A Few Small Men

Collectors Mount Furious Assaults to Accumulate Rare and Intricately Detailed Toy Miniatures

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Yet even if Britains are clunky, stiff and awkward-looking, they continue to have rich market cachet. "Very well known, easy to track, price and inventory through catalogues, Britains can be collected like stamps," says Steve Balkin. "Most enticing of all, though, since Britains specialized in parades, uniforms, the glories of empire building, they depict a timeline through history. And that wraps them in nostalgia."

Romancing the past certainly keyed Burtt Ehrlich's avid, two-decade pursuit of the choicest Britains. Amassing more than 12,000 of the company's pieces before selling his collection in 1993, he says, "Going back in time and tracking down some of these very rare, older items, that's what excited me. The prices were right and it was just a lot of fun."

Collecting Britains became more challenging in the 1980s, when the company stopped making the soldiers. (Last year the firm was sold to Ertl, another toy manufacturer, and production was resumed.) "In the 1980s, sets became a chic investment," Ehrlich continues, "and the prices of the more vintage stuff really shot up. Greed took over. Now things have cooled down. While the market is not overpriced, newcomers must still be narrowly focused, and wary of the con artists.

"Too often someone substitutes a figure from another set for a damaged piece, or repaints pieces to make them look more pristine. Watch those colors; they must be exactly the same from piece to piece. You also must be careful that guys don't take later-made figures and put them in an earlier-era box. All the rifles and swords should be there. And scrutinize the horses to ensure that their legs haven't been glued back on. A good safeguard in all these matters is working with a savvy dealer, one who really knows values and is an expert at judging this world's most important criteria: condition, condition, condition."

Once a veritable Marco Polo, scouring the globe for "terrific treasures," Ehrlich boasts about discovering such gems as a 1930s Britains Short flying boat for $800 that was ultimately sold for $8,000, and a circa 1900 Boer War C.I.V. (City Imperial Volunteers) supply train that turned a $300 purchase into a $5,000 bonanza. "While I never got into this to make money," Erlich says, "it was fun to come away with great buys: to match your wits against others in the hunt for spectacular pieces."

Though these chases were as exhilarating as any battlefield triumph, there was always an "enemy" that loomed on the horizon: lead rot. The collector's equivalent of Legionnaires' disease, lead rot is a scourge that inexplicably spreads from one soldier to another, leaving devastation in its wake. The rot becomes a dust that usually settles on the bases of pieces, making them decompose. Infected items generally give off a musty odor.

To defend against this contagion, Dubin has adopted a two-pronged strategy of sealing his carefully positioned soldiers in plexiglass cases. "I don't put my men too close together," he says. "That way it becomes more difficult for the oxidizing agent to spread."

Critical of Dubin's approach, Ehrlich feels "the best preventive medicine" is to keep soldiers in dry places where the air is continually circulating, because the rot runs rampant in damp climates. "Sealing soldiers behind glass or plastic only increases the chances of lead rot," he insists. "I never dusted them, or did anything else to protect my collection. Soldiers have to breathe, and besides, they are meant to be touched, to stand there, and to be themselves."

Moisture is not the only possible cause of lead rot, other collectors contend. James Hillestad, a Pennsylvania collector, dealer and founder of a toy soldier museum, warns, "Don't display figures in untreated oak cabinets, as tannic acids in the oak causes lead rot."

And, he adds, beware of "light figures with daylight fluores-cent bulbs, not halogen and incandescent bulbs, which give off damaging heat."

Whether it was Churchill lying on the floor with his beloved combatants, Czar Peter III relishing "baked" delights, or Louis Dubin gazing at Mignots to relieve the strain of his high-pressured world, enthusiasts are comrades-in-arms, ever bewitched by the evocative power of these miniatures. Here they're able to discover, if not the fountain of youth, at least a timelessness that keeps them far from childhood's end.

Edward Kiersh is a Florida-based writer who is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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