What you see: A Steiff PB28 rod bear, measuring 15 and 3/4 inches tall and created circa 1903 or 1904. Auction Team Breker estimates it at €6,000 to €9,000, or roughly $6,600 to $9,900.
The expert: Nick Hawkins, U.K. representative for Auction Team Breker, on behalf of founder Uwe Breker.
Could we start by discussing how the idea of the teddy bear came about, and how Steiff decided to produce teddy bears? Steiff had already been in existence for several years [when it made its first teddy bear]. In 1880, it made the first soft toy, an elephant. Bear toys existed for a long time before that–carved bears from the Black Forest region, and automaton bears, but they were not cuddly. Bear toys were not new [in the early 20th century] but jointed soft toy bears were new, and Steiff pioneered them.
Was the story of President Theodore Roosevelt declining to shoot a bear cub while hunting in 1902 an inspiration for Steiff to create soft, jointed teddy bears? Yes, I know that story. How true it is, I’m not sure. Interestingly, the name “Teddy” attached to the bear after 1903. The earliest [Steiff bears] were not known as teddy bears.
So the creation of the Steiff teddy bears and the timing of the Roosevelt hunting trip was a coincidence? I think maybe it was a happy coincidence, you could say. The first Steiff bear was string-jointed, in 1902, and was called 55PB, with the “PB” standing for “Plush Bear”. [The Theodore Roosevelt Association discusses the origin story of the teddy bear on its website, and Steiff makes an appearance.}
And none of the string-jointed Steiff teddy bears are thought to survive, yes? I’m reluctant to say there are no survivors. It’s possible somewhere in America or Europe there’s a disjointed bear, or a bear that started life as a string bear.
Let’s also take a minute to talk about Germany’s reputation as a toy-making nation in the early 20th century. I’m under the impression that partly because it was home to Steiff and Marklin, Germany was tops in the world. There was always competition between France and Germany, but France was in decline in 1900 and Germany was in ascendance. German toymakers were very innovative during this period, making more childlike dolls and character dolls. A similar thing happened with bears. They made soft toys children wanted to hold, not expensive dolls that children had to be supervised [during play], as with French toys. Steiff and Marklin are still there and are very, very conscious of their history and identity as iconic German products. They have reproduced certain models in limited editions.
How do we know this Steiff teddy bear was made in 1903 or 1904? The rod bears were only produced for around two years, from 1903 to 1905. This one has no Steiff button in his ear. The buttons came in in 1903. It’s possible this bear had one early on and the button was removed, but there are no characteristic holes [that provide evidence there was once a button]. That’s our indication of the dating on this.
Is it possible to know how many rod bears Steiff produced from 1903 to 1905? It’s possible, if you go to Steiff, there are records, but sadly, we don’t have access to them. This is the only one Auction Team Breker has handled. I’ve personally handled and seen around 15 to 20, but I’m sure there are more than that.
But the Steiff PB28 rod bear isn’t common, correct? It is a rare item. It’s definitely not a common one. And it’s an iconic Steiff bear. String-jointed bears aren’t known to survive. If you want the first model of Steiff bear, it’s this one.
The plush on this Steiff teddy bear is described as pale gold. Did the Steiff PB28 rod bear come in other colors? And is pale gold one of the more rare colors? There were other colors as well–dark golden mohair, blond mohair, apricot mohair. I think there is less of pale gold than light blonds. Pale gold does not turn up as much. Apricot is a rare color, and black is incredibly rare. Dark gold, light gold, blond, they do turn up.
What do we know about the provenance of this Steiff teddy bear? The anecdotal history from the family in France [who consigned it] is that it was left at the house during the occupation by a German soldier [in the 1940s, during World War II]. Like most stories from 80 years ago, you can’t verify them or contradict them. There’s no reason to contradict it, but you have to accept it with a pinch of salt.
So this Steiff teddy bear has never been to auction before? No. The Auction Team Breker sale is its first time at auction.
I apologize if this is a silly question, but did the consigning family have a name for the Steiff teddy bear? Not that we know of.
I notice that as we speak, we don’t call the bear “it”, we call it “him”… Yes! It’s funny. With dolls and things, people do that.
What condition is the Steiff teddy bear in? He’s in great condition, but there are things that have been repaired or changed on him. The felt pads [on his paws] have been reinforced, and the original pads are underneath. Paw felt wears quickly. It’s probably one of the most common repairs. It’s lucky to have the originals under the replacements. It will be the decision of the future buyer to remove them and restore the originals or accept [the repairs] as part of his history. He’s also missing his original nose. He had a gutta-percha nose. It was one of the earliest forms of plastic. When it was new, it was a malleable material, but over time, it became brittle. The nose is now stitched, with wool or silk thread. It’s very, very hard to find one with a gutta-percha nose. I’ve seen one at auction.
The Steiff PB28 rod bear was made for children to play with. What forms of wear are visible on this bear, and what forms of wear are considered acceptable in a Steiff teddy bear of this vintage? I think teddy bear collectors are quite forgiving. These things were loved at the time and had a hard life. So often, you find bears that have been hugged so much that they’re bald in places. This bear was lucky. It has some thin patches, but most bears do.
Thin patches? They normally turn up where a teddy bear has been hugged.
This is a rod bear, which means it has rods inside its limbs that make it posable. Do the rods still work smoothly and easily? The rods survive very well. He’s still moveable as originally intended. He’s clearly a poseable bear.
What is this Steiff PB28 rod bear like in person? I think he definitely has character, and quite an appealing expression. He’s helped by the fact that his fur is quite bright and in good condition. He presents very well.
How does this Steiff PB28 rod bear compare to others that you’ve handled? I think he compares very well. He’s been looked after. He’s not pristine, but he’s definitely one of the better ones.
What is the world auction record for a Steiff teddy bear? It’s Teddy Girl, which sold in 1994 at Christie’s for £110,000, hammer price [the raw price, before adding the buyer’s premium. That sum roughly translates to $141,400 in contemporary dollars.]
Why will this Steiff teddy bear stick in your memory? Because it came to Auction Team Breker from a kind of odd way from France. It was a German bear, in France, which came back to Germany. It’s an interesting story. And it’s a rod bear, and if you meet him in person, he has a nice character. Rod bears have a really specific look. It has an almost triangular-shaped face and really long paws. If you see it in profile, you know it’s a rod bear. It makes up the special character of these bears.
How to bid: The Steiff rod bear is lot 0163 in the Mechanical Music, Science & Technology, Toys & Automata sale at Auction Team Breker in in Koeln, Germany on November 9, 2019.
Auction Team Breker has a website.
The folks at Auction Team Breker appeared on The Hot Bid once before, talking about a gorgeous, steampunk-looking Malling-Hansen writing ball, an early typewriter. It went on to sell for the equivalent of $111,600.
Images are courtesy of Auction Team Breker.
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