CARTHAGE, Mo. — They queue up for hours, clutching their Precious Moments treasures--those familiar porcelain figurines of soulful children with eyes shaped like teardrops. Their mission: To have them signed by Samuel J. Butcher, the Michelangelo of collectibles.
It is the annual gathering of the Precious Moments Collectors' Club, which has attracted 1,500 collectors from 500 clubs to the shrine--the Precious Moments Chapel and visitors' center.
"This is basically middle America," says Patrice Campbell Shaw of Enesco Corp., the Illinois-based giftware company behind the phenomenon. "Some of them have $30,000 to $40,000 in Precious Moments figurines."
The line snakes slowly between ropes. "They'll stand in line forever," says Butcher, a soft-spoken onetime Bible teacher whose figures with themes of love, hope and sharing are snapped up by 600,000 collectors worldwide. "These little things have messages, and they're messages that really touch people."
A collector is born, Butcher explains, when someone receives one as a gift. Typically, he says, that person is having a problem "and here is something that says, 'God understands.' "
Butcher has no "brand-name religion," but he believes. He believes so much that, in 1989, he opened the Precious Moments Chapel, which enthusiasts do not hesitate to compare with the Sistine. Indeed, the 400,000 annual visitors learn that, like Michelangelo, Butcher lay hour after hour on his back on a high scaffolding, painting the heavenly ceiling mural.
Frolicking there are 75 angels--with teardrop eyes. Children--with teardrop eyes--depict biblical stories and Christ's life in 54 murals and 15 stained glass windows.
If the chapel is the spiritual mecca for Precious Moments collectors, the visitor center, with its enchanted forest, castle and moat, restaurant and gift shop, is their secular heaven-on-earth.
These people are \o7 serious\f7 about Precious Moments. They'll tell you that "The Lord Loveth a Cheerful Giver," a figure of a girl with a puppy, originally a $12 gift store item, was "retired" in 1981 and is a rare find commanding up to $2,000.
Butcher, 52, who once supplemented his income as a part-time janitor and bought clothes for his seven children at the Salvation Army, acknowledges that Precious Moments has made him a very rich man, "but a grateful one."
In the mid-'70s, he was a "chalk minister," teaching children about God through his drawings. At a friend's urging, he drew a modest greeting card line that debuted at a Christian booksellers event in Anaheim.
Enesco president/CEO Eugene Freedman saw the potential of those drawings and, in 1978, they hit the gift shops in three dimensions. The first, "Love One Another," a boy and girl on a tree stump, just took off.
Today, Freedman says, the figurines, plates, ornaments, jewelry, mugs and all add up to "in excess of $100 million a year" in sales.
Carthage is proud to call Butcher a Carthaginian. But the truth is that, although his home on the complex is a tourist attraction, he divides his time between homes in Chicago--close to Enesco--and the Philippines, where he does evangelical work with children and where Precious Moments soft dolls are made. Butcher is not one for pretense. "When I'm here," he says, "I live in the garage." Tourists don't come through there.
Carol Osterberger, a collector from Independence, is punching holes in conventioneers' badges, "so they don't go through the line again and get another one signed." She is wearing a vest inscribed, "Sam's Angels."
Oklahomans Debbie and David Kendall have been waiting three hours. The figurines "mean that much to us," she explains. "They remind us of things we've been through in our lives, our ups and downs."
Butcher understands that. His son, Philip, was killed last year in a car accident. He has dedicated a small room at the center to him and there he has painted a mural with teardrop-eyed angels bidding Philip, "Welcome Home."
Visitors dab at their eyes as they pause before it. "Sam has an unbelievable talent for tugging at people's heartstrings," says Freedman. "Those who have suffered the loss of a loved one find comfort."
Outside, under a tent, collectors are playing "Wheel of Fortune" with names of Precious Moments figurines. Precious Moments bingo is under way.
Throughout America, collectors avidly scour swap meets for the figures. They watch collectors' magazines for ads for "retired" or "suspended" designs that have escalated in value.
"A lot of people make a buck off it," says Enesco's Shaw. "But most of them are very devout people who believe in this."
Maryann and Buck Clark, parents of seven, have driven 1,200 miles from their home in Aston, Pa. to this gathering. They are wearing his-and-hers Precious Moments T-shirts. Starting in 1984, she has acquired 300 pieces "in all categories, the wedding ones, the baby ones . . ."
Buck, a dry cleaner, laughs and says, "You become addicted," and jokes that next he'll have to add on a room. But he goes along. "I figure it's a better addiction than cigarettes or drinking."
Coming to Carthage meant a chance to be photographed with costumed Precious Moments characters and to be entertained by Pat Boone. (Pat and Shirley are collectors).
And to shop. Shaw was reporting an average weekend sale of $300 to $500. "They're very, very devoted."
Sheryl Williams of Roseville, Minn., a collector for 13 years, has 900 pieces, which she values at "close to $100,000." She has had to add risers to her display cabinets.
Williams, who is nighttime supervisor of computer operations at University of Minnesota, is editor of "Precious Insights" magazine. She laughs and says, "I work full time to support it."
She explains her addiction: "I'm a Christian, and there's something there for every little moment, a little testimony for every little piece on the shelf."