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Ever wondered about collecting Bears??

July 23, 2021

Ever wondered about collecting Bears??

There are lots of different types of collections and collectors all over the world. Some big, some small, some popular, some niche. 

We caught up with Mike & Jennie Mende, two collectors from the UK who love their Teddy Bears as they give us some tips, tricks and prizes they've found over the years.

1. What first made you decide to collect teddy bears?

There was never any conscious decision. Mike still has his original bears from infancy (Volshebnik - Russian for Wizard - and Yellow Bear) and Jennie has a couple from her teens. Volshebnik is very much a wartime bear being made out of dog-tooth tweed, his feet of rexine and stuffed with cotton wadding, only his head and front paws are furry. Jennie bought me a pair of bears as a wedding present and I bought her a bear when she was suffering from a nasty bout of tonsillitis. After that things just began to mount up. Friends noted that we had a few bears and decided that bears were an easy present choice. From that our obsession developed until we now have something in excess of 400 bears, most are furry but we also have a number in ceramic, resin, wood and metal.

2. What is the oldest bear that you have?

Our oldest bear is simply called "Old Bear". Jennie saw him some fifty plus years ago on a stall at a jumble sale, couldn't resist and rescued him. Some time later he was taken to a bear fair where he was seen by Peter Bull, a well known bear expert who declared that Old Bear was produced in the 1920s making him around 100 years old. Other experts have confirmed that opinion. We, have two or three others in a similar condition but have not had them dated.

3. Where do you normally find your bears?

Many of our bears have been found on market stalls and in charity shops. Any holiday spent away from home meant that at least one more bear would be added to our "hug". Museum shops and galleries often turned out to be fertile ground, especially in the USA. You should gather from this that a relatively small number of our bears are actually bought as new. We don't favour any particular brand. However, in each of the 30-odd years since we have been married we have purchased the Christmas Bear from a certain world-renowned department store in Knightsbridge, London.

We rarely practice any extravagance in our purchases however, some years ago, a bear named Alfonzo came up for auction. He was an unusual, one-of-a-kind Steiff bear in red fur and wearing a peasant's costume specially made in 1908 for the young Russian Imperial Grand Duchess Xenia (who survived the revolution since she was in the UK at the time). He was bought by an Oxfordshire teddy bear shop for £12,000 who then arranged with Steiff to create a limited edition for exclusive sale through the shop.  The original Alfonzo is now a star attraction in a teddy museum in Denmark. As my mother was Russian, also named Xenia and born before the revolution, I felt I just had to have him no matter the cost and was fortunate in acquiring one for a healthy amount.

Far less extravagant was the occasion some 12 or so years ago when Jennie and I were in Leamington Spa, in a small general store, commonly known to us as a "Grot  Shop". Seated on the rather grubby floor at the back of the shop was a large (48"), fully articulated and lonely bear. He was unpriced, nevertheless, anticipating a fairly substantial price, we approached the young assistant at the till. He seemed slightly puzzled, thought briefly and said quizically, "Would thirty quid do?" My wallet was out in a flash and we left the store rapidly. I am a large individual having to use a walking stick so Jennie was forced to carry him. It was around Christmas and we were the cause of many a grin as we made our way through the town. One man remarked to Jennie, "Oh, isn't he cuddly. So's the bear!"
On internet investigation we discovered the bear's name was Big Harry. 

4. When looking to add to your collection, what do you look for in your teddies? E.g. style, tags attached, certain brands?

We have never (apart from our annual Christmas teddy) sought to collect any particular brand and we haven't bothered about tags although we do carry out a certain amount of research on our collection. At an early stage in our collecting we decided to limit our teddies to those that were articulated but that soon fell by the wayside. We find many of the more traditional brands, especially those from Central Europe to be less than appealing, it seems their design has remained almost constant since the early part of last century in their posture.  Look for the teddy that is looking at you and emoting, "Buy me!" for all it is worth. Many artist designed, unique teddies have that quality. Funnily enough many of our teddies are slightly cross-eyed. In one way or another they may tell a story or have a special background. For instance, some years ago we were in Washington at the Smithsonian Institute and were able to buy the exact replica of the original teddy presented to Teddy Roosevelt.

5. For anyone who would like to start collecting, what would be your advice?

Presumably the reason for collecting is the love of bears for themselves and not speculating on an increase in value as that rarely, if ever, works. Be prepared to make a lot of room for display in your home. If you can't see them what's the point in having them? Pay particular attention to market stalls and charity shops (I recently purchased a boy and girl 12" teddies in traditional German costume both seated on rocking chairs for the unbelievable sum of £4.50. (I would have been happy to pay twice that for one bear without the chair.)) Be mindful of any young children in the house, don't put your best bears out to be played with. On the other hand don't discourage them, have some inexpensive cuddly bears out to be played with. Make sure that any charity shop or market stall teddies are thoroughly cleaned, many books on teddies give clear instructions on cleaning methods for different types of construction. Start to learn about the different brands, their strengths and weaknesses. If you have little room to spare ask yourself if you can limit your collection. Jointed or not? Full size or miniature? Stick to one brand or type? If your bear needs repair always seek help and advice from experienced people. The specialist teddy magazines are full of adverts from professionals. But, above all, enjoy the bear's and yourself!

6. What is your favourite Gund bear?

it's safe to say that our favourite Gund bear has to be our cream Philbin. His facial expression and his cheeky posture are guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone's face. In addition he was given to us by an especially good friend and Philbin has become the central topic of conversation in our emails throughout lockdown. Our most surprising Gund is Macy, a promotional teddy from New York found in a charity shop in a small English country town. 

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