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A Few Small Men

Collectors Mount Furious Assaults to Accumulate Rare and Intricately Detailed Toy Miniatures
| By Edward Kiersh | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Tartar warriors, proudly flashing their sabers and parading their victims' bloodied heads, might seem anachronistic on New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue. Here, Armani, Hilfiger and Versace typically vie for supremacy, and not menacing medieval merchants of death, Gauls in fur cloaks, French Foreign Legion troops or Prussian Lancers armed to the teeth.

But in the spirit of Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson and other devotees of marshalling military miniatures, wars on many fronts still rage high above Fifth. From Napoleon's march on Russia to T. E. Lawrence's heroic clashes in the Arabian desert, this mano a mano action is amazingly lifelike. Each battlefield is scrupulously detailed, complete with charging horses, cannons and carnage. Each Lilliputian combatant is strikingly realistic, whether it's a reproduction of a French musketeer or a Confederate rebel.

"Besides the attractiveness of these lead figures, the pageantry, and their ability to make you aware of history, collecting bright-eyed, red-cheeked toy soldiers is nostalgic, an artistic and entertaining way to evoke the playful days of your childhood," Louis Dubin, a 36-year-old real estate developer and one of the world's most ardent collectors of miniature warriors, says as he surveys his 5,000-piece army in his Fifth Avenue office. Dubin's toy soldiers, consisting of W. Britain, Heyde and Mignot figures (the top three firms in lead, hollow-cast soldier manufacturing), are displayed in Plexiglass-encased dioramas. As Dubin moves from case to case, it's easy to envision the fierce historic battles replicated here in miniature. To feel the pomp and circumstance that compelled young Brits to defend the Union Jack in colonial India. To experience the heady rush of Gen. Robert E. Lee's fabled charge at Gettysburg. And to conjure up the spirit of one of history's most avid toy soldier collectors, Winston Churchill.

The proud owner of more than 1,500 pieces, the cigar-puffing Churchill recalled in his book My Early Life: A Roving Commission that his decision to embark on a military career was "entirely due" to sending "infantry divisions with cavalry brigades" into battle on a playroom floor. These mock campaigns allowed him to study "the noble profession of arms," and becoming so enthralled with the art of warfare, he later reminisced, "toy soldiers turned the current of my entire life."

Now Dubin and about 500 other serious "wargamers" worldwide are following Churchill's lead, mounting their own assaults to dominate the "old tin" market. These modern-day generalissimos might not be as passionate as Czar Peter III, who legend has it court-martialed and executed a rodent for gnawing on a brigade of his baked sugar-and-flour "pastry soldiers." However, when it comes to bidding at auctions, scouring antiques shops, or swapping with other enthusiasts, the battle to collect prized prewar miniature armies and dioramas can be a feverish--and precarious--game.

"Ever since the Malcolm Forbes sale of his pieces at Christie's in December [1997], the market has greatly strengthened, and while there are still values to be found, new buyers must do their homework if they're going to avoid getting burned," says Bill Muir, owner of the Grande Armee shop in Palm Beach, Florida, one of the country's leading toy soldier retail shops. "All this new interest has prompted various tricks from unscrupulous sellers, so look for documentation, make sure sets have properly matched figures, evaluate their condition, and above all, be aware of values. While that Forbes sale relit the fire, it was just filled with gopher bait."

Although that headline-grabbing auction presented more than 50,000 choice soldiers and dioramas, including a replica of John F. Kennedy's funeral, and a five-tier Mignot tableau depicting a 1911 Italian-Turkish naval battle, seasoned aficionados of miniatures sat on their paddles during the bidding. "The prices were just ridiculous," insists Burtt Ehrlich, a collector and co-author with Henry Kurtz of The Art of the Toy Soldier. "Most of the items at that sale could've been bought for a third the price at many shops, so my advice to novices is to stay away from glitzy auctions. You can get robbed."

Auctions, however, aren't the only Trojan horse new enthusiasts should avoid. Internet sites, bursting with enough cannon fodder to ignite another Hundred Years' War, can also lead to a collector's financial Waterloo.

While trumpeting a host of rare, bargain-priced fusiliers, lancers, hussars and dragoons, these cyberspace haunts, according to one longtime aficionado, "might offer an occasional find or two. Yet, too often they're only selling items from start-up companies with no proven track record or cachet; just bogus, craftily doctored stuff where parts have been glued on and repainted. The only way to really buy these miniature art pieces is to fondle them, move them around, and see if they 'speak' to you."

So how do aspiring collectors acquire these 48- to 70-millimeter petits soldats and still protect their financial flanks?

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.

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.

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."

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.