Know Before You Buy: Vintage Steiff Collectibles For Auction Daily

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In the broad category of collectibles, vintage Steiff “button-in-ear brand” bears and animals continue to capture the eyes, hearts, and pocketbooks of enthusiasts worldwide. We asked Auction Daily Sr. Auctions and Antiques Columnist and vintage Steiff expert Rebekah Kaufman to explain why pre-war Steiff items hold this elite status.

Steiff 19″ “Teddy Clown” bear that sold for $39,000 through Bertoia Auctions; image from Bertoia Auctions.

Auction Daily: 

Why is Steiff the premier collectible brand in the antique plush category?

Rebekah Kaufman: 

There are three reasons. The first is simply the items. Collectors love Steiff examples in very good to like-new-condition from the first half of the 20th century. They are extraordinarily designed, made from premier materials, and mirror the aesthetics and ethos of the decades in which they were produced. The second is the history of the company. Steiff’s founder, Margarete Steiff, was an incredible woman. She overcame personal illness as well as geographical and supply chain issues in the late 1800s to build what is one of the world’s oldest and best-loved companies today.  Her vision, “Only the best for our children,” still guides every aspect of the company’s strategy on a daily basis. And the third is the nature of Steiff’s production. We all share the universal need to play and come back to the simple joys of childhood, especially in today’s frenetic world. Nothing does that better than toys from the past, and those made by Steiff have a timeless appeal that deeply connects with collectors.

Auction Daily: 

How are Steiff items branded, and is it easy to spot fakes and frauds? 

Rebekah Kaufman: 

Steiff’s core branding consists of a metal ear button, cloth ear tag, and paper chest tag. Parts of this have been in place since the turn of the 20th century, but the “trifecta” system was institutionalized in the mid-1920s. These three IDs have evolved in design over time. One way to date production, although not always 100% accurate, is to align the dates of these elements, if they have not been lost to time. 

Steiff mid-1920s mohair marmalade Tabby cat with period ID including her button, ear tag, and chest tag; image from the collection of Rebekah Kaufman. 

It is challenging to fake Steiff items. Early to mid-20th-century editions are made from mohair or other vintage fabrics and are in part or entirely stuffed with wood wool. These “ingredients” all have distinctive ways of aging. It is extremely hard to replicate the effects of time authentically. It is far more likely that an item is tampered with to increase its appeal and “value.” This may include things like replacing real or fraudulent IDs on a Steiff, artist, or other manufacturer’s bear or not revealing significant structural or aesthetic restorations. Common restorations include restuffing, replacing paw pads, restitching facial or claw features, or repairing significant mohair tears. 

Auction Daily: 

Who collects Steiff? 

Rebekah Kaufman: 

Steiff appeals to various audiences.  The first are the folks who simply love the brand and collect all things button-in-ear. But the beauty of Steiff is that it transcends into several other key categories.  Doll collectors love Steiff because Steiff pets look adorable in the arms of dolls from any era. Dollhouse and miniature enthusiasts love the company’s tiny editions as they scale perfectly to their main collecting interests. The company also produced various pre-war novelties, including household items, items on wheels, riding vehicles, musical animals, puppets, wooden toys, and games. Collectors interested in these categories also have their eye on Steiff.

Steiff mechanical chimp on wheels that sold for about $4,000 through Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH; image from Liveauctioneers.
Steiff mechanical chimp on wheels that sold for about $4,000 through Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH; image from Liveauctioneers.

Auction Daily: 

What are the most desirable and collectible vintage Steiff items today?

Rebekah Kaufman: 

Universally, Steiff’s earliest Teddy bears, as well as colorful and/or named bears from the c. 1925-1935 timeframe, seem to top most collector’s lists.  Collectors seem to be willing to spend in the $30,000-40,000 range for the finest and rarest examples. Coming up a close second are the smallest, or almost smallest, versions of the company’s prewar cats and dogs. They are irresistible and easy to display; pristine examples can change hands in the high four figures at auction. In Europe especially, the company’s c. 1930s era woolen miniature range is quite popular among collectors. Elite examples can sell in the low four figures at auction.  

Steiff prewar-era woolen miniature birds, rabbits, and bugs; image from the collection of Rebekah Kaufman.

Auction Daily: 

And finally, where should collectors look for vintage Steiff? 

Rebekah Kaufman: 

You never know where or when vintage Steiff will appear, and I’ve found spectacular things on eBay and  Craigslist, at local toy shows, and at antique malls. In terms of auctions, there are several companies that frequently include vintage Steiff lots in their toy sales. Here in the USA, Bertoia Auctions, Pook & Pook, Inc. with Noel Barrett, Theriault’s, and Apple Tree Auction Center have recently presented some fine Steiff temptations. And in Europe, Teddy Dorado and Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH are my regular go-to places for vintage Steiff rarities.

Rebekah Kaufman is a regular contributor to numerous international print and online publications, lectures across the US and Europe, and provides vintage Steiff consulting and expertise to the media, auction houses, and industry partners. She has no affiliation with Margarete Steiff GmbH or Steiff North America. For more information on vintage Steiff, or to purchase vintage Steiff treasures, please visit Rebekah Kaufman’s website, My SteiffLife.