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March of the Toy Soldiers

From ancient Egypt to the present, collectors have gathered their own miniature armies
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 1)

Both lots had various condition problems that were explicitly enumerated in the catalogue descriptions; each item was assigned a condition grade. Apart from the usual wear and tear facing any used toy, lead soldiers are especially subject to what's known in the field as lead rot, in which oxidation eats away at the metal, triggering an unsightly white powdery finish. 

As in many collectible areas, condition rules the game and has a huge effect on pricing. Bidders, cautions Agnew, should always consult the glossary and ratings system in the catalogues as well as condition reports on specific lots.  

There's a lot more action in store on December 1 in London, where Christie's South Kensington will offer the all-Britains collection of Arnold J. Rolak, a Houston-based insurance executive. Rolak caught the toy soldier bug by chance in Bermuda in the early 1980s while attending a charity auction. Col. Donald R. Pudney, head of the Bermuda Regiment and a renowned toy soldier collector, was called in by the event organizers to discuss with Rolak one of the lots, a Britains Coronation Set Coach, commemorating the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. With that, Rolak says, "I was hooked."  

Estimates on prices for pieces in his collection, including the iconic Bermuda lot, range from $150 to $15,000. "I've had more fun than the world will ever know in collecting this stuff," says the 67-year old Rolak.  

The Rolak army of toys begins with a rare circa 1880s Britains tin-plate mechanical toy of two men racing around a tent (est. $10,500­$15,000), one of approximately 20 items offered in a Britains retail catalogue from the 1880s. Rolak has hunted down all but five of the catalogue's items, including a marvelous General on a Hobby Horse (est. $3,750­$5,250) that Agnew says is perhaps one of Britains' "first soldiers."  

Prime examples of correspondingly rare prototypes from the 1980s, after Britains resumed production of the metal figures, are also being offered (estimates range from $375 to $525). "There are lots of oddities and unusual things," notes Agnew. There are cowboys and other civilians in Rolak's extensive mix, a rather charming quirk of both the collector's taste and the field's extraordinary reach, encompassing everything from Arctic explorations to more placid railway station scenes.  

One of the highlights of the Rolak collection is the only known boxed set of The Texas Rangers, which is housed in its original cardboard box (est. $3,000­$4,500). What's unique about the lot is a convergence of fascinating factors. It was specially produced as a promotion for the 1936 Paramount film The Texas Rangers, directed by Hollywood great King Vidor and starring Fred MacMurray, a kind of marketing marriage between Hollywood and the hobby.  

"Arnold was trying to get that set for many years," says Agnew. "He kept offering the owner a certain amount of money for it and eventually got it." As Agnew explains, a boxed set, if in good condition, might add 30 percent in value to the item. "If it's a very rare box, it can be worth a lot more than the actual toys itself. So for The Texas Rangers, the five cowboys on horses, if offered individually, would barely command $15 a figure," notes Agnew. "So you're going to be spending £2,000 [about $3,000] for a cardboard box. That's how collecting goes."  

Another civilian rarity, Britains' Edwardian Family, dates from 1907 and features a nattily attired mother and father sitting at home in comfortable armchairs with their three children (est. $12,000­$15,000). The father smokes a pipe and the mother is busy with the baby on her lap. Agnew believes that it's the only complete set in existence.  

Authenticity concerns in the toy soldier and figures market are a deadly serious business, one that has grown even more so with the advent of Internet auction sales on hugely popular sites such as eBay. More and more greenhorns are getting in on the act, people who probably haven't consulted such crucial reference books as James Opie's Collecting Toy Soldiers or combed through the back issues of Toy Soldier Review or a Web site like Toy Soldier Resources (

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