You’ve just added a new treasure to your collection, and your gut tells you that there’s something special about it. Or perhaps you have had an unusual doll or Teddy bear for years, and have always wondered if it has any real financial value or an interesting backstory. Or maybe it’s time to figure out if that doll that your grandmother gave you – the one she said “was very expensive” – is truly that. One option to do so is to have a toy specialist review items like these. These professionals can work through auction houses, specialty stores, or professional organizations. Some work as independent freelancers. You can usually find them via an online search, via word of mouth from the Facebook community, or recommendations from auction houses, interest groups (like the United Federation of Doll Clubs – UFDC), specialty publications, or fellow collectors.
So do you need an appraisal, or simply an “identification and valuation,” of your item or items? There are several key differences between the two. An appraisal is a formal process that includes a precisely written document and an in-depth, physical, in-person inspection of the item being appraised. Appraisal documents capture the history of the item; its size, condition, and materials; photographic images; and recent sales data of comparable items, among other factors. Formal appraisals include several tiers of value estimates, may take weeks to complete, and can cost several hundred dollars or more, depending on the size and scope of the item or collection under review. Formal appraisals can be necessary for legal or insurance purposes, especially when the item or items under evaluation value in the five, six, or even seven digit range.
More casual conversations, often held at antique events or stores, during auction house “open house” happenings, fundraisers, or in-home walk-throughs, are actually “identification and valuations.” This means that a specialist looks over the item, asks a few questions, provides their best oral opinion on the highlights of the piece, and offers a possible value estimate range for the item, if it were to sell at auction. In the vast majority of cases, this is plenty of information for the customer, who is often simply seeking the age of the item, a few details about its history or design, and a ballpark resale value.
So just how does a specialist “identify and value” a vintage doll or Teddy bear? The process is very personal, and varies per expert, based on their experience and category specifics. But most specialists take the following five general categories into account in forming their opinions about items under review.
Specialists consider the initial appeal and presentation of the piece, compared to as it would have appeared when new. Does the item have playwear, or is it in pristine condition? How is the face? Does it have any known restoration? Does the piece have any fading, loose or sagging limbs or joints, insect damage, or other obvious structural issues such as cracks, “melting,” rips, tears, holes, weak seams, or bare patches, in the case of items made from plush? For dolls and dressed characters, are the clothes, footwear, and wig original? It is not unusual for a specialist to place their nose very close to an item and take a good hard sniff. They are checking for smoke and other odors that may indicate internal structural issues. Specialists will sometimes also use a black light to examine certain types of dolls; they are looking for nearly invisible hairline cracks, factures, or other damage (or repairs) that only can be seen under ultraviolet illumination. Clearly, the better the condition, the more interest a piece has now, or could have in the future.
Specialists look for the presence of manufacturer’s identifying marks. For dolls, the “permanent” ones these can appear etched, drawn, printed or molded on the head, back, and/or body, depending on the specifics of the brand. Dolls can also have hang tags or stickers, but these are often lot to time. For soft plush items, these often take the form of a sewn in tag or label on the foot or in a seam, or a distinctive button or other marker placed in the ear or body. Some companies, like Steiff, have used a great number of branding tools over the years, including a button in ear, ear tag, chest tag, rubber bracelet, US Zone tag, assorted hang tags, washing instruction tags, special store tags, and other forms of identification. The presence of IDs helps, but does not confirm, authenticity. It is just one piece in the overall evaluation puzzle.
Specialists consider an item’s internal and external materials, as these are often good clues to its age and relative rarity. Some dolls and plush models have been produced for decades, so it can be difficult to date them with accuracy. However, these designs often have subtle material or costume changes over time. Good specialists have a keen eye for these small differences and usually can use this information in context to help date any item to within a decade or so. For example, Steiff is famous for its beloved felt dolls, produced in the c. 1903-late 1920’s timeframe. For the most part, these were indeed made mostly or entirely from felt. However, during WWI when felt was rationed or unavailable for toy making purposes, the company made these dolls with linen limbs and/or bodies, depending on what materials were on hand.
Specialists look for those design features that define an item as relatively common, somewhat hard to find, or even a remarkable treasure. These things involve more obvious aesthetic details like an item’s eyes and mouth configurations, facial expression, hairdo or wig, and general body presentation. For some dolls, the hand shape and construction can make the difference between an everyday and an extraordinary example. For plush items, these details may include its facial and claw embroidery and other decorations including whiskers and accessories. They also include less obvious details like an item’s facial and/or body construction, type of seams, number of joints, stuffing materials, and presence or absence of a working voice, squeaker, or even a music box. Experienced toys specialists should be able to point out most design elements and explain what makes them interesting – or not – from the historical and pattern evolution perspectives.
Size can impact value for both larger and smaller items. In general, specialists place higher value on those items that appear in unusual, unconventional, or uncatalogued sizes. In some cases, ironically, the smaller the item the larger its collector’s appeal, and in turn, its value. This may be true in part for two reasons. First, smaller items were more likely used and loved by children as toys, and therefore very few in good or better condition are still in existence. And second, smaller items take up less space, which is attractive to many collectors. However, there are collectors for practically everything, and some like large or even mannequin sized dolls. These life-sized items often need true detective work to unearth their origins and design evolutions. In general, specialists consider size relative to rarity and value on an item-by-item basis.
With antique and vintage dolls and bears, as with every other type of collectible, something is “worth” what someone will pay for it more than anything else. However, having a specialist review a few of your vintage treasures is a solid way to get an informed perspective on their value as well learn something new about them as well. Who knows… your gut feeling might just be right and you do indeed have an exceptional treasure in your collection!
About the Author
Rebekah Kaufman is a third generation lifelong Steiff enthusiast. Her personal collection of vintage Steiff treasures numbers north of 1,200. Rebekah’s German grandmother kindled her love for the brand over four decades ago, and today Rebekah is the proud steward of many of her Oma’s Steiff treasures.
Rebekah’s passion became her vocation when she became the Steiff Club Manager for the North American division of Margarete Steiff GmbH in 2003. A few years later, in 2008, she changed jobs and was appointed to the position she holds today – that of Steiff’s North American archivist. In this role, she leads collector’s events around the country, authors most of the vintage related articles in the biannual Steiff Club Magazine, and authenticates and values vintage Steiff treasures on behalf of the company. In 2014, at James D. Julia Auctioneers in Fairfield, ME, she appraised and cataloged the largest and most important vintage Steiff collection to come to market ever in North America; the sale realized over half a million dollars. Since 2015, she has consulted with Morphy Auctions of Denver, PA as a Steiff and Fine Plush Expert where she identifies, values, and catalogs treasures for the company’s quarterly fine doll and Teddy bear auction events on an as needed basis. Rebekah owns and merchandises Steiffgal’s Vintage Museum Marketplace, the largest online vintage Steiff shop worldwide.
Rebekah’s blog, My Steiff Life, focuses on vintage Steiff finds, Steiff antiquing and travel adventures, international Steiff happenings, and the legacy and history of the Steiff company. It has been updated weekly since 2009 and can be found at http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com. Her book, Sassafrass Jones and Her Forever Friends ABCs, features vintage Steiff as an integral part of the storyline. It was co-authored by Cathleen Smith-Bresciani, a fellow Steiff enthusiast. The book, ISBN #978-0-578-15002-4, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Rebekah truly leads “The Steiff Life.”
See Rebekah chat LIVE with Ruby Lane in Orlando, Florida at the UFDC Convention in this seminar on Steiff’s Teddy Baby.
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