By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Toy soldiers have been around for millennia—tiny warrior figurines were found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, and the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed them as well—but it was the Britons of the Victorian era who made them a Christmas-morning must for generations of would-be generals. Toy soldiers fired the imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson, who romanticized their power to enliven a childhood sick day in his poem The Land of Counterpane, and that of H.G. Wells, who wrote an entire book,Little Wars, on war-gaming with toy soldiers. Winston Churchill, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Andrew Wyeth collected the military-themed playthings.
The late Malcolm Forbes amassed more than 100,000 toy soldiers, which he displayed in a mansion in Morocco. Christie’s demobilized most of this miniature army in New York and London in two sales in December 1997 that together exceeded $850,000, but about 5,000 remain at the Forbes Galleries in New York in an exhibition illustrating the history of the toy soldier: Two-dimensional Aztec fighters and Spanish troops produced in Germany, which excelled in creating what collectors call “flats,” battle on the tiers of a ziggurat, while three-dimensional hollow metal figures, produced with a technique pioneered in 1893 by English toymaker William Britain (the founder of the Britains company), muster behind the parapets of a gray and red castle.
While the old toy soldier market presents a range of categories that could keep a collector busy for several lifetimes, figures made by Britains dominate the landscape and are pursued by collectors all over the world. “Britains made and sold 10 to everybody else’s one,” says James Opie, a consultant to Bonhams, which conducts auctions that include toy soldiers every April, November and December in the U.K. “A Britains set, even a rare one, might be issued in the thousands, whereas a set from a German company like Heyde might be issued in the hundreds.” Fate conspired to make a mid-1960s Britains set featuring a policeman’s band from the Bahamas a favorite of collectors. Norman Joplin, who catalogued the lots for the Forbes sale and cofounded a dedicated auction house, Old Toy Soldier Auctions, last year in Pittsburgh, says Britains created the set of marching drummers and horn-players for the Bahamian market before the U.K. banned the use of lead paint on toys in 1966. (The Bahamas gained full independence from the U.K. in 1973.) “It was produced for less than a year, on a specialized subject that was for export and sale in the Bahamas,” he says. “There’s not many out there.” A 1960s-era Bahamas police band set fetched $5,000 in May at Old Toy Soldier Auctions.
Some of the most valuable miniatures do not wear military uniforms, however. Sets created to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and other monarchs are much sought after. Joplin anticipates offering an unusual example at Old Toy Soldier Auctions’ next sale, which will occur this coming May or June: a never-released Britains figure of King Edward VIII in his coronation robes. “Anything to do with King Edward VIII is valuable because he wasn’t crowned,” says Joplin, who expects to assign a presale estimate in the $5,000–6,000 range.
Britains designers prided themselves on reflecting the details of military protocol, going so far as to ensure that their marching British army soldiers lead with the left foot, just as the real British army did. But that precision did not extend to features that were only visible close-up, such as the individual faces of royals. “The Edward VIII figure is the same as they would produce for George VI,” says Joplin. “The only difference is the box has the name of the other king on it.”