How to Collect Steiff Toy Animals
Steiff is a German toy company, well regarded for their high-quality stuffed toys made for children and collectors alike. The company’s founder was Margarete Steiff, who originally made elephant-shaped pincushions that she sold to friends. The pincushions were quite a hit, and soon found their way into the hands of children who played with them as toys. She then started making other animals and eventually founded the Steiff company in 1880.
Steiff is known for its impeccable and realistic detail put into every design. The company prides itself in its handwork; most of the line is still made by hand, with the most collectible animals made of natural fibers such as mohair and alpaca.
The older Steiff pieces are coveted by collectors, but it isn’t enough to merely buy a Steiff animal simply because it looks old. Since each piece is made by hand, there are subtle variations between animals, even if the same model and type. There are some things to look for to help you choose a truly collectable piece:
What to Look For When Collecting Steiff Animals
1. Realism - Steiff animals have expression, the eyes are open and bright, with light shading or airbrush detailing around them to create a sense of emotion. The expression for a rabbit, for example, might be pensive and shy, while a dog’s might be gruff, playful or exuberant depending on its breed. Pick an animal that seems alive with expression. Additionally, the eyes should be well-placed and not crooked in the head.
2. Craftsmanship and Materials – You’ll notice that seams “melt away” and are hardly noticeable; a great deal of attention is paid to either making seams disappear or if that is not possible, making seams part of the design, as if the animals fur would look that way in nature. For example, the mohair section between a rabbit’s eyes might be lightly dyed from nose to ears, as you might find a cotton-tailed wild rabbit to appear. This clever trick hides the seaming of the mohair section that would otherwise distract from the beauty of the rabbit’s face. Note that some older animals, particularly those made of cotton velvet, will show seams, however the stitching is very small and doesn’t distract from the look of the animal. The materials used in making the animal feels lush to the touch, even the older ones have this quality. Mohair used in tails of certain animals, like the fox or squirrel, is fuller than the body. Make sure that the animal stands or sits upright and doesn’t fall over. Steiff animals generally are well-balanced and sit or stand the way you would expect the real animal to sit or stand.
3. Design and Details – You’ll find that not all Steiffs are made of mohair, some are made of quality cotton or felt, and details on mohair animals, such as ears or footpads, are made of coordinating natural fabrics. Look at the smaller features of the animal – its ears, tail, pads, or horns. What are they made of and how are they attached? The small mouse, for example, has white felt ears with a touch of pink inside, an interesting and thoughtful detail that exemplifies an excellent design. Likewise, the mouse’s felt hands and feet have tiny fingers and toes delicately snipped into the felt. Be sure to check the animal’s nose, too. If it is stitched, make sure that it is carefully and smoothly stitched; you should not be able to detect loose threads or knots.
4. Variety – Dogs, cats and of course teddy bears remain high on the collector’s list of desirable Steiffs. At some point in your collecting, you will want to choose a theme. Perhaps you’ll collect only teddy bears under 10” tall, for example, or maybe dogs are your “thing.” But take a moment to consider the other animals in Steiff’s vast assortment. Some of the more obscure animals that weren’t runaway best sellers when first introduced are now actually quite desirable by collectors, in large part because of their rarity. Collecting a variety of different animals may also give you another perspective to Steiff that you may find appealing. For example, it may open up new ways to display your collection that you hadn’t thought of.
5. Button-in-Ear and Pendants – In older collectibles, you may find that neck pendants (made of cardstock) or even the button-in-ear are missing, which may or may not lower value, depending on the rarity of the piece and its age. Button-in-ear didn’t appear in Steiff animals until 1904, and the neck pendants didn’t appear until 1926. One way to check to see if the animal is truly a Steiff and not another manufacturer; is to purchase one of Gunther Pfeiffer Steiff Sortiment books, which cover the years 1892-1943, or 1947-1999. These resource books (mine are in German) show all the animals in the collection. Or, for animals newer than 1904, look for evidence that the button was once attached in the animal’s left ear - a very small hole in the ear, for example. For an animal with button-in-ear and pendant attached, check the tags to make sure they are yellow or white. In general, the white ear tag is used for limited editions or replica Steiffs, and yellow is for the regular, unlimited lines. The Steiff name will always be on the ear tag. What if you see an animal with a yellow ear tag and a white pendant? Well, that it means that the animal is a replica of an older Steiff, and that the replica is of unlimited run. See Resources for an excellent article describing the ear tag types.
White Tag Collectibles - Limited Edition Steiff Animals
Many Steiff enthusiasts buy only the “white tag” Steiffs. These are the ones with the white button-in-ear, and are produced in limited editions. Many will try to find the lowest number in any given edition and happily scoop it up, take it home, and place their find on the nearest shelf. I take a moment to consider the animal on its own merits – the eyes, facial expression, stance, posture, general appeal, overall design and craftsmanship, and the all-important whimsy factor. For example, the very big Teddy Boy bear that I purchased in Germany had that sense of whimsy by virtue of his abundant size and exceeding sweet expression. He may not be the lowest numbered in the edition, but he certainly has the nicest face and best demeanor!
Synthetic Plush Steiff
Some Steiff animals are made of synthetic plush, still made in Germany and still of amazing quality and realistic detail. For whatever reason, most of these toys don’t seem to have the appeal to most adult collectors as do the mohair and natural fiber animals. They are still a fine children’s toy for a special child, but why not view them as a fun and not-too-expensive addition to a collection?
My recommendation is to simply buy what appeals to you, keeping into consideration the general thoughts on craftsmanship, appeal, design, and whimsy factor.
Steiff Museum, Germany
When visiting Germany, you can take a tour of the Steiff Museum
Steiff Button in Ear Information - information about the ear tags
Manufacturing in China
For a time, Steiff manufactured a small portion of its animals in China. The company ended up pulling up stakes in that country after Mattel had quality control issues there. In 2009, I purchased a “keychain’ type Steiff teddy bear that was made in China, but the quality was not so good. Always check the yellow ear tag for the words “made in Germany” when selecting a collectible animal.
Final Thoughts and a Bit of Advice About Collecting
If you decide to collect Steiff animals, start by purchasing an animal that you like and can easily afford. Though it will likely still be a splurge, you will feel best about starting your collection with something that doesn’t break the budget. As you learn more about what you like and about how to distinguish an animal’s age, rarity, and quality, you can move up to larger purchases. Regional Teddy Bear and toy shows are good starting points, because you can see what you are purchasing up-close. Auctions are also good ways to find Steiffs, but it is easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment. Purchasing through on-line auctions are my least favorite way to buy Steiff animals because it’s hard to determine quality. I’ve also purchased some smelly animals that way, unfortunately.
I began my collection when I was a child, with two very small purchases: a Steiff chick — basically a pom-pom with legs and feet — and a Steiff mouse. They were inexpensive and cleverly made, and a good comfortable starting point. After that, I added a dog and a cat, and a rabbit or two, until pretty soon, I felt comfortable enough to begin collecting Teddy Bears, which were by far the most expensive to acquire. Several years in, I began collecting the white-tag Steiffs, and purchasing new unlimited run animals during trips to Germany. I now feel that I have a well-rounded collection, one that brings me a great deal of pleasure.
As you develop your own collection, do take the time to invest in a good book or two, to help you sort through the many animal choices. Use the books to make a list of the types and year of Steiffs that you want to aquire – a shopping list, if you will – and try to stick to that list and not make spur-of-the-moment decisions. The hunt for a good, desired Steiff is the best part of collecting!