Collectors answer the call for old toy soldiers

A Britains Set #10 of Salvation Army officers, band and colors, circa 1906, sold for $22,000 at Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — The oft-quoted joke goes something like this, “The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.” When it comes to miniature toy soldiers, armies of which have been made and played with for hundreds of years, that couldn’t be more true.

Today, boys are more likely to grow up playing with plastic army figures than metal (think Pixar’s Toy Story movie), but for adult collectors, a whole other world of toy soldiers awaits.

While toy soldiers have been made in many different materials over the years, including plastic, wood, brass, lead (used in toys up until 1966 when it was banned for health reasons) and mixed metals, the most collectible are metal soldiers so this article will focus on the latter.

A collection of 24 medieval toy soldiers handmade before 1939 by Richard Courtenay went for $6,500 at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in August 2017. Photo courtesy of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“The market for toy soldiers varies, but typically collectors begin collecting because they remember having a certain soldier as a child, they were introduced through a parent, grandparent or friend or they inherit a collection,” said Bre Day, an auction specialist at Old Toy Soldier Auctions USA, a Pittsburgh-based auction house dedicated to toy soldiers.

The variety of toy soldiers is panoramic. Soldiers depict historical eras from Ancient Greece and Rome through contemporary times. Subsets are equally diverse, with soldiers outfitted to re-create the American Revolution and Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, Medieval battles, World Wars I and II and beyond.

A rare Boer war supply column, circa 1901, realized $19,000 at Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA in October 2015. Photo courtesy of Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA and LiveAuctioneers

“There are hundreds of manufacturers of toy soldiers,” Day said. “Collectors tend to gravitate towards a certain manufacturer, but it really depends on what catches their eye.”

At the high end of toy soldier makers and topping most collectors’ wish lists is the British company, W. Britain, founded by William Britain Jr., who pioneered a hollow casting process in 1893, which spearheaded the production of lead toy soldiers. “If you are a toy soldier collector, Britains are the ultimate. They are well-known sets and have successfully held their value throughout the years,” she said.

Britains and most metal toy soldiers were traditionally sold in boxed sets. One of the largest sets of Britains was #132, a circa 1908 set comprising 167 pieces, including horse and mountain artilleries, regiments, lifeguards, a general on horseback, dragoon guards and lancers. Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA sold one such set in June 2016 for $21,000, the second highest price for toy soldiers on LiveAuctioneers’ price results database.

This rare Britains display set #132, thought to be the only boxed example of this massive set,
brought $21,000 in June 2016 at Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA. Photo courtesy of Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA and LiveAuctioneers

Not nearly as popular as Britains but a worthy competitor nonetheless was George Heyde whose German company started making toy soldiers in the 1870s. Heyde was known for large figure sets offered in large display boxes that could hold up to 150 figures. Their figures were known for realistic poses and exacting detail. A wide range of historical eras were represented from Native Americans to Roman warriors to German infantrymen. The company did well until the start of World War I, after which it was forced to close up shop.

This rare and very large Heyde Garrison Potsdam display set fetched $10,000 at at Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA and LiveAuctioneers

A rare and very large Heyde Garrison Potsdam display set fetched $10,000 at Old Soldier Toy Auctions USA in October 2017. The set, one of Heyde’s largest display sets at the time (in 1910) included 51 mounted figures, 30 foot figures, two 6-horse gun teams and a 4-horse machine gun cart.

While toy soldiers can vary in size from a half-inch to three inches, the most popular size is 54mm (roughly 2 1/4 inches) as this size allows makers to add enough detail yet the figures are small enough so one can play with them on a tabletop. They also pair very well with toy trains and various dioramas.

The Toy Soldier Museum in Cresco, Penn., suggests mixing things up when displaying one’s collection. “Whether you collect mostly military figures or mostly civilians, you will add interest to your displays by combining both,” according to commentary on the museum’s website. Having a military band march through a miniature town with trees, buildings, civilian figures and lampposts can liven up the scene.

A brass Vizagapatam toy soldier, circa 1790, modeled, earned $8,308 at Roseberys London in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Roseberys London, and LiveAuctioneers

To avoid lead rot in your leaden toy soldiers, which can occur when the lead can oxidize, experts suggest keeping your figures in a climate-controlled area as humidity can cause lead rot and don’t keep the space airtight as the figures will benefit from air circulation. If storing your figures, wrap them lightly in light paper (such as tissue paper) and store in boxes in a dry place.

From collectors who construct elaborate displays of their collections to wargamers who wage battles with fellow collectors or gamers, toy soldiers are a popular hobby.

Click to visit Old Toy Soldier Auctions USA online.

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