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March of the Toy Soldiers

From ancient Egypt to the present, collectors have gathered their own miniature armies
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

Though H. G. Wells, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Malcolm Forbes were probably the most famous toy soldier collectors of their eras, you don't have to be a great novelist, swashbuckling movie star or globe-trotting publisher to enjoy this millennia-old hobby.  

Toy soldiers and vestiges of miniature warriors have been excavated from Roman ruins and the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. However, those ancient treasures in terra cotta and lead usually have to be viewed from a distance, behind glass partitions at places like the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Occasionally, rare samples might pop up at auction alongside other pricey antiquities.  

The current market for toy soldiers and other figures dates primarily back to the early nineteenth century and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The first auction for old toy soldiers took place in London in 1968 at Knight, Frank & Rutley, organized by toy soldier champion Richard Lane. Lane subsequently joined Phillips Auctioneers, which dominated the auction market until Christie's South Kensington in London blitzkrieged into the field in 1994. During Phillips's distinguished reign, such storied collections as the 3,000-piece horde of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sold in 1977 for a then-impressive $16,000, and collector John Hanington's encyclopedic trove of some 24,000 toy soldiers went for a record-shattering $300,000 in 1984, with a good chunk of the collection going to Malcolm Forbes.  

Modern toy soldiers began with manufacturers in France, Germany and England that independently developed the colorful art of toy soldier making. They gradually built the now-hallowed brand names of Mignot, Heyde and Britains, as familiar to toy soldier collectors as Bugattis, Porsches and Austin-Healeys are to vintage car enthusiasts.  

"Toy soldiers have been around forever," says Daniel Agnew, the toy soldier specialist for Christie's South Kensington. The 30-year-old Agnew has been involved in the hobby since boyhood, first collecting old lead toy farm animals "to keep me quiet" and gradually developing a keen interest in all aspects of toys. Agnew joined Christie's South Kensington as a salesroom assistant in 1989 and gradually broke into the specialist ranks.  

In a matter of minutes, Agnew affably races through an abbreviated history of the hobby, pausing longest to distinguish between three major types of figures. There are the two-dimensional metal figures set on little stands and known as "flats," primarily made by German firms starting in 1730, the solid-cast metal, three-dimensional soldiers pioneered in France around the time of the French Revolution, and the hollow-cast, three-dimensional figures invented by Britains in the late 1890s.  

The British-made casting process was a revolutionary advance, producing three to four soldiers for the price of a single solid-cast figure. It made the toy figures much more affordable for children, giving the company huge commercial success both domestically and overseas until 1966, when Britains ceased manufacturing lead toy soldiers. (The firm subsequently produced plastic figures, but by the 1980s, it had resumed production of the metal soldiers.) "Most people, when you mention toy soldiers, think of Britains," Agnew adds.  

Prices can vary greatly in this fussy field, as evidenced by a Britains Marching Scots Guardsman that fetched a record (for a single toy soldier) $4,620* (est. $450­$900) at the landmark Britains' Archive sale at Christie's South Kensington in June 1994. It was a cache snared by Agnew's predecessor and mentor, the renowned toy soldier expert Norman Joplin.  

More staggering marks were set at Christie's New York's December 1997 record-breaking $739,608 sale of the Forbes Museum of Military Miniatures at the Palais Mendoub in Tangier, Morocco (following the death in 1990 of mega-collector Forbes). A Britains American Civil War group of 168 figures marched to $10,350 (est. $400­$600) and a Mignot Tripolitania Conflict, 1911 display set brought $12,650 (est. $4,000­$6,000). (Aficionados shouldn't despair: despite the sale, the Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York City still house some 10,000 toy soldiers in a splendidly installed series of dioramas and staged vignettes.)  

But prices don't always jump into four figures, as seen last June at Phillips' salesroom in Knowle, England. A Britains Set No. 13 of the King's 3rd Hussars, consisting of four troopers carrying carbines and an officer on a rearing horse, made $330 (est. $225­$375), and a Britains Set No. 145 of Royal Army Medical Corps and Red Cross ambulance wagon sold for $381 (est. $225­$375). ("Sets" refer to a related group of toy soldiers or figures that are boxed together.)  


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