You Found a Vintage Teddy Bear! Now What Do You Do?
This long legged and lovely Steiff bear called “Zolac” from the mid-1960’s in good to very good condition was found in the salesroom of the United Federation of Doll Club’s annual meeting. He may value in the $300-500 range today.
Congratulations! You’ve just “adopted” a new vintage mohair Teddy bear. Perhaps he came to you through a garage sale find, a treasure from an antique store or show, an online purchase, or maybe you inherited him from a friend or family member. So what are the next steps in integrating him into your collection? Here are four basic things that I do as a collector every time I welcome a new cub into my hug.
Cleaning is really important for four main reasons. First, obviously, is appearance. Dirty items simply look worse and less cared for than clean ones, and dirt and dust “mats” down mohair. Second is structural integrity and longevity. Dirt and dust are not good for mohair or its cotton backing and can weaken the materials over time, possibly decreasing the item’s lifespan. Third, dirty mohair items also can attract moths and other bug pests, and everyone knows the havoc and sometimes irreversible damage these insect pests can create. And finally, when you bring a vintage item into your collection, you really don’t know most of the time the conditions in which it was loved, kept, or displayed in any of its previous lives – or what might be hidden in the mohair.
There are as many ways to clean an old mohair bear as there are collectors. Of course, if you have an exceptionally old, frail, damaged, or otherwise compromised bear, it is recommended that you have it cleaned by a professional who has experience with delicate items. Some bears are so old and worn that their mohair will literally disintegrate if moistened. The best way to make sure that this is not the case with your bear is to test the cleaning protocol on a small, hidden area on the back of its body.
Here’s the way I clean most mohair items in my collection:
- Remove as much surface dirt and dust as possible by shaking the item carefully yet vigorously. You don’t want to damage the item, so use common sense here. You will be surprised how much dust floats off of most items; even more tends to come off of long haired ones. If possible and practical, vacuum the item very gently and at a distance.
- Take a lint roller or a piece of wide packing tape and use the sticky surface to clean any felt or velvet surfaces on the bear. DO NOT get vintage felt or velvet even the slightest bit damp as it tends to discolor.
- Make a solution of about one cup warm tap water, one teaspoon of Woolite liquid detergent and one or two sprays of Oxyclean from its spray bottle. Stir this up; the water will turn slightly grey-cloudy.
- Dampen a white washcloth in the solution. Start at the bottom of the bear and dab its mohair down with the damp cloth. DO NOT soak the washcloth or the bear, this is a surface cleaning only! You’ll be surprised what comes of, so keep changing the place on the washcloth where you are rubbing, or you will be grinding old dirt into new places on your bear. Use white washcloths is so you can see the dirt that comes off your bear, and adjust the cleaning surface accordingly.
- Once you have given the bear a head to toe cleaning, take another clean white washcloth and rub the bear down once more, to remove any excess water, cleaning solution, or lingering dirt.
- Let the bear naturally air dry away from the sun and heat sources. Once it has dried, take a metal toothed pet brush and VERY GENTLY fluff him up. It is amazing what a difference this can make. However, if the bear sheds a lot of mohair during the comb fluffing – obviously stop the fluffing process immediately!
This c. 1909 Steiff Tumbling bear in very good condition was found on Craigslist. He may value in the $1,500-3,000 range today.
Once your bear is cleaned, it’s time to start thinking about identification. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not so much so. Start by looking for labels, marks, tags, and buttons on the bear. Labels can sometimes be found stitched to paw pads, in seams, on the body, or on or near the ears. Buttons or other branding may be located in the ears, under the arms, attached to the chest, or in other places as well. Some artists use flowers, shapes, and other symbols to identify their work. If you find something tangible, start googling it and see what comes up. Check a few sources to confirm your findings.
If you cannot find any IDs on your bear, look for special characteristics. These could include things like an unconventional eye treatment or other facial detailing like a felt tongue; an unusual body construction or seaming, or special paw pad or claw stitching patterns. Many 20th century Teddy bear manufacturers used distinctive nose stitching patterns to help set their bears apart from the competition. Google your bear’s finest features – using Google’s “image” search capabilities – and see if you can find a match.
Another way to identify bears is by using the “wisdom of the crowd.” For example, there are many toy and Teddy bear groups on online platforms like Facebook. These groups generally allow people to post finds on their sites and often a member of the group will respond with information – which may or may not be accurate. But, it’s a place to start, and continue on with the research process.
This late 1930’s era Steiff Doll Bear was found on eBay in 2014. He may value in the $200-400 range today due to his fair condition; ones in very good to excellent condition can sell for ten times that estimate.
Once you have identified your bear, the next step is to value it. It is important to note that something is worth what someone will pay for it, and prices for even the most collectible and desirable bears are all over the map. Value is also extremely dependent on condition, rarity, age, and that hard to describe “X” factor. That being said, there are several ways to get a very general ballpark idea of what your bear may be “worth.”
Of course, Worthpoint’s Worthopedia is a great place to start. Other sources include searching eBay’s sold listings of like items on this online channel, reviewing prices realized (not presale estimates!) of comparable bears at auction through auction aggregator websites like Liveauctioneers.com, Invaluable.com, and Proxibid.com, or going right to the websites of auction houses that specialize in toys and reviewing prices realized from previous sales events directly.
In the United States, Morphy Auctions and Bertoia Auctions – which are both known for their great general toy sales – list their catalogs with prices realized right on their websites, and are easy to navigate. In Europe, the same is true for the Teddy Dorado Auction House, Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion, Vectis, and Special Auction Services (SAS); these four German and English auctioneers are particularly well known for their Teddy bear sales. Other possible “valuation” options again include seeking the “wisdom of the crowd” on Facebook, contacting a professional specialist either in person or on line to value your bear, or taking it to an auction house for a general consultation.
It is critical to note here that a Teddy bear does not have to have a high financial “value” to still be an important or cherished part of any collection. As an auction professional, I review thousands of bears, dolls, and animals every year. No more than 5% of what I see or handle has any value more than $100. It is just the state of the marketplace today – and what makes “finds” so extraordinary – and exciting.
This late 1920’s Steiff Petsy bear was found in a storage unit in the southwestern United States. He may value in the $750-1,500 range today due to his fair condition; ones in very good to excellent condition can sell for ten times that estimate.
After your bear has been cleaned, identified, and valued, the last – and easiest step – is displaying him. Keep your bear as clean and dust free as possible, out of direct sunlight, and off of direct heat surfaces – such as radiators. Keep him out of the reach of pets, and as pet hair free as possible. If you are going to display him under glass, or sealed or in a doored cabinet, make sure he is 100% moisture free, and completely dry from cleaning. Trapped moisture can invite mold and other destructive forces. If you live in a very humid climate, consider getting a dehumidifier for your display room to protect your mohair treasures even further. Purchase and place unobtrusive “sticky style” moth and insect traps in and around your collection shelves, vitrines, and displays. Monitor these closely to make sure that your home is as insect free as possible to insure the long-term condition and integrity of your mohair items. And lastly, lavender sachets also are a good, but not foolproof, insect deterrent.
Editor’s note: Rebekah Kaufman wrote an article for us a few years ago on when to restore your stuffed animal treasure and when not to. Perhaps this article can answer more of your questions on what to do when you find a stuffed friend.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles. You can follow her blog, which focuses on vintage Steiff finds, Steiff antiquing and travel adventures, international Steiff happenings, and the legacy and history of the Steiff company at http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com. Sign up for her Steiff newsletter by contacting her directly at email@example.com.
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