Sunday, May 17, 2009

Birds of a Feather: Auction Highlights 5/11 - 5/17/09

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rome has the Coliseum, and London has its famous bridge... and the city of Ulm, Germany has its sparrow. Huh? And what does this have to do with this week’s Steiff auction highlights? Just about everything! Take a look at the two versions of this “fantastic flyer” - coincidentally sold the same week at auction. Then learn how this famous sparrow’s bird-brained behavior helped to build the tallest church steeple in the world!

Steiffgal is all a-twitter about this first highlight, an 8 cm Steiff sparrow made from Namotta wool. This beautiful bird is brown, tan, grey and black; has a felt tail and beak; tiny black eyes that are sewn directly into his swivel head; and metal feet. He has a red Steiff tag and tiny ff button, indicating he was made between 1926 and 1934. He carries a little piece of straw in his mouth, which is critical to his identification. The sparrow appears to be in excellent condition according to the description and photos associated with the auction.

Interestingly, his article number, 6508.12, does not appear in the Steiff Sortiment, although Steiff did make a 4 and 8 cm sparrow sans straw in the 1931 – 1943 time frame. These two cataloged models each have a similar article number to this auction highlight. Steiffgal’s best guess is that this sparrow is a very early “customer special” for the City of Ulm. Customer Specials are relatively standard Steiff items that have been customized (in this case by adding a piece of straw), produced in limited numbers, sometimes not cataloged, and given unique identification numbers. This tiny treasure received 21 bids and sold for $439.35—most likely due to its condition, age, and relatively undocumented nature.

This second highlight is a more recent version of the Ulm sparrow. Made in 1965 only, this 8 cm pom-pom pal is primarily brown with black, white, tan, and grey highlights. He has a wool beak and tail, black bead eyes, and tan plastic feet. He is standing on a plastic shield which says “Ulmer Spatz”, or Ulm sparrow. He also holds a piece of straw in his mouth. According to the pictures and descriptions associated with the auction, he appears to be in like-new condition with his Steiff button and tag; he also comes with his original Steiff packaging and the bag from the souvenir store in Ulm where he was purchased. He received 16 bids and sold for $217.20.

So do tell… what’s the legend behind this tiny superhero? The city of Ulm is located on the Danube River in southern Germany, not too far from the Steiff factory in Giengen. Ulm is known for its universities, important architecture, commitment to the environment, and for being the birthplace of Albert Einstein. Ulm is also home to the world's highest church steeple - 530 feet high and 768 steps - and this is where the sparrow comes into the story. Apparently during construction of the cathedral, the builders were having enormous trouble getting very long wooden beams though the city’s narrow gates. According to legend, it was only by watching a sparrow build its nest that the church was completed. Birds have always known that the way to get big objects through small openings is to go length ways. It just took people a little longer to figure this out…! Tributes and references to Ulm’s “super sparrows” can be found throughout the city, including on the cathedral itself!

I guess it may be fair to say that this architectural masterpiece was completed on “A Wing and A Prayer!”

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