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$86,000 Gift of Love Says Furever Yours

Collection: To celebrate an anniversary, a former Buena Park couple went tens of thousands over their limit to buy Happy Anniversary.

June 25, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

When Rosemary and Paul Volpp moved recently from Buena Park to Carson City, Nev., they sold off as many as 1,000 teddy bears from their collection.

Which left them with about 4,000.

"Understand that some of these are little tiny fellows," Rosemary Volpp said.

With the couple's relocation to Nevada, Orange County lost what many enthusiasts consider the most complete collection of old and rare teddy bears in the world.

The star of the Volpp collection is Happy Anniversary, a 24-inch teddy bear made by the Steiff Co. in 1926; in 1989, the Volpps--semiretired machinery-shop owners who intended to spend only $5,000 to $10,000 to celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary--bought her at Sotheby's Auction House in London for $86,000. For five years, Happy remained the world's most expensive teddy bear.

The Volpps waive speaker fees for their appearances with Happy at teddy bear conventions around the world, requesting that donations to charities be made instead; according to Rosemary Volpp, Happy has raised at least $100,000 for children's causes. (In the wake of the Volpps' move, Happy will not appear at the International League of Teddy Bear Collectors show this weekend in Orange.)

"Her record price has been broken, by possibly twice as much, by a gentleman in Tokyo, but nobody seems to care," Volpp said. "We thought Happy would just be completely forgotten, but people are more interested in her than they were before. We get letters all the time. She gets letters all the time.

"Most of the time, record-setting bears are sold as this latest one was, as a draw for a business venture--nine times out of 10 that's it. Happy was purely a gift of love, a surprising gift of love."

Volpp, 67, has written three books about teddy bears--her out-of-print "A Beary Merry Christmas" has become a collectible itself. Even as she writes Happy's memoirs, she searches for her Holy Grail, a teddy bear hood ornament made by Steiff earlier this century.

"I've only seen pictures; I've never actually seen one," she said.

Volpp, who has collected teddy bears for about 15 years, offered her perspective on various aspects of her hobby.

On its popularity:

"I could describe it in one word. Wild. We were just guests at Cieslik's Teddy Bar Total in Germany. Would you believe in two days 12,340 people came through that show?"

The bears' collectibility:

"It's a terrific market right now, and the projection is that it's going to be even larger because of the baby boomers. Your average bear collector is a college graduate. The average age is 45, the average salary $45,000. We're talking about collector bears, of course, which are usually hard, not soft, and more decorative. They're not the bear you put the baby to bed with.

The explosion of styles:

"You can't pin them down now--they're all this, they're all that. There's an infinite variety. We picked one up in New Mexico, it's clay! There are wooden bears. One woman in Japan hand-sewed a bear out of muslin--the whole bear was solid pearls."

The inner world of teddy bears:

"It's difficult to put into words . . . but of course a lot of people do talk to their bears. People stand and look at Happy with tears in their eyes. It's an emotional thing, and there's no explaining it.

"We heard something new in Germany this last time. A couple stood and stared at Happy, then turned to us and said, 'Mona Lisa.' I looked at Happy, I looked up at Paul . . . I saw that Happy does have kind of a Mona Lisa smile and that she can change. . . . Now don't laugh, but bears can change expression, they truly can, depending on what's going on around them."

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