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A Few Small Men

Collectors Mount Furious Assaults to Accumulate Rare and Intricately Detailed Toy Miniatures
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Tartar warriors, proudly flashing their sabers and parading their victims' bloodied heads, might seem anachronistic on New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue. Here, Armani, Hilfiger and Versace typically vie for supremacy, and not menacing medieval merchants of death, Gauls in fur cloaks, French Foreign Legion troops or Prussian Lancers armed to the teeth.

But in the spirit of Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson and other devotees of marshalling military miniatures, wars on many fronts still rage high above Fifth. From Napoleon's march on Russia to T. E. Lawrence's heroic clashes in the Arabian desert, this mano a mano action is amazingly lifelike. Each battlefield is scrupulously detailed, complete with charging horses, cannons and carnage. Each Lilliputian combatant is strikingly realistic, whether it's a reproduction of a French musketeer or a Confederate rebel.

"Besides the attractiveness of these lead figures, the pageantry, and their ability to make you aware of history, collecting bright-eyed, red-cheeked toy soldiers is nostalgic, an artistic and entertaining way to evoke the playful days of your childhood," Louis Dubin, a 36-year-old real estate developer and one of the world's most ardent collectors of miniature warriors, says as he surveys his 5,000-piece army in his Fifth Avenue office. Dubin's toy soldiers, consisting of W. Britain, Heyde and Mignot figures (the top three firms in lead, hollow-cast soldier manufacturing), are displayed in Plexiglass-encased dioramas. As Dubin moves from case to case, it's easy to envision the fierce historic battles replicated here in miniature. To feel the pomp and circumstance that compelled young Brits to defend the Union Jack in colonial India. To experience the heady rush of Gen. Robert E. Lee's fabled charge at Gettysburg. And to conjure up the spirit of one of history's most avid toy soldier collectors, Winston Churchill.

The proud owner of more than 1,500 pieces, the cigar-puffing Churchill recalled in his book My Early Life: A Roving Commission that his decision to embark on a military career was "entirely due" to sending "infantry divisions with cavalry brigades" into battle on a playroom floor. These mock campaigns allowed him to study "the noble profession of arms," and becoming so enthralled with the art of warfare, he later reminisced, "toy soldiers turned the current of my entire life."

Now Dubin and about 500 other serious "wargamers" worldwide are following Churchill's lead, mounting their own assaults to dominate the "old tin" market. These modern-day generalissimos might not be as passionate as Czar Peter III, who legend has it court-martialed and executed a rodent for gnawing on a brigade of his baked sugar-and-flour "pastry soldiers." However, when it comes to bidding at auctions, scouring antiques shops, or swapping with other enthusiasts, the battle to collect prized prewar miniature armies and dioramas can be a feverish--and precarious--game.

"Ever since the Malcolm Forbes sale of his pieces at Christie's in December [1997], the market has greatly strengthened, and while there are still values to be found, new buyers must do their homework if they're going to avoid getting burned," says Bill Muir, owner of the Grande Armee shop in Palm Beach, Florida, one of the country's leading toy soldier retail shops. "All this new interest has prompted various tricks from unscrupulous sellers, so look for documentation, make sure sets have properly matched figures, evaluate their condition, and above all, be aware of values. While that Forbes sale relit the fire, it was just filled with gopher bait."

Although that headline-grabbing auction presented more than 50,000 choice soldiers and dioramas, including a replica of John F. Kennedy's funeral, and a five-tier Mignot tableau depicting a 1911 Italian-Turkish naval battle, seasoned aficionados of miniatures sat on their paddles during the bidding. "The prices were just ridiculous," insists Burtt Ehrlich, a collector and co-author with Henry Kurtz of The Art of the Toy Soldier. "Most of the items at that sale could've been bought for a third the price at many shops, so my advice to novices is to stay away from glitzy auctions. You can get robbed."

Auctions, however, aren't the only Trojan horse new enthusiasts should avoid. Internet sites, bursting with enough cannon fodder to ignite another Hundred Years' War, can also lead to a collector's financial Waterloo.

While trumpeting a host of rare, bargain-priced fusiliers, lancers, hussars and dragoons, these cyberspace haunts, according to one longtime aficionado, "might offer an occasional find or two. Yet, too often they're only selling items from start-up companies with no proven track record or cachet; just bogus, craftily doctored stuff where parts have been glued on and repainted. The only way to really buy these miniature art pieces is to fondle them, move them around, and see if they 'speak' to you."

So how do aspiring collectors acquire these 48- to 70-millimeter petits soldats and still protect their financial flanks?

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