Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear Breaks Records in Special Steiff Auction
On July 1, 2023, the auction house Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH of Ladenburg, Germany presented its Special Steiff Auction in Giengen, Germany– the home of the Margarete Steiff GmbH factory. The Steiff Company is best known for designing and producing the fully jointed Teddy bear as we know it today starting in 1902. This signature annual sale is traditionally held during the Steiff Company’s “Steiff Sommer” event, a three day long family-centric fair that includes carnival rides, a petting zoo, food and souvenir vendors, and other button-in-ear activities. This year, the auction included the second half of the Susan Kilgore Wiley collection, an outstanding collection of Steiff prewar bears, animals, novelties, and absolute rarities. The first half of this collection was sold in January 2023 and realized over USD 475,000.
The highlight of the most recent midsummer sale was lot #82, an extraordinarily rare, fully jointed black mohair Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear. This bear was the pride and joy of Mrs. Wiley’s collection and was accompanied by photos and ephemera related to it. She bought the bear at Sotheby’s in London in 1990 for over $40,000; that purchase made international collecting headlines at the time. Since 2000, original antique Steiff Titanic Mourning Bears have rarely come up for auction. When they do, they usually trade hands in the $20,000 to $40,000 range. Mrs. Wiley’s Titanic Mourning Bear had a starting bid of EUR 4,500, but there was talk in the Steiff collecting community that the bear could easily realize six figures, since it was so outstanding.
There was great anticipation in the gallery as lot #82 came up for sale. The auction house noted that this bear had five international bidders competing for the bear on telephone lines. However, the winning bidder was live in the audience! This is somewhat unusual in the auction world with sales of this magnitude. Auctioneer Pia Fast Seidel was at the podium and skillfully managed the blizzard of bids and interest in this once-in-a-lifetime lot. Mrs. Wiley’s Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear would go on to hammer at EUR 180,000 or USD 202,020 ($250,505 with fees).
So how does this rank in terms of record sale prices for antique Teddy bears? The most expensive Teddy bear of antique origins to date was a Steiff bear owned by Colonel Bob Henderson named Teddy Girl. She was sold by Christie’s in London for GBP 110,000 ($171,600) on December 5, 1994. However, Mrs. Wiley’s Teddy bear traded hands at over a quarter million dollars– breaking this previous high mark by over $78,000.
There are many factors that made this 1912 Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear so incredibly special. These included a perfect storm of history, rarity, condition, and being at the right place at the right time. It is also possible that the recent spike in interest in all things Titanic due to the Titan submersible disaster further cast the spotlight on Mrs. Wiley’s extraordinary Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear.
In terms of the bear’s place in history, Steiff’s Titanic Mourning Bears are tied to one of the most significant worldwide events of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, Steiff produced a number of all black mohair bears for the general marketplace. These did not sell very well initially, as many people thought they were scary for children. The company soon stopped making them. Then, in 1912, the Titanic disaster struck. At that time, nearly everyone in England was personally touched by this event, or had a friend or relative who was. The entire country was in shock and mourning. In response, Steiff produced a handful of all black mohair bears with red felt behind their eyes (to indicate sadness and crying) for the English market.
This black bear from Mrs. Wiley’s collection was in breathtaking shape with a very special feature. It retained its Steiff button and featured the company’s most desirable “center seam” face construction. In the early 1900s, every seventh bear that Steiff made had a seam down the center of its face to make the most efficient use of the mohair fabric used to create them. The dimensions of the fabric supplied at the time were such that Steiff could manufacture six full heads from it, but there was some remaining material from this cutting process. As such, Steiff found a way to “patch” these remainders into another head to not waste any fabric. This was the first center seamed black mohair Titanic Mourning Bear to come to public auction, as far as this author could unearth.