A Tiny Classic Steiff Design with a Big Identification Mystery

A Steiff wollie raven made at the Steiff factory in the 1960s (left) is compared with a version of the woolie raven made by a third-party manufacturer in 1982-83 (right). There some obvious differences.

Every enthusiast has extra-special items in their collections—certain items that just take a gold medal for their rarity, design or the story behind them. Here is one of those treasures from my hug of more than 800 vintage Steiff collectibles.

The Item:
Edgar Allen Poe’s raven is famous for exclaiming “Nevermore!” Could he have been unknowingly referring to the demise of one of Steiff’s most beloved and classic designs? Read on to find out!

What we have here is a Steiff Woll-Rabe or Woolen Raven. This happy handful is one of Steiff’s beloved “woolies” or woolen miniatures. Raven is 8 centimeters tall and made from wool. He is head jointed and has red plastic legs and feet. Raven is detailed with three black felt tail feathers, a prominent red felt beak, and plastic google-style black and white eyes. This raven’s small, red and yellow cardboard “Steiff” tag stitched into his rear confirm his manufacture in the 1983 through 1984 time frame—but much more about that later!

The legs of the original woolie raven had always been made from red-painted metal until 1971, when they were made from red injection-molded plastic. Regardless, the all sported a long, thin yellow linen Steiff tag and wrapped this around their woolen miniature birds’ legs like an ankle bracelet.

Raven’s history and design legacy:
Steiff launched its woolen miniature line to the world with the introduction of a series of simple birds and rabbits in 1931. These tiny collectibles proved to be an immediate sensation for many reasons, including their relatively low price point, precious and playful good looks, and small footprint (literally!). Steiff quickly expanded this line to include many zoo, farm, and household animals, as well as more specific breeds of birds. In 1935, Steiff introduced an 8-cm raven wearing a red felt hood. This identical raven design, sans hood, appeared in the line from 1938 through 1943.

When the factory reopened for business in the late 1940s after the Second World War, the company once again began producing the pre-war pattern woolen raven as part of its general line from 1949 through 1984. The design really didn’t change over time except for one key feature: in 1971, the legs—which had always been made from red-painted metal—were now made from red injection-molded plastic. This is one way that collectors can help to narrow down the production timeframe of their Steiff woolie ravens.

Regardless of date of production, the ravens—like all other woolen miniature birds—had a standard Steiff identification configuration. Of course, birds don’t have external ears, so a traditional metal Steiff “button in ear” was out of the question. To get around this, Steiff created a long, thin yellow linen tag and wrapped this around their woolen miniature birds’ legs like an ankle bracelet. It was finished and cinched with a tiny Steiff button. This was the case until 1983 for its final production run of the beloved woolie ravens.

The mystery:
So what’s going on here? All Steiff items leaving the Giengen, Germany, factory after 1904 were branded with a metal button (with the exception of a handful of teeny, tiny items, including a woolie ladybug and baby hedgehog—neither of which had any place whatsoever for branding.) But this woolen raven has a tiny Steiff red and yellow cardboard tag, and never had a button. That’s certainly different. But, if you look closely at a Steiff woolie raven produced in the 1960s and compare it with this one from 1983-84 under discussion, you will also notice a few subtle, and not so subtle material and quality differences as well. These include:

• The yarn: the yarn used in the 1960s version is tight and compact and holds its shape; the yarn used in the 1983-84 version is of far a inferior quality and separates into strands;

• The density of the body: the body of the 1960s version is solid and has a firmness to it; the body of the 1983-84 version “scrunches” when it is squeezed. And even more telling: the 1960s version weighs 9 grams while the 1983-84 version weighs in at a third of that at 3 grams;

• Body shape: the body of the 1960s version is well rounded and the head is clearly differentiated from the torso; the body of the 1983/84 version is far less shapely without a differentiated head;

• Other details: the 1960s version has a curved beak with careful airbrushing details and high quality, seamless eyes; the 1983-84 version has a generic, straight beak, plain highlighting and plastic molded eyes.

Given that Steiff has a well-deserved reputation for quality control and producing world-class products finished with buttons, what do all these significant differences mean? Through research, and additional consulting with Carsten Esser, the auctioneer at Teddy Dorado in Germany and a European expert in Steiff identification and valuation, it became apparent that this particular woolen miniature was NOT manufactured by the Steiff Company, but sold by them.

Here’s the backstory. In the early 1980s, Steiff came to the business decision that its woolen miniature line was too expensive and labor intensive to maintain. So management looked into different ways to continue producing these beloved legacy items in a more efficient way. The company decided to try outsourcing these items to a third party manufacturer to save costs. Because the miniatures were not actually made by Steiff, or in a Steiff sanctioned facility, they couldn’t have the “official” and expected Steiff button and yellow bracelet branding—thus the red and yellow cardboard tags. The results were unsatisfactory and resulted in products like this raven under discussion today: totally inferior on all accounts with questionable identification markers. After two years of trying to get it right, Steiff stopped the outsourcing—and distribution —of all woolen miniatures in 1984.

Rebekah Kaufman on the difference between Steiff ‘wolly” ravens.

Even though it has been close to 30 years since their production, Steiff’s woolen miniatures remain extremely popular with collectors all over the world. This is particularly true in Europe, where they frequently become part of traditional Christmas and Easter mantle and tabletop displays. Unusual and rare pre-war woolies with Steiff identification can sell for four big figures; at the 2010 Steiff auction at Christies in London a standing Steiff woolie rabbit congratulator sold for $3,364, while a woolie Puss in Boots sold for $3,562. On the other side of the coin, post war woolies—usually found without ID—are extremely common on the secondary market and do most often sell in the $20 to $80 range, depending on the age, rarity and condition of the item.

That all being said, things are worth what someone will pay for them. It is my best guestimate that here in the United States:

• An “outsourced” Steiff woolen miniature raven with his yellow and red mini Steiff tag may value in the $15 to $30 range;
• A “real” Steiff postwar woolen miniature raven in good or better condition with its linen tag and Steiff button may value in the $40 to $50 range;
• A pre-war Steiff woolen miniature raven in good or better condition with its linen tag and Steiff button may value in the $300 to $600 range. This value would increase by 25 to 50 percent for a pre-war Steiff woolen miniature raven that retained its original red felt hood.

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

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