A 1920s teddy bear once sold for an astounding $86,000.

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miniature decorative pom pom song birds
Credit: Yasu + Junko

For well over a century, some particularly lucky children have had Steiff stuffed animals as their faithful chums. But Steiff is a name that also conjures respect in adult collectors around the world. Because the company's animals are handmade, they radiate much more than their share of sheer personality. It all began with founder Margarete Steiff. Born in 1847 in Germany, she was confined to a wheelchair from the age of two after contracting polio. With earnings from teaching children to play the zither, she bought a sewing machine. To the great relief of her relatives, who were afraid she would never be able to support herself, Margarete became an accomplished seamstress.

In 1879, she noticed a pattern for a toy elephant in a magazine and began sewing elephants for children and as pincushions for friends. Her hobby soon blossomed into a business. Her nephew, Richard Steiff, made sketches of animals at the Stuttgart Zoo; his brother, Paul, transformed these sketches into patterns. At a 1903 toy fair, the company took an order for three thousand of its latest stuffed bears from an American buyer. Richard kept refining his design for the original teddy bear, and by 1907, Steiff had sold more than a million of them. In its glory years, from the 1880s through the 1960s, Steiff combined meticulous craftsmanship, naturalistic designs, and premium materials such as mohair, wool, velvet, felt, and excelsior to produce sublime plush animals that stirred the heart and mind. Jeannette Hardy, a New Orleans writer, remembers her childhood Steiff monkey and her mother's lion, both chosen from the opulent displays at F.A.O. Schwarz during holiday visits to Manhattan in the 1950s. "They have the feel of the jungle to them," she says. "The fur is like a brush. You could easily imagine that they were real."

Over the years, the company produced more than ten thousand different animals and dolls, celebrating nature in all its staggering variety. Bears, monkeys, cats, and rabbits: You expect these from any stuffed-animal factory worth its salt. But Steiff has also created rodents, including rats, marmots, beavers, and chinchillas, many of them jointed so that their limbs and ears move convincingly. There's a hippopotamus with two wooden teeth and a duckbill platypus that looks as if it waddled out of a zoo. Snakes, lobsters, bats, and snails have all worn the famous Steiff trademark, a button stamped with the company's logo sewn into the animal's left ear. And while it is easy to love a Steiff teddy bear dressed up like a jaunty sailor, you have to admire as well a stuffed green plant louse in black rubber shorts.

What to Look For

Like any collectors, Steiff aficionados tend to have predilections. Some wealthy collectors buy only very early Steiff animals, though for most people, this stuff is quite out of reach. Auction houses began featuring old Steiff in the 1980s and prices have soared. In 1989, Sotheby's in London sold a 1920 Steiff bear for $86,000; slightly less astounding sales have occurred since then, with regularity. Certain collectors like woolen miniatures, also known as pom-poms-fluffy, palm-size animals from the thirties. Others prefer dogs or African creatures.

The great majority of collectors look for vintage Steiff animals made after World War II but before 1971, when the company abruptly changed directions and began using man-made textiles and polyester stuffing. Steiff produced a huge number of toys in the 1950s and 1960s, and these are still affordable and fairly easy to find. People should be able to buy them for under $100, says Michelle Daunton, a dealer based in Somerville, New Jersey. "Steiff made a lot of cats, tigers, and lions. Those are readily available." Rarity and age can be determined by reviewing old Steiff catalogs (many of the pages are reproduced in books).

To protect and care for old Steiff animals, keep them in a moderately cool and dry spot, with a cedar block to repel moths. Some dealers advise against washing them; others say to dab them gently with a moist cloth and mild soap. But don't forget to enjoy them, cuddle them, line them up in a ridiculous parade, and sleep with them. They are stuffed animals, after all.

Steiff also manufactured sweet, diminutive animals-roughly the size of four sugar cubes-from 1931 to 1984. You don't need binoculars to behold this fuzzy flock. Steiff offered these miniature birds as part of a more affordable pom-pom line that debuted after World War II. Though they cost only a dollar apiece at the time, the two-inch-tall creatures were top of the trinket league, each crafted by hand from fine wool. The earliest iterations have metal legs, feet, and talons; later ones post-1956 perch on plastic. Their swiveling heads, felt features, and lifelike markings-spotted here are takes on finches and a blue tit-were inventive then and make them just as arresting now. Steiff's fervent fan base has kept them in circulation since they were discontinued in the 1970s; a quick online search will point you to sellers. Arrange a few on a vase of branches, and you've feathered your nest for spring.

Where to Find Them

Collector Fritz Karch often finds the pom-pom animals at antiques malls but says they are "hard to spot because they're tiny and always tucked away in display cases." Online auction sites featuring doll and Steiff dealers are also good sources. For the mother lode, try searching eBay for Germany (ebay.de) and Austria (ebay.at).

How Much They Cost

Generally the animals are $25 to $75 apiece, depending on how rare they are (try not to gloat too much if you snap up a beetle or ladybug).

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