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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

(continued from page 1)

By adopting a go-slow, "get-your-feet-wet" armament policy. While early twentieth-century Mignots and Britains in their original boxes (a box in good condition can increase the value of a set 30 to 50 percent) have undeniable appeal, and are steadily appreciating by 10 to 30 percent a year, it's still best to opt for what Dubin calls "the pedestrian, less pricey items." But always begin by familiarizing yourself with the terrain.

"Many collectors like to specialize in one manufacturer, nationality, military band, or a war theater, but since there are so many ways to go--classic lead or elastolin [a pressed composite], recent or old production--new enthusiasts should research what the field is all about," advises Steve Balkin, a New York dealer who often serves as Dubin's consultant, and who owns the Burlington Antique Toys shop in New York City.

"The best initial strategy is to avoid spreading yourself too thin, and there are numerous books, magazines, price guides and catalogues which can help narrow that focus," Balkin says. "By reading the literature you can determine which company does better horses, infantry, parade carriages, musical instruments, etc. Specializing gives a collector the added satisfaction of becoming really knowledgeable in one period of history."

Publications such as Toy Soldier and Model Figure and Old Toy Soldier are good places to start. An interest in legendary conflicts and empire builders, such as Napoleon or Otto von Bismarck, certainly adds to the enjoyment of delving into this field. Yet one doesn't have to come armed with military texts or be a Civil War scholar to appreciate the detailed aesthetics of these pieces on parade.

"When I got my first set of Boers, for example, I didn't know a thing about this Dutch-English war in South Africa," Dubin admits with a laugh, as he troops past showcases lined with assorted mint-state treasures. "By doing some research, I learned all about this turn-of-the-century war. But in no way am I a real history expert. I just like having artwork with a story that relieves the stress and enlivens this office."

Amused by these playthings for 25 years, Dubin has action vignettes ranging from Arabs smoking water pipes in an oasis setting to Admiral Byrd meeting Eskimos in the Arctic. His First World War battle scenes contain pellet-firing cannons, bunkers and foliage.

On a recent business trip to Russia, Dubin was drawn to the latest figures of Alexi Arseneyez, a member of the St. Petersburg Collection of artisans. The group is renowned for its lifelike, handcrafted miniatures that sell for hundreds of dollars in U.S. shops such as Grande Armee.

"While I love my Mignot harem scene, my rare, extremely collectible 72-piece set with Queen Elizabeth's coronation coach, and all these other dioramas, I'm steadily moving into Russians, as they're doing the ultimate in workmanship," says Dubin, emphatically pointing at a hell-raising Tartar chieftain. "This particular warrior, who presumably just went into a Russian village, has a victim's head on his saddle and bags filled with jewels. Each figure the Russians make tells its own tale, so I'm confident they're going to be a big future trend in the market."

These restoration artists from the Hermitage are equally celebrated for their knights of the Round Table, their Polish winged hussars, and even their Civil War figures (one of collecting's most popular areas).

Although the Russians may well reign supreme in the next few years, and British artisans Len Taylor, of Trophy of Wales, and Bill Hocker, of William Hocker Toy Soldiers, are emerging as top craftsmen, today's market sensation is a long-defunct German company called Heyde. Founded in 1872 in Dresden by Gustav Adolf Theodor Heyde, the firm first distinguished itself by styling pliable figures. As The Art of the Soldier points out, these three-dimensional malleable men could do more than stand guard and march: when twisted into varying poses, these figures looked as if they were drinking coffee, climbing trees or chopping wood. To add to their allure, the firm created provocative set titles, such as "Kettledrum-Car of the Electorate of Saxony," "Distress Landing of Aeroplane in the Afghan Desert," and "A Bivouac During the American War of Independence." According to Kurtz and Ehrlich, "Heyde quickly found worlds to conquer." The firm went out of business in 1939, when metal supplies became needed for war material.

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