Martin: I’m on Skype with Rebekah competent, Steiffgal Cambridge, Massachusetts are you doing Rebekah?
Rebekah: it is a pleasure to be speaking with you this evening.
Martin: thank you, and you are the Steiffgal please tell us why you are the Steiffgal?
Rebekah: I am the Steiffgal, because my absolute love and passion is Steiff which is the vintage German brand, button in ear teddy bear, animals and dolls. I’ve been collecting Steiff the vast majority of my life, over 40 years, I blog about Steiff I work for Steiff as a consultant archivist, meaning I travel the country on behalf of the organization and identify and value Steiff products for the company. I also write extensively about Steiff for many media outlets. My Steiff Life is my blog, and truly describes a good part of my life.
Martin: I love talking to people who are enthusiastic about what they do, and I did meet you, first of all have to say 40 years? You mean at birth, I’m surprised that you are even that old.
Rebekah: well that’s extremely kind of you and thank you, my parents actually have a photograph of me at four days old, adjacent to a teddy bear, so I really think it was my destiny, that I follow this passion. I’ve been collecting for really, really long time. I’m the third generation collector in my family, I grandmother started the passion and the family in the late 1920s, early 1930s, and I have several of her childhood collected pieces. My father collected the Brandon Dowd has landed upon me, I am the steward and I’m trying very hard to get my nephews to engage, and I give them each a piece at holidays when I can, if they have expressed interest in a certain kind of animal.
Martin: now how did you actually get that position with Steiff?
Rebekah: about 10 years ago, I was working in the advertising agency and I was doing a tremendous amount of prospecting. I would prospect organizations that would advertise marketing positions. Because that would indicate that they were looking for a new kind of advertising agency. I have been a Steiff collector all my life and I noticed that Steiff was advertising for a marketing manager. I thought well I can either prospect that for my organization, or for myself. I got a little selfish, and I realize that truly would be a dream job at that point in my life, so I find like everybody else through an ad in the paper at the time this is about 10 years ago. I took part of my collection to the interview, I think that was probably what persuaded them that I had a business sense about me, and I was truly passionate about the brand and building community amongst collectors about the brand.
Martin: had you been to Germany before?
Rebekah: yes I’ve been to Germany several times, my very first responsibility for Steiff was to go to a trip to Germany with some of our very best customers in steward them through a trip to the factory, to the archives and what was known at the time as Schulte, which is the company that makes mohair for the Steiff products. That was my first experience there and it truly was a highlight of my life next to something like my wedding but it’s a pretty close to second.
Martin: you could have done them both at the same time.
Rebekah: I could’ve, as a matter of fact I’m taking my beloved husband this summer I’m going to Germany again on behalf of Steiff I’m leading a tour of collectors, I’m responsible for people who are passionate about vintage items, and I’m going with my colleague which is this current Steiff manager, who was responsible for collectors of new Steiff. We’re going to lead 3240 collectors on a tour of a little bit of Switzerland but mostly Germany, Steiff highlights including museums and displays in the factory as well as the Steiff Festival. That is happening this summer I’ve been several times for Steiff and on my own and most the time was looking for Steiff treasures.
Martin: we had talked briefly before and you had told me the story about your grandmother can you tell our listeners?
Rebekah: of course, this is a really important part of my family’s legacy and what makes Steiff so important to me as well. Back in the early to late 1930s, my grandmother was attending a convention in Berlin, she was very interested in becoming a librarian. She attended a professional conference for librarians across Germany, and she threw her name into a raffle, to win one of several prizes, one of those prices happen to be a 60 cm Steiff teddy bear. The gods smiled upon her she won the teddy bear at the convention as sort of a door prize, and they immediately became best and fast friends. This bear was one of the most important possessions she had. In the early 1940s, my grandmother who was still living in Germany was tipped off by boyfriend that if she didn’t leave Germany tonight she may never be able to leave the country. She took that advice to heart and she grabbed a giant teddy bear, a knapsack and clean underwear, and ran to the French border where she lived for several years and met my grandfather. So Steiff is a really important part of my life. If she did not win that bear and taken it with her, I probably would not be having this conversation right now.
Martin: it is funny how life turns that way.
Rebekah: I was totally honored that Steiff chose to replicate this bear several years ago as part of their North American Limited Edition Series. So my grandmother story was told throughout United States and really throughout the world of her remarkable journey with this bear, and how important it is to the legacy of my family. It is a tremendous honor.
Martin: I know you’re collector, how many pieces would you say that you have? Your husband’s not there is he?
Rebekah: my husband is not around, and I probably have about 700, at least 700 and most of these pieces date from the turn of the last century to the 1960s, which is my favorite era. I also love pieces that were created as additions especially for FAO Schwarz, this very special affinity for that company for many reasons. I have a whole collection of FAO Schwarz, which bring me great joy and pleasure. I also love items that appear nowhere in other words they were created and there is no documentation about them. Their mysterious and are not in any catalog, or reference book, the mystery behind in this intoxicating from collectors perspective.
Martin: while we’re on this subject, how do you determine they are by Steiff if there’s no documentation or anything?
Rebekah: well obviously there are some factors which are very consistent over time, identification such as the button in the ear. There is the ear tag, it was made in the late 1940s or early 50s there is a US zone tag sewn into his seem which was a requirement for production early postwar World War II. Often times there are no clues and one has to rely on their real intimate knowledge of the construction these items, the materials. Is very unusual for Steiff create something that was completely one off, chances are he would have ears similar to, or something similar to other Steiff products. So you tend to extrapolate with the concept of the design would’ve come from based on other products. I’m fairly confident in my ability to identify non-Steiff items without identification. However nobody is perfect, and I’m absolutely blessed to have a global community of enthusiasts much like myself, and we often share fines and items to see what each other thinks. It is a wonderful pleasure to be of share one’s knowledge across the globe about these treasures.
Martin: anything real exciting ever pop up by the shares?
Rebekah: absolutely, it happens quite frequently and what is amazing to me even though concerning this brand extensively and passionately for the last 15 years and daily I probably spend 30 to 60 min. reading about the brand or studying it for reading a reference but just keep sharp, it never ceases to amaze me that on a daily or weekly basis something will pop up that none of us have ever seen before. It speaks real highly to how innovative and creative company is. Crazy people who love this brand and live by and swear by it, I mean a standing poodle with a wagging tongue appears, where did this come from? It is a delightful way to form a community just by showing something and having the world react to it it’s so exciting to be akin to that.
Martin: let’s go back to the beginning, Margarete Steiff can you talk about how she began the company and how that all started?
Rebekah: absolutely, she is truly a remarkable woman and one of my idols. When you think about the time she was born which was the mid-1800s, in Germany she was born to a relatively large family, she contracted polio at age 2, and she was a woman living in Germany and despite all those factors, in her teenage years and in her 20s she learned to play the zither, she mastered it so much the point that she was able to teach it, and make money from those lessons, even though she had use of only one half of her body. She also took sewing lessons and became quite proficient at that. Despite her mobility issue she was very good at making a living. She soon started making undergarments the late 1880s, that you wear under your skirts in very cold German winters which sounds dreadful and itchy to me but would keep you quite warm. She discovered in a fashion magazine (rather modern for her time). There was a pattern for an elephant made out of materials, which she made from some of her felt, and it was supposed to be a pincushion but it turned out to be a toy and play thing. She made a couple of them and children in her community really loved them. She made a lot more, and started to sell those, she realized that creating felt toys was far more interesting than creating itchy felt under skirts. I can’t blame her for that choice, and 1880s through 1890s and her toy department is now growing and she’s hiring people to work in her company. Then she starts her own company outside of her home business, and by the early 1900 she had her own factory because she had created such popular items that the toys far overtook the undergarments. 1902 the jointed teddy bear was invented via the help of her nephew Richard Steiff, and the teddy bear just took off after that. By 1907 the Steiff company created almost 1,000,000 teddy bears which is an astounding amount. When you think of what was happening in 1907 companies created almost 1,000,000 bears which were distributed all over the world and the company just blossomed from there.
Martin: wow, that’s amazing. The Bears can be quite valuable has anyone ever paid anything for undergarments?
Rebekah: I’ve never ever been asked that, I’ve never actually even seen one, but we are going to Germany this summer and one of the highlights of the trip is, Margarete’s birth house, so I can report back to once I return from that voyage, if we get to see a felt undergarment.
Martin: I wonder if it would have a button in it?
Rebekah: probably not, those didn’t come on board until 1904, but their items that Steiff created before the button, and those are extremely precious and take a very careful study to identify.
Martin: now there was the growler, the squeaky, the humpback, but does the humpback mean exactly?
Rebekah: the humpback is referring to the bear if you look at it in profile is referring to the size of the hump, the hump is not really on the back, it is at the base of the neck and a little bit downward. One of the things we do as appraisers and people who identify and value these items, is to look at the size of the hump and where it is located and in some respects it helps to date the bear, the hump was extremely prominent in the turn of the last century and it has become less prominent as time has moved forward.
Martin: so this kind of reminds me of Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein as Igor, his hump changed sides. He was the humpback of Notre Dame not the hunchback.
Rebekah: I’m sure he received his inspiration from Margarete Steiff bear’s influence.
Martin: and their family was very involved in the building of the business of the still involved today?
Rebekah: yes it’s very fortunate that they are there are great, great grandchildren who are involved in all aspects of the business, and also on the board. I think that helps keep it real authentic to Margarete’s original vision, a family enterprise from southern Germany.
Martin: what would you consider the holy Grail of Steiff collectibles?
Rebekah: that’s a really good question, I think you would have to be a teddy bear, only because that’s what the company is known for. I think the holiest Grail and I don’t know if one even exists is an early string jointed teddy bear, and these bears were invented around 1902. Although there are pictures of them there is not one in the archives, and no one has ever really seen one. Instead of cardboard discs for joints or metal discs, these had string joints. These were very heavy and clumsy, not terribly child or play friendly. If one could find one of those I think many collectors would break into tears of joy. The second holy Grail which is a lot more achievable, I’ve actually have remarkable and distinct pleasure of seeing two of these, is what we would call the rod bear. This is the bear that came right after the string jointed bear. This bear was jointed by metal rods down the core of the body and across the shoulders and thighs. He’s a very early bear and extraordinarily rare and extraordinarily hard to find. Most of them had a gutta-percha noses, which was made by hand and you can often see the fingerprints of the actual artisan that was creating the nose. I visited a colleague in Hawaii that has one of these in remarkable condition. I blogged about this on my blog, My Steiff Life because collectors rarely ever get access to see such a bear. I spent several hours photographing the bear because I wanted to capture all those details to provide my readers with access to see the wonderful jointing, wonderful nose, materials, proportions, the hump on the back and all that. I wrote a blog about that and was one of my highest traffic blogs ever. Most recently and completely unexpected I was visiting Florida a few weeks ago and did some work with Worthpoint at the Miami International Antique Show, the next day went with colleagues from Worthpoint to the Miami Beach Antique Show and absolutely dropped my jaws the floor … there was another of these Rod jointed bears being displayed by one of the vendors. I got the unbelievable excitement of having been able to hold him, video and then speak with the dealer about them as well. He was really remarkable, and the dealer was asking about $30,000 which is plus or minus what it was worth in today’s market.
Martin: before I go into my next thing, I heard you talk about your blog, is it called my Steiff life?
Rebekah: is called My Steiff Life, my blog is my ongoing love letter to Steiff brand. I would say three out of four posts I try to answer questions that readers send me and try to take the most interesting questions, the most challenging ones. I try to respond most fully and comprehensively to those. I think that’s exciting to readers to get to see their own name in print, and hopefully in providing information that people want to see because people asked for it. I also blog about wonderful finds that I have found in my collection, and for traveling or touring with Steiff that I call safaris of different things that I have seen in my travels. I try to present one every week to my wonderful fans who I adore, a new adventure in some measure, it is really a lot of fun to do.
Martin: great, so anyone listening to this go to our website you’ll see the blog listed below the podcast. Antique auction form.com, I will have this linked. The thing I wanted to talk to about as I think in the early 1990s, I was driving and listening to public radio. They were talking about a Steiff teddy bear and I kind of got the back story on this, the peaceful and for amazing amount of money and what I’ve heard was that the husband wanted to buy this bear for his wife and left what is called a buy it bid.
Rebekah: this is a real cool story, and it happened in 1989 at Sotheby’s, and what it happened was a wonderful couple West collected Steiff for many years, Rosemary and Paul Volpp, apparently for their anniversary Rosemary saw this bear listed at Sotheby’s and said I really love this. Paul worked with a buyer’s agent which is not unusual when you’re dealing with an auction like this caliber. He told his agent, purchase this whatever it takes. Make this happen I really want to get this bear for my wife. His dealer/broker went to the auction on behalf of him and bid, and bid, and bid, it turned out this bear was the record price at $86,000. This is really amazing even today, and it turns out that the dealer was bidding against the royal family. That’s an interesting challenge but perseverance works out in the long run. He did get the bear for $86,000 and it is a delightful bear, it’s from about 1926, it’s got gigantic huge black and brown pupiled eyes, it is a tipped mohair. When you think of beautiful Steiff bears from the 1920s this is a wonderful example. It’s what I call the three F’s, fluffy, fun and feminine. It is a delightful and happy bear and actually the bear is called happy for happy anniversary. I had the wonderful experience of meeting the fellow that was broker and buyer for the bear. We were talking about his wonderful experience, and he said I’m going to show you something that probably only you would understand, he showed me the canceled check the original purchase of the bear. He’s been carrying around that in his wallet since 1989. Apparently this was a highlight for him as well.
Martin: I remember hearing the buzz about this, I don’t remember what the highest record was until then but this was way higher than anything else of Steiff’s that previously sold.
Rebekah: you’re absolutely right about a record of the time, but the highest price ever paid for bear, I must caveat that it is a new bear, made in2000 and it sold for almost $200,000. A new bear that was dressed in Louis Vuitton clothing, which I would have loved as well. This bear was auctioned off and is now living in Korea. It is a modern bear with a full Louis Vuitton wardrobe. It was sold at a charity auction, and the bear now lives in a museum in Korea.
Martin: I like how you say it lives, they live here they live there. I’ve had dozens and dozens of Steiff bears through my auctions in the past and I’ll think they have a different personality look to them.
Rebekah: well that’s absolutely correct and that’s a wonderful point. One of the things that makes Steiff bears so wonderful and unique, for instance I have probably 25 of the same design and the faces are done individually by hand, so it’s like having individual children. Because all of the noses and mouths are embroidered by hand it is a distinct and one-of-a-kind piece. I completely understand what you’re saying and that’s one of the joys that comes with collecting is putting a whole bunch the same style and makes together and to realize how the spectrum of personalities the bears have, just by the position of the nose and eyes etc. Just a stitch here and there makes all the difference in the world for expression.
Martin: I noticed a condition issues with the lot of them I’ve seen quite a few of them replaced pads. Can you tell us what restoration makes a difference in value?
Rebekah: that’s a really good question and there’s two ways of looking at it. Let me first tell you my advice and restoration. If you have a piece that you absolutely love and it’s been in your family for very long time, and the goal is to keep it in your family for very long time, I would absolutely do what it takes to bring that piece back to being structurally stable. That means that there’s no open holes in it that insects can’t get into it to eat it which is disastrous. I think it is good to sew up holes or replace things that need to be replaced. If you have a piece that’s relatively common in production for the line, or you’re trying to make money off of it it’s not necessarily a good idea to restore. Restoration itself if done correctly is very expensive, if it’s done in a way to preserve the value. In terms of restoration if you do have a piece for instance if the paw pad has a giant hole in it, or perhaps the stuffing has collapsed which happens often with older bears that are stuffed with wood wool, it’s probably in the bear’s best interest and your best interest to have that fixed, because if you don’t it will just get worse and fall apart and then it will be worth nothing. A good restoration would never decrease the value of the bear, because falling apart bears are practically worth nothing. It would retain its value or perhaps if it was done in a beautiful way it may even increase the value.
Martin: other people that specialize in restoration of Steiff?
Rebekah: yes there are, there are people that do this professionally, and I also understand that the Steiff company itself does certain repairs on its own items. However it is important for the listeners to understand that no reputable restorer would ever reinsert a button, or any identification, that is completely unethical. Even Steiff, would not rebutton a bear under any circumstance. When they leave the factory with their identification that is it.
Martin: I have seen a number of them over the years where the button was gone, so they either fell out or did people take them out?
Rebekah: yes, absolutely could be one of those two things. There are several button styles are held on the loose prongs, so is very easy for them to fall out. Also, parents tended to remove their buttons for safety of their children. In the late 70s to early 80s the buttons became much more security conscious of children choking, so they were bolted on.
Martin: so the teddy bear is number one what would you say are the runner ups?
Rebekah: there is certain type of items designs that are absolute collectors favorites. Many of them launched in the 20s and 30s. I would say people absolutely adore a design that came out in the late 1920s called Teddy Baby. This design is totally endearing and came in sizes nine or 10 cm and the largest is literally life-size. It’s a sweet design it’s made to look like a bear cub, it has delightful flat feet for standing, curved spoon paws, childlike and a happy insert muzzle, smiling with open mouths. Absolutely precious and adorable people love them. People also love those 1920s tipped bears, that bear also came in a happy yellow or pink, they are classic and charming. It was also produced as a clown called Teddy Clown, had the same giant eyes and fluffy personality and came with a clown hat.
Martin: is there an association like a collectors club?
Rebekah: yes, Steiff Germany and Steiff USA are both divisions of the Steiff club and it’s very easy to join. Simply go to the Steiff site and sign up there. Here in the US you go to steiffusa.com and click on join the collectors club. You will receive a little teddy bear each year and information about Steiff happenings, and access to the website and also a quarterly magazine, which touches on both new items and vintage items. Is a really nice magazine and very professionally done.
Martin: I always ask people this, what changes has the Internet done to collecting?
Rebekah: it’s made it incredibly interesting universal and entertaining. I think to the power of Facebook, one is able to really discover whether collectors around the world and have an ongoing and active dialogue. I am the administrator for the Steiff Facebook page in the local for that is the yellow ear tag. I was asked by a random stranger five be the administrator said why would I do that, okay I will do that. Now we have almost 5000 people who check in with us very regularly we post wonderful content and finds, questions and polls. We engage people about their collections, we post seasonal things and there are people that post birthdays. Also people want to know what something is and it is worth. It is a fascinating and evolving community, what I love about this stuff is posted in every language you can imagine. Meaning that this brand has touched people in four corners of the world. The only thing about the Steiff Facebook page which I’m absolutely adamant about, is that the page is simply for the love and life of Steiff collecting. If someone posts an offer or an item for sale, or something on eBay I immediately delete it. I remind people that this is the NPR of Steiff, purely for the love of the brand. That has enabled a congregation of almost 5000 people to talk about the brand on a regular basis. I think twitter is another interesting social media for collectors, I use it when I announce things like new blog posts. I attended the remarkable 2010 Christie’s in London, a giant Steiff collection. I tweeted the entire auction live, and was the first one to ever do that at a Christie’s auction. That was so much fun, it was quoted in the press release, and a Bloomberg article about me twittering the auction. I think that’s what social media does, it opens up what was previously was unaccessible or hidden or private or quiet to the world so we can all engage in something we love to do it in the public way.
Martin: how would someone find your Facebook page?
Rebekah: to search for Steiff and like it, we open with open arms and Teddy hugs, people who think about Steiff red about Steiff, people who have collections, or people that are just interested in the brand.
Martin: I actually have a “LIKE” page for the Antique Auction Forum on Facebook, so like away. You have been great, just one more question, can someone email you for help with their Stiff pieces? If so, I will post an email link under your podcast.
Rebekah: absolutely, it is very interesting for me, even after doing this for so many years I’m always amazed and delighted and love to see questions in my inbox. It is a challenge for me in many cases to identify or value items, but it makes me better at what I do and provide information to people on what they have. You’re welcome to e-mail me pictures and descriptions of what you have. I can help the best as I can identify and value, I’m not a quote/ unquote legal appraiser, yet I believe I know what something is worth and what someone will pay. I’ve been studying the brand extensively for the last 15 years and I’m pretty confident about what things are selling for and the demand for them at any given time.
Martin: again I love having enthusiastic people I think it helps the business and collecting: and thank you so much for doing that.
Rebekah: it is my pleasure.