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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 3)

Back then, Heyde and Mignot ruled the toy soldier trade. But soon, William Britain and his son, William Jr., would revolutionize the market with their hollow-cast lead soldiers. These hand-painted figures, having only a metallic skin, were cheaper to produce than the "solids." By the early 1890s, such premier offerings as Her Majesty's Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards were on their way to becoming what military-miniatures historian Peter Johnson calls "the advance guard of the largest toy army the world has ever known."

Richly detailed, from the color of their uniforms to the shade of their horses, this fighting force paid tribute to all the queen's ruddy young men who carried the flag to distant parts of the world. As Britains gained wider acceptance by the early 1900s, these figures took on a more swarthy cast, glorifying such units as the Egyptian Camel Corps, French Chasseurs á Cheval, Prussian hussars mounted on regal steeds, India's Bengal Lancers and the Second Bombay Native Infantry.

As Kurtz and Ehrlich point out, these late nineteenth-century playthings weren't always "perfected" or "anatomically-correct." There were "single-eared horses," stallions standing with their rear legs crossed, and awkward-looking barrel-or pigeon-chested soldiers who carried fanciful weapons. These imperfections were corrected in the years leading up to the First World War when the newly renamed Britains Ltd. became the powerhouse of the industry. But much like flawed stamps or misstruck coins, many of those misshaped early Britains are often far more valuable than their true-to-life successors.

Other blue-chip sets that generate market interest include Britains' limited-production 1938 21-piece Band of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. A Royal Marine set from actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s collection, for example, sold for about $3,000 in 1977, then a record price for a single set, and has since sold for $10,000. According to Muir, the Florida retailer, only a handful of these sets survive.

Though these prewar Britains are regaled in processional finery, and attractively packaged in red strawboard boxes, rather than the "cellophane window" boxes of the 1960s, "as works of art, Britains are mass-produced bozo figures lacking in sophistication," says Bill Muir. "While charming and quaint, they just don't compare to the finely sculptured craftsmanship of the Russian pieces."

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."

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