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The Look of a Paws Celebre

Teddy bears: Some collectors have paid $86,000 or more for the treasures. Show in Orange will feature fine examples of international snuggling.

June 25, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's all in the expression, teddy bear aficionados will tell you. And because every expression is slightly different, collectors think nothing of having hundreds of the dolls.

Oops!

"Let's not get confused between a doll and a teddy bear," says teddy bear artist Mac Pohlen of Brea. "I'll put up with a lot, but not that!"

And let's also not confuse these bears with children's toys.

These ones are prized by adults--and to the tune of $86,000. That's how much Happy Anniversary sold for at Sotheby's in 1989 to couple then living in Buena Park. Two years ago, that record was broken--perhaps by as much as double.

Those are exceptions, of course. Artists' bears generally cost $50 to $600; mass-produced teddy bears can start as low as $2 but also run well into the hundreds.

Paying top dollar for stuffed animals doesn't stop hordes of collectors; they're basically softies, and not just when it comes to woven wool.

"Some people will only buy bears made out of a certain fabric or a certain color," said Pat Todd, a collector from Arcadia. "I'm not like that. I don't care if its mohair or plush or a ceramic figurine. If I like it, I'm going to get it . . . and if it's a teddy bear, I generally like it. This is a sickness, you know."

What adults treasure is not necessarily the bear's snuggle-ability.

"The perfect bear," Pohlen says, "is one that ages gracefully, a bear that you never tire of looking at no matter if he acquires a few wrinkles around the eyes, a stomach that goes to paunch, a back that slowly humps."

Like any good companion.

Many teddy bear artists are based in California. Pohlen is one of two Orange County artists who will have their work displayed at a show Saturday in Orange. The other local exhibitor is Linda Johnson of Beardeau Bears in Huntington Beach, who specializes in making patterns that others can use to make bears. Sponsored by the International League of Teddy Bear Collectors, the show will have exhibitors from the United States, Japan, Germany, England and Australia.

Pohlen's point about not confusing bears and dolls is well taken. For starters, teddy bears have edged out dolls for third place among collectibles behind coins and stamps.

But there are more fundamental differences.

Barbie's charm, for instance, is largely in her wardrobe. Sue Coe, a Monrovia-based bear artist, observes that "there are dressed bears and there are bare bears." Pohlen believes the allure of a teddy bear goes beyond mere outfits.

"I have always favored naked bears of a clean and simple line," says Pohlen, who makes about 300 bears a year, costing $150 to $400.

"Hats and clothing can add a bit of whimsy, but in most cases the bear should be able to make a statement through expression and body style alone. I want to make classic teddies that live from generation to generation, carrying on traditions of kindness, loyalty and patience."

A line of teddy bears that has withstood the test of time, and has been considered the Rolls-Royce of teddy bears, comes from the German company Steiff, the first commercial maker of teddy bears.

According to Suzanne Irvin, owner of the Bear Clawset in Long Beach, teddy bears take their name from President Teddy Roosevelt, who while hunting in Mississippi in 1902 refused to shoot a captured bear. The incident was immortalized in a political cartoon.

A news article about the hunt at the time described the incident as more gruesome than cute. Myths and subsequent cartoons to the contrary, no cuddly cub was involved. In the Washington Post's front-page account, Roosevelt directed a fellow hunter to put the exhausted animal "out of its misery," which he did with a knife.

According to "The Teddy Bear Catalog" (Workman Publishing Co., 1984), Roosevelt gave Morris Michtom of Brooklyn permission to call two plush toy bears that his wife, Rose, had made, "Teddy's Bears"; the couple's enterprise eventually became the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.

Around the same time, Margarete Steiff and her nephew, Richard, developed a jointed mohair bear they introduced at the 1903 Leipzig Fair in Germany. An American buyer snapped up several thousand. By 1907, the Steiff Co. had made almost a million of the bears. In 1926, Steiff produced the bear that former Buena Park residents Paul and Rosemary Volpp would purchase at the London auction more than 60 years later for $86,000.

In the '80s, teddy bear makers began branching out; today there are hundreds of companies.

Advertisers in the latest issue of the specialty magazine Teddy Bear and Friends (Teddy Bear Review is the other major periodical) sport cuddly brand names such as Merrythought, Enchantwood and even Cuddl'somes. Other companies employ barely concealed puns such as Bear Elegance in Escondido and Sue Coe's Bear Feet.

*

Arcadia collector Todd owns almost 500 bears ranging from half an inch to 5 feet. Though her collection includes "quite a few" Steiff bears, she's particularly fond of a very different type.

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