Saturday, March 5, 2011

This Set of Pre-Button Steiff Skittles Will Bowl You Over!

Steiffgal is not playing around with you when she says this Steiff toy just might be the grandest (or at least the oldest!) she has ever seen!  Take a look at this "centenarian-plus" set of antique Steiff skittles and try not to get bowled over yourself!

Who's in the game with this set of museum quality set of skittles?  This remarkable collection may have been manufactured before the turn of LAST century! The set consists of eight pieces total: the kingpin bear, a monkey, poodle, pointer dog, cat, pig, rabbit, and an elephant. All are mounted on wooden bases, designed to totter over if hit just right with a soft felt ball (much like candlepin bowling.) The kingpin holds a wooden rod for support; his skittle base is slightly taller than those of his team. Each skittle is about 22 cm; the kingpin is slightly taller. Each animal is made from felt except the poodle, which is made from a very unusual curled wool plush. 

Steiff began branding its items from 1904 onward with a button-in-ear. Because none of the skittles in this set have an ear button, that would put their production before 1904 - possibly as early as the very late 1800's!  

One of the things that makes this set so interesting from the historical perspective is how it singlehandedly captures the origins of many of Steiff's classic animal patterns.  Each of the skittles in their own right could be the crown jewel in any Steiff collection. As a group, they are a stand-alone Steiff archive, demonstrating the origins of the evolution behind Steiff's most legendary and prolific designs.  For example, take a close look at the monkey.  Despite his simple shape, you can clearly see his detailed hands and feet which eventually show up on our beloved Jocko.  And now the rabbit.  A few years later, with a few minor tweaks, he becomes the basis for Steiff's Peter Rabbit, one of the most desirable Steiff antique collectibles of all. 

It's easy to be on pins and needles when coming across a set of these delightful and incredibly rare skittles. Steiff produced Skittle sets from approximately 1892 (the year of the first catalog) through 1919. Over that period of time, Steiff made the sets with hens, monkeys, elephants, pigs, rabbits, poodles, pointers, cats, chicks, dachshunds, elephants, pointers, cats, and bears, among others. In all cases - except the hen and the chick versions - the kingpin wore a felt jacket and crown.  The sets produced for the European market had nine total skittles, while those for America had ten total (as in tenpin bowling). 

It is quite unusual to find a full or partial set of Steiff skittles today, mostly because there are not a whole lot of them remaining in existence, and most collectors who have them really don't move them along. Two sets of skittles sold at the October, 2010 Steiff Auction at Christies: a set of nine felt hen skittles for close to $28,000 and a set of nine assorted skittles for close to $9,500.

In addition to its "Steiff" history, this set also has a deeply personal history attached to it.  According to its owner, a lifelong Steiff collector and enthusiast, it was purchased in the mid-1980's at a doll and bear show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  At the time, this event was one of the largest "Steiff centric" events in the world.  Dealers from all over the country and world would attend and display their Steiff treasures.  The owner had always wanted a set of pre-button skittles as the "pièce de résistance" in her expansive Steiff collection.  She had searched several decades for a set of "mixed" skittles - meaning that each skittle had a different animal on it.  She had seen previous to this set an early set of Steiff skittles that featured wool felt hens and roosters, but it was not "just right enough" for her to buy.

Good things come to those who wait.  The owner saw this set in a glass case at the Atlantic City show.  She knew it was authentic, based on her experience and comprehensive knowledge of the brand.  As you can imagine, she could not believe her eyes - or luck - in finally being able to fulfill a lifelong Steiff search!  Fast forward a few years post purchase, the owner had a meeting with Jorg Junginger, great-grandnephew of Margaret Steiff and the head of the Steiff design department at the time.  He was "blown away" by its quality and condition, and dated it as early as the late 1800's.  It is pretty hard to impress a Steiff family member - given they have access to the full Steiff archives for viewing -  but this set did just that!

Steiffgal is gaming that this review of Steiff's marvelous and charming skittle sets has been as fun as child's play for you!

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more. 

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