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Antique Teddy Bears: The Definitive Collector‘s Guide

Teddy bears have been cherished companions for children and adults alike since the early 20th century. Today, those earliest bears from the 1900s to 1930s are highly coveted collectibles, with some rare examples fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auction. In this definitive guide, I‘ll share my extensive knowledge as a collector and educator to teach you everything you need to know about antique teddy bears, including their history, how to identify and date them, what determines their value, and how to care for them.

The Origins of the Teddy Bear

The story of the teddy bear began in 1902 when President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt famously refused to shoot a helpless bear on a hunting trip in Mississippi. The incident was immortalized in a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, published in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902.

Inspired by the cartoon, Brooklyn candy shop owner Morris Michtom and his wife Rose created a small plush bear in honor of the president. They called it "Teddy‘s bear" and put it in the shop window, where it immediately attracted attention. The Michtoms went on to found the Ideal Toy Company to mass-produce teddy bears, which quickly became a national craze.

Meanwhile, around the same time in Germany, Margarete Steiff‘s nephew Richard Steiff designed a soft stuffed bear based on sketches he made at the Stuttgart Zoo. Margarete, who had been making stuffed animals since the 1880s, debuted the toy bear at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903, where an American buyer for George Borgfeldt & Co. placed a large order.

The popularity of teddy bears exploded in the following years. By 1907, both the Steiff company in Germany and Ideal in America were manufacturing over 1 million bears per year. American firms like E.I. Horsman and Gund and British toy makers including J.K. Farnell also started producing teddy bears to meet public demand.

Identifying Antique Teddy Bears by Maker

The most sought-after antique teddy bears are those made by well-known early manufacturers like Steiff, Ideal, Bing, Schuco, and Farnell. Each company‘s bears have unique characteristics that can aid in identification.

Steiff Bears

Steiff bears are known for their high quality materials and craftsmanship. Key identifiers of early Steiff bears include:

  • A metal "underscored button" with the Steiff name in the left ear (pre-1905 bears don‘t have this)
  • Long, narrow limbs and a humped back
  • Distinctively shaped feet in a trapezoid shape
  • Mohair fur in golden, white, or brown
  • Glass eyes (sometimes with lids)
  • Excelsior stuffing

Some of the rarest and most valuable Steiff bears include the rod-jointed models from 1905-1907 and their largest 50cm+ models.

Ideal Bears

Ideal bears were the first mass-market American teddy bears. You can identify an early Ideal bear by:

  • A label on the chest that says "Teddy Bear" along with the Ideal name, often with a date
  • The long, skinny arms and legs with felt paw pads
  • Triangle-shaped nose stitched on a center seam
  • Glass or shoe button eyes
  • Thick gold or brown mohair

The rarest Ideal bears are their early "Roosevelt Bears" made in 1906-07 with extra long limbs and large 20-35" sizes.

Other Makers

Here are quick identification tips for some other prominent early teddy bear brands:

  • Bing (Germany): Label on foot or back, narrow bead eyes, thick curly mohair
  • Schuco (Germany): Underscored button in ear, prominent muzzle, slotted eyes
  • Farnell (UK): Lighter mohair, rounded ears, boot button eyes, large feet
  • Chad Valley (UK): Label or embroidery on foot pad, center-seamed nose, glass eyes

Dating Antique Teddy Bears

Being able to estimate the age of an antique teddy bear is an essential skill for collectors. You can roughly date a bear by the materials and style:

  • 1900s-1910s: Very long, narrow limbs, hump back, mohair or felt, excelsior filling, glass eyes
  • 1920s: Slightly more rounded shape, mohair or alpaca fur, wood wool or kapok stuffing, glass eyes
  • 1930s-1940s: Shorter, chunkier limbs, mohair or wool plush, wood wool stuffing, painted or glass eyes
  • 1950s-1960s: Synthetic plush, plastic nose/eyes, foam stuffing, less detailed features

Of course, the most definitive way to date an antique teddy bear is by its label or tag, if present. But many bears have lost their tags over the years. Condition also comes into play – a bear may look older than it is if heavily worn.

Antique Teddy Bear Materials

Early teddy bears were made with natural materials that were quite different from modern synthetic plush and polyester fill. The main elements of antique bears are:

  • Mohair plush: A silky, slightly curly woven fabric made from Angora goat hair. Early mohair came in shades of gold, white, brown, and honey. Alpaca, wool plush, and felt were also used.

  • Excelsior stuffing: Fine wood shavings that give early bears a firm, crunchy texture. Wood wool (longer shavings) and kapok (fluffy plant fibers) were other early stuffing materials.

  • Glass eyes: Early bears usually have realistic glass eyes in amber or black, sometimes with eyelids. Shoe button eyes were also used. Later bears have plastic or painted eyes.

  • Embroidered nose: Early bear noses are formed by stitched threads, often in a triangular shape. Later bears have molded or stitched-on plastic noses.

  • Felt paw pads: Paw pads on early bears are made of cotton or wool felt, often blanket-stitched around the edges. By the 1960s, paw pads were often molded rubber or plastic.

High quality natural materials like long pile mohair, soft cotton felt pads, and clear glass eyes are signs of an expensive early teddy bear. Mass-market bears used cheaper materials like short mohair or synthetic plush.

The Most Valuable Antique Teddy Bears

Some of the most expensive teddy bears ever sold at auction include:

  1. Steiff Louis Vuitton Bear (2000) – Sold for $182,550 in Monaco in 2000, this 1907 bear made for the Vuitton family is the most expensive teddy bear on record.

  2. Steiff "Titanic Mourning Bear" (1912) – One of 600 black bears made to memorialize the Titanic disaster, a rare surviving example sold for $136,000 in 2000.

  3. Steiff "Harlequin" Bear (1925) – Made in small numbers with unique multi-colored patches of mohair, a 1925 Harlequin sold at Christie‘s in 1994 for £91,750 ($141,000).

  4. Steiff "Teddy Roosevelt" Bear (1905) – A red mohair Steiff bear owned by the Roosevelt family sold for $76,700 in 1998.

  5. Steiff "Elliot" Bear (1908) – One of the largest Steiff models at 32 inches, an Elliot bear sold for $74,000 at Christie‘s in 1993.

While these are extreme examples, even more common antique teddy bears may sell for hundreds or a few thousand dollars, depending on their maker, size, condition, and rarity.

Factors That Determine Value for Antique Teddy Bears

The main factors that affect an antique teddy bear‘s value are:

  • Age: All else being equal, bears from the 1900s-1920s are the most valuable, especially those made before 1910. Condition issues are expected in bears this old.

  • Maker: Certain makers like Steiff and Ideal are always in demand. Other collectible names are Bing, Schuco, Farnell, Knickerbocker, and Merrythought.

  • Size: Very big bears (28" or more) and miniature bears under 7" tend to be more valuable than common 12-24" bears due to their rarity.

  • Color: Some colors of mohair like white, black, and cinnamon are rarer and more sought-after than the typical gold or brown.

  • Condition: Bears in excellent condition with minimal wear, no bald spots or holes, and bright eyes will be worth much more than "well-loved" bears. But some wear is expected in 100-year-old toys.

  • Rarity: Some models or limited edition artist bears are very rare and command high prices from collectors. Especially unusual designs are also appealing.

  • Provenance: A teddy bear with an interesting history and previous celebrity ownership will be more valuable than a comparable no-name bear. Documentation helps prove historical claims.

Here is a rough value guide for antique mohair teddy bears in good condition:

Brand Years Size (inches) Mohair Color Value Range
Steiff Pre-1910 12-15 Gold $2000-$5000
Steiff Pre-1910 20+ White $5000-$20,000
Ideal Pre-1920 15-20 Gold or Brown $500-$2500
Other German Pre-1930 10-15 Gold or Brown $300-$1000
Other American Pre-1940 12-24 Blonde or Brunette $100-$500

Of course, rare models in exceptional condition may be worth much more. It‘s best to have valuable antique teddy bears appraised by an expert. Museums and auction houses like Christie‘s, Sotheby‘s, and Morphy‘s regularly evaluate teddy bears for collectors.

Caring for Antique Teddy Bears

Antique teddy bears require special care to preserve them for future generations. Here are some expert tips for caring for your teddy treasures:

  • Keep bears out of direct sunlight, which can fade their fur. Display behind UV-blocking glass or acrylic cases.
  • Avoid touching bears with dirty hands. Oils and dirt from skin can attract pests and damage fur. Wear gloves if needed.
  • Do not wash antique bears, as it can permanently damage their fur and stuffing. Use a soft brush to gently remove dust.
  • Store bears in archival quality, acid-free boxes when not on display. Avoid plastic bags or containers.
  • If you must repair damage, consult a professional teddy bear restorer. Improper fixes can devalue bears.
  • Antique bears are not toys. Handle gently and keep away from children and pets.

With proper storage and cleaning, antique teddy bears can last for many more decades. And their value will likely only go up over time.

Why We Love Antique Teddy Bears

What is it about antique teddy bears that makes them so irresistible? Perhaps it‘s their simple, endearing faces and soft, cuddly bodies. Or maybe it‘s the nostalgia – the idea that these bears were once beloved childhood companions a century ago.

There‘s just something undeniably charming about a well-worn teddy bear that no other toy can match. Even the word "bear" sounds comforting. For children, teddy bears represent unconditional love and security. But even for adults, antique bears evoke warm, fuzzy feelings and fond memories.

In a way, collecting antique teddy bears allows one to preserve a little piece of childhood innocence for generations. They represent a simpler, sweeter time. And for over 100 years, that comforting appeal has never gone out of style.

"There is no object which is quite so comforting to a child as a teddy bear. Scruffy and worn means nothing to a child; it merely indicates that this is a teddy who has been loved by someone."
-Pam Hebbs, former Steiff teddy bear expert at Christie‘s South Kensington

To adult collectors, antique teddy bears are a form of art, history, and investment in one irresistible package. To love teddy bears is to love their story – how two toy makers on different continents almost simultaneously created an icon that would last more than a century. And how the public continues to adore these snuggly little bruins after all these years.

So if you have an antique teddy bear, cherish it and care for it well. It is a priceless heirloom rich with history, as well as a loyal lifelong friend. It is a lasting connection to the childhoods of the past and a gift to the children of the future. And that‘s why antique teddy bears will always be the ultimate collectible.