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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 2)

Now that the firm no longer exists, genuine Heyde pieces are difficult to identify. Pirate firms have taken advantage of the company's reluctance to put markings underneath the bases. One way to avoid getting stuck with fakes is to purchase sets in their original maroon, rectangular boxes.

"Known for the virtuosity and exotic quality of their dioramas, such as Arctic explorations, jungle and Sahara scenes, Heydes are the wave, the hottest items in today's market," Balkin says. "Ceasing production before World War II, Heydes are increasingly rare. If you can find the original figures, buy them."

While the Heyde craze is a recent phenomenon, a long-standing market favorite is Lucotte, a French company that started to make fully round lead soldiers in the late eighteenth century.

Lucotte, a Parisian craftsman, was deeply influenced by the French Revolution. The era's Ralph Lauren, he styled Napoleonic generals in elegantly striped trousers, colorful, swashbuckling hats and gold-trimmed tunics. Lucotte's meticulously sculptured figures, mirroring the glories of La Marseillaise, were the industry's first stab at three-dimensional representations. Trademarked with the letters "L" and "C", the soldiers--which were manufactured into the 1900s--seem, as Kurtz and Erlich write, " to stand sentry-like," alongside the "Imperial Bee" emblem of Bonaparte.

In the 1920s, Lucotte's company merged with another prominent French toy maker, C.B.G. Mignot, whose array of 32- to 80-millimeter fully-round and semi-round combatants had been popular since the 1850s. This double-barreled force stormed into the world marketplace, becoming a dominant player in the decade before the Second World War. According to Kurtz and Ehrlich, some of the Mignots apparently were exported to the United States as early as the 1860s; a photograph shows President Lincoln and his son Tad playing with toy soldiers that are almost certainly Mignots.

Mignot was best known for glorifying such Napoleonic victories as Austerlitz, Jena and Marengo, France's triumphant campaign in the Crimea, and the equally resplendent, rally-around-the-tricolor jousts in North Africa. Here, love of country was jingoistically celebrated in lead, from the call to arms of a French Zouave marching band in red, baggy pants and turbans, to the strut and swagger of Napoleon's fabled Imperial Guard Grenadiers.

Mignots' early poses, such as standing at attention, kneeling, and lying on the ground, were basic, replicating eighteenth- and nineteenth-century warfare, when flag-toting platoons charged, stood and shot. As the technology of warfare evolved, so did Mignot's offerings. When combat expanded into exotic colonial domains and featured more extensive firepower, Mignot kept au courant by issuing "action" dioramas, complete with palm trees, shrubs, brick-and-concrete bunkers, ships, motorized ambulances and an Alpine Chasseur troop set against a snowy backdrop.

"Whether it's Sudanese warriors invoking all the glory of Allah, a French military landing party in the Caribbean, a circus scene, or an Arab tableau with minarets, belly dancers, eunuchs and snake charmers, Mignots are the most artistic and distinctive," says Dubin, who's gone beyond buying mere mass-produced sets by having dioramas custom-made for him in Mignot's newly flourishing plant.

Mignots have the power to evoke Joan of Arc's heroic battles against fifteenth-century tyrants. Or they can re-create an old-fashioned circus "big top" with lion tamers, clowns and acrobats. Even the French peasants' storming of the Bastille with scythes and pitchforks have an alluring esprit de corps. And while terrific conversation pieces, these scarce, museum-quality dioramas offer more than just a nostalgic link to childhood, or to other compatriots-in-arms. As stress-relieving as any premium cigar, they're bewitching time capsules that take aficionados on a joyride through history.

But like history itself, each country has its own interpretation. The British company of W. Britain, the fabled firm known for inventing the first hollow-cast lead soldiers, has long taken collectors, such as Malcolm Forbes and Burtt Ehrlich, on magic carpet rides through history. Britains are famed for glorifying England's empire-building past. The company's catalogues, which serve as a basis for extensive price guides and historical scholarship, teem with "nationalistic" representations like the Royal Horse Artillery, the Coldstream Guards and the kilted regiments such as the Black Watch Highlanders. Now these "properly uniformed," always formally posed soldiers are market stalwarts, especially the limited number of pieces made in the company's Paris workshop (with the marking "Deposé" under the base indicating French manufacture), and the equally scarce sets packaged in long, red boxes with the tag "W. Britain" that signify the firm's debut in 1893.

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