The Great Restoration Debate: Steiff Teddy Bears and Stuffed Animals
This early post-World War Two mohair Steiff Teddy Baby doesn’t have any personal history or significant financial value, but his brilliant color and unusual arrangement of Steiff IDs make him quite rare. As a result, I had him cleaned, his felt foot paw pads recovered and his nose restitiched by a professional restorer.
Of course, every collector’s fantasy is to find their dream piece in pristine condition for $10 at a garage sale next door—that’s what reality television shows are for—but we all know that the reality of that happening is about equal to the odds of winning the lottery twice on the same day.
The truth is that most antique and vintage finds are not in perfect condition, and that is especially true when it comes to older Steiff treasures. After all, these stuffed animals and other toys were originally designed for fun and play—which takes its toll on condition for sure. One question that continually comes up in the collector’s community is whether it is “worth it” to have an item restored. So let’s take a look at restoration from a few perspectives, so you can decide for yourself.
First of all, what exactly is restoration? The definition can vary from person to person, or location to location. For the sake of this conversation we mean bringing your Steiff Teddy bear, doll or animal back as closely to the original condition in which it left the factory in Giengen, Germany many years ago. So this would mean repairing holes or damage, replacing footpads, whiskers or eyes, restitching facial or claw features, restuffing limbs, and the like. It would not mean purely vanity changes like dying a white bear brown or inserting a music box into an item that originally did not have one.
Restoration by nature comes with two key questions. The first is value. Does restoring an item increase, decrease or have no change on its market value? The second is purity, for lack of a better word. Does restoration subtract from the purity and authenticity of an item?
Issues of value are easier to address. It has been my observation that if an item is truly professionally restored, that it usually retains its value or even actually increases it a bit in a few cases. This, of course, assumes full disclosure on the part of the seller, and a very well-done restoration. A very high-quality restoration is especially important if there is damage on an item’s face, as many people judge Steiff items first on their appeal from the neck up. If the restoration is poorly done, this may in fact decrease the sales price of any given item, as it looks bad and may require re-restoration, which is always risky.
This 1905-era Steiff Teddy bear is not terribly rare but he came with a complete family history and was a bit of a financial investment. He just needed a professional cleaning and a little excelsior stuffing in his arms and legs to bring him back to his almost like-new condition.
Now for purity. Many Steiff collectors prefer their items exactly “as found.” Some won’t even lightly clean an item for surface dirt or dust, as these elements are considered part of the character of the item. Others are OK with repairs or cleaning that improves or stabilizes an item’s longevity, durability or appearance. Purity is very subjective, and really comes down to the priorities and interests of collectors on a case-by-case basis.
So, say a collector comes across a delightful, vintage Steiff bear, but the paw pads are in poor condition, it has lost its nose stitching and it does not have its Steiff button. “Open wound” structural damage on the paw pads is a key issue for several reasons. This kind of damage can invite further problems and insect infestation; it also makes the bear more fragile overall. And slightly less important is that it is less attractive to a certain segment of potential future buyers. The nose stitching issue is less critical and much more cosmetic. However, it is a basic and inexpensive update that can add significant “curb appeal” to an item if done correctly and you are comfortable with it. As for the loss of the Steiff button, there is nothing that can be done about that. The Steiff Company has never sold replacement buttons. It is considered unethical to replace or substitute a Steiff ear button on an item—Steiff or not.
There are two points of view when it comes to dealing with condition issues on vintage Steiff items, like those noted in the example above.
The first is to just let it be. Some collectors like things in their original, authentic condition and shun any repairs at all. They suggest correctly that the wear and tear on the item is all part of its history and legacy. They believe that any restoration at all is a large strike against the item. If they were to sell the item in the future, they figure that the next owner can make repairs if they are so inclined.
The second is to get the item professionally restored. This will not be attractive to some collectors, as mentioned above, but there are those that believe that such repairs can in a practical way add years to the life of the item, as well as bring the item back as close as possible to its original state.
If any repairs are done, it is critical to document them with the item’s history and give full disclosure of these restorations in any future transaction concerning the item. It is also important to note that both of these options are completely valid and are simply a matter of personal choice.
This late-’40s silk plush Steiff Teddy Baby doesn’t have any personal history or significant financial value, but his eyes, detailing and materials make him quite desirable from a collector’s perspective. As a result, I had his foot seams reinforced and his broken arm joints replaced so he could once again have full flexibility.
So what to do? Here are three things that I think about when considering potential restoration for any Steiff item:
• History: If the item has a long family history with you—or you know the provenance of the item, which has personal or historical interest—and you want to insure that the item is around for the next several generations, consider structural restoration for its longevity.
• Economics: If the item itself is quite financially valuable to start with, regardless of your personal connection to it, consider essential restorations to at least stabilize the item’s condition. This, in turn should help retain, and in some cases grow, its value over time.
• Rarity: If the item is quite rare, and there is little or no chance of you finding another one in better condition, perhaps consider some structural restorations. If the item is relatively common, and does not have personal history or great value, you may want to think about upgrading with another example instead of restoration.
And finally, who should you contact about Steiff restoration if you indeed chose this option? Plush restoration in general is a solo craft profession, with many restorers working on items in their own home workshops. To reach one of these professionals in your area or region, ask for referrals from collector friends or contacts, or post requests on social media communities like Facebook or other specialty forums.
There are also a number of “Teddy Bear Hospitals” out there. Just Google “teddy bear repair” or “teddy bear hospital” to see if there is facility near you. And, yes, the Steiff Company itself runs what is called the “Teddy Bear Clinic & Spa” right on grounds of the Steiff Museum in Germany. This restoration service offers soup to nuts offerings to bring any Steiff item back to clean and fine form. To learn more about the clinic, visit its website.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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