of materials, including mohair, felt and velvet, particularly appealing and attractive, even as a child. Some people collect only bears, or limited edition pieces, but I collect any and every kind of Steiff animal that I can get my hands on.

WP: Please tell us how you got interested in collecting Steiff treasures.

Ü-C: Ever since I can remember, my parents have been keenly interested in antiques and collectibles. As a child, my parents would take me to antique stores, and we would spend the whole day looking for treasures. My parents both had their different interests. My dad collected vintage oil lamps, while my mother collected toys from the Baby Boomer era. Early on, I didn’t collect anything, but my parents thought it would be nice if I also caught the collecting bug. When I was 9, during one of our regular antique outings, I saw several vintage Steiff animals behind a glass case at a local antique shop. I fell in love with them instantly! I became intrigued with the idea of collecting Steiff. I checked out every book at the library about Steiff, and truly immersed myself in any and everything Steiff.

Collecting Steiff is a real passion of mine. I can’t thank my parents enough for encouraging me to find something special to collect of my own!

WP: So collecting really seems to be a “family affair” with you! That is wonderful. So, what are your top three favorite items in your collection, and why?

Ü-C: My top three favorite pieces in my collection are:

A 1960s-era Steiff green snail named “Nelly.”

No. 1: One of my top three items would include a vintage, 1960s-era Steiff green snail named “Nelly.” It is 10-cm in size, with a velvet body, two plastic antennas and a plastic shell. It took me 15 years to locate one, as these are fairly rare and hard to find. Over the years, in the Steiff community, Nelly snails have been considered rare because the antennas are so delicate and their brief time in production—from 1961 through 1963 only. I had to include one in my collection because of its unique characteristics and rarity.

A vintage, 80-cm chimpanzee named “Jocko.”

No. 2: Another favorite item in my collection is a vintage, 80-cm chimpanzee named “Jocko.” He is fully jointed and made from brown mohair, and just happens to be the largest Steiff item that I own to date! Just like the Nelly snail, it took me nearly 15 years to locate one, as his large size makes him so hard to find. He is by far my most favorite piece in my collection because of his size; I love being able to dress him up in costumes during the different holidays, such as Halloween and Christmas.

A 35-cm vintage lulac-style Zebra.

No. 3: A third favorite of mine would have to be my 35-cm vintage lulac-style Zebra. Steiff’s lulac style animals have very long arms and legs and playful, joyful personalities and looks. This unusual Steiff zebra was produced in the ’50s. It is made of mohair and felt, and it has long dangling legs. In all my years of collecting Steiff, I have never seen this piece in any identification books, websites or articles. After consulting with many other Steiff enthusiasts, I am certain that this is an extraordinarily rare and uncataloged item! I adore him because he is so unique and mysterious, and also has such a sweet face and exaggerated long legs!

I love the thrill of the Steiff hunt. And, collecting rare pieces—such as this zebra—and learning more about them is certainly one of the highlights of my collecting experience.

WP: Those sound like such marvelous pieces and it is easy to understand why they would be among your favorites. How do you display your collection? Do you keep everything out at the same time, or do you rotate displays?

Ü-C: I currently devote one whole bedroom in my house to my Steiff collection. There, the majority of the items are displayed in a large glass cabinet. Overall, I tend to keep my rare and most precious pieces in this protective place to guard against dust and over handling. Select items are also placed throughout the house on shelves, dressers, bookcases and other surfaces. Every room of my house has several Steiff pieces amongst my décor. These are displayed year-round.

During special occasions, such as the holidays Frankhouser decorates her home with some of her favorite items.

During special occasions, such as the holidays, I really enjoy decorating my home with some of my favorite items. This sometimes means removing precious items from the glass cabinet. For example, at Halloween, several of my animals wear costumes or hats. At Easter, various animals wear bunny ears and hold eggs in their laps. During Christmas, I set up an artificial Christmas tree and tie strings around my tiny Steiff animals. This turns them into holiday ornaments and enables me to create a Steiff-themed Christmas tree. Each piece plays a specific part in creating a warm holiday atmosphere that I hope to continue for years to come!

I love to rotate different pieces when I change the décor in my house, that way I get to enjoy a new piece every time.

WP: Your home sounds like a wonderful living museum! How do you stay current with what is happening with Steiff and the Steiff collector’s world? Are there meetings or events you attend or publications or websites you regularly read?

Ü-C: The way I stay current in with Steiff is by constantly doing research. I own several Steiff identification and value guides, and I frequently review them so that I am prepared when considering purchasing new pieces for my collection. That way I know a good deal when I see one, and I can also help other collectors who may have questions or an interest in Steiff.

Besides literature, I actively seek out the friendship and advice of other Steiff collectors. We frequently share stories about our great finds and share photos with one another. It is amazing what all you can learn by talking with fellow collectors. And the Internet and e-mail has made this all so easy and possible. I have only been collecting for 15 years. To be able to connect with people who have been collecting for more than 30 years can give you extra insight and experience!

I am also really active with social media as a way to stay current. A huge way that I stay connected with Steiff collectors is by participating on the Steiff Facebook fan page. I also read Steiff websites and blogs, which are updated regularly and are a great way to learn about both new and vintage products.

I also am very involved with the “real life” Steiff community. I go to Steiff-sponsored trunk shows every spring and fall. At these events, Steiff reveals new line items. I also enjoy speaking with Steiff representatives there; they always update collectors on Steiff industry news. I am also a member of the Steiff USA club.

WP: It sounds like Steiff is a very important part of your life for sure. Would you please tell us a story about how you went out of your way to get a very special item for your Steiff collection?

Ü-C: When I was 9 years old, I wanted to purchase a small Steiff Jocko Chimpanzee at a local antique store. The monkey was so adorable, and at the time, I didn’t own anything like it in my collection. The minute I saw it, I was determined that I had to buy him. However, the monkey was very expensive and at the time, I only had a $3 allowance. Realistically, there was no way that I could buy the monkey under normal circumstances.

Wanting to encourage my interest for collecting, teach me how to manage money, and the meaning of being in debt, my mom arranged a lay-away play with the storeowner, a friend of hers. She negotiated a deal that would allow me to purchase the monkey in several small payments. I was to give the storeowner, $3 every week for as long as it took to pay off the monkey. In return, the owner would not sell the monkey to anyone else. I would be able to take the monkey home once the he was paid in full.

I worked very hard that summer to pay off my monkey. I had a lemonade stand every afternoon, and flagged down the UPS deliveryman and mailman to buy my lemonade. I would even try to sell my old toys at a garage sale. I created construction paper signs that read “Unite mom and monkey! Anything helps!” As you can probably tell, I was very determined to pay off my debt quickly so that I could finally bring my monkey home.

Frankhouser’s Jocko monkeys and Steiff wagons and scooters.

As the months past, I would write notes and deliver them to my monkey at the store. These would read something like, “Don’t worry monkey, mommy is working hard to pay you off so you can come home!” And to my surprise, the store owner’s son even wrote back “as the monkey,” saying how excited he was that I was adopting him and that he in return couldn’t wait to come home and live with me.

That experience is very important to me, even to this day. I so appreciate my UPS delivery man and mailman for buying my lemonade every day that summer, my mom for setting up the payment plan with the owner, and the owner’s son for sweetly writing to me as my monkey. I will never forget what an impact they all had on the purchase of my first Steiff monkey. That is a treasured story that I will never forget! I was a really determined girl and I was going to do any and everything to pay off that monkey quickly!

WP: What is the “holy grail” Steiff item you would love to add to your collection?

Ü-C: For me, this would have to be a vintage 8-foot tall, or life-sized or “studio” giraffe. I’ve always loved how realistic the studio giraffe appears, as well as its massive size and impressive height. The coloring and detail is absolutely breathtaking. I would love to arrange large Jocko chimps or Teddy bears on the giraffe’s back as if they were riding on him for a special display. The studio giraffe is an iconic, classic piece and loved by collectors of all ages and stages. Someday I’ll adopt my studio giraffe; that’s a promise!

WP: And it just sounds like you may have his display location already picked out in your home for sure! I have no doubt that someday soon you will be welcoming one to your Steiff hug.

Jenny, many, many thanks for your time and sharing your Steiff collection, enthusiasm, and passion with us!

Are you an über-collector? E-mail us at news@worthpoint.com and tell us about your collection and we may feature you and your collection in an upcoming article.

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

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