Treasures: Our soldiers of fortune
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
'There were once five-and-twenty tin soldiers. They were all brothers, born of the same old tin spoon.
"They shouldered their muskets and looked straight ahead of them, splendid in their uniforms, all red and blue." In 1838, when Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Steadfast Tin Soldier was published, toy soldiers were two dimensional silhouettes.
It was not until the late 19th century that companies produced three-dimensional models. These early toy soldiers were mostly made in Germany and France, but the company that was to transform the industry was English. In 1893, William Britains invented a method of hollow-casting lead. "The hollow toy soldiers were lighter to transport and cheaper to make," explains Neil Read, ceramic artist and former toy soldier collector.
Britains and the British soon led the industry and the 54mm figurines became the international standard. At first, the casting was a little rudimentary. "The horses of the early cavalry figures have a single central ear," says Read. "Once the moulding technique became more sophisticated, the horses were made with two separate ears."
The earliest models are unmarked. They are highly collectible but need an expert's eye to identify them. Other toy manufacturers soon began to imitate Britains' casting technique.
Following a successful law suit around the turn of the century, Britains began to stamp their toy soldiers on the base. Some are dated, but the date refers to when the mould was made, rather than the date of casting.
Collecting toy soldiers can be a consuming hobby. Read, who grew up in Scotland, became hooked when he discovered a box of Britains' lead soldiers belonging to his older brother.
By 1960, toy soldiers were no longer made in lead, which was no longer considered a suitable material for children's toys. In fact, the alloy used to make the soldiers was not as dangerous as it sounds. "You'd have to eat a lot of soldiers to become ill," says Adrian Little of Mercator Trading, an English dealer in toys and figurines. Early Britains' toys made from 1893 on can be worth around €140 each. Figures made after the Second World War are worth less, probably around €14 for a soldier and €42 for an officer. But, as Little emphasises, everything has value.
"Don't throw anything away. It's hard to find a Britains figure that's worth less than a fiver, providing it has both arms and a head." A complete set of figures is worth more than the same number of individual soldiers, and a boxed set is the most valuable of all. Mercator Trading currently has a Britains' boxed set No 66 of Bombay Lancers for €395.
Rare boxed sets can fetch much more. This November, Britains' Set No 10 of Salvation Army figures dating from around 1906 sold at the Old Toy Solider Auctions in Pittsburgh for $22,000 (€30,515). "The individual Salvation Army figures are the sort of thing people might have hanging around without knowing what they are," says Little. "The woman has a bonnet and a tambourine but the men are in a generic blue uniform. It's not immediately obvious what they are."
Britains produced sets of soldiers from around the world, including set No 1603, the Irish Free State Infantry. An eight piece pre-war set, made between 1937 and 1941, in the original Armies of the World Box, would probably fetch between €100 and €200. In May 2014 a collection of around 100 Britains toy soldiers, including Irish Free State Infantry soldiers, sold for €340 at Whytes.
In the period after the Second World War, toy soldiers were actually made in Ireland. The English toy soldier manufacturer, Timpo Toys, had a factory in Ireland around 1950, although Irish-made items were often non-military, including religious figurines and Irish jaunting carts. A rare Timpo Irish jaunting cart made here sold at Christies for £720 (around €1,000) in December 2005.
The American toy manufacturer, Comet, also established a factory in Claddagh, Co Galway, in the 1940s. Here, under the name of Authenticast Comet Gaeltacht Industries, thousands of toy figures were die-cast and painted. The company worked with Holger Eriksson, a famous Swedish sculptor of miniatures. His initials HE can be found on the base of the figures, along with the word 'Eire'.
The factory was destroyed by fire around 1950 but the moulds were salvaged by a Swedish employee. The original pieces designed by Eriksson and made in Ireland are highly valued by collectors.
See mercatortrading.co.uk; oldtoysoldierauctions.com; neilreadceramics.com; and whytes.ie.
In the salerooms
A fine jewellery and silver auction will take place at John Weldon Auctioneers on Tuesday, January 19 at 2pm. This first auction of the year includes lots that range from €20 to €20,000, many of them offering possibilities for Valentine's Day.
Since February 14 is a traditional date for proposals, the timing could be fortuitous. Engagement ring options include a fine diamond three-stone ring set in 18ct gold (€800 to €1,200); a diamond single-stone ring set with diamond shoulders in 18ct gold (€600 to €900); and a diamond five stone ring (€500 to €700).
The auction also includes a fine diamond necklace set in 14kt gold (€15,000 to €20,000); a diamond three-stone ring (€10,000 to €15,000); and a diamond and pearl set necklace (€2,000 to €3,000) (right).
Potential Valentine's gifts for men include a gentleman's bi-metal Rolex wrist watch (€2,500 to €3,500). Full details are available on www.jwa.ie.
The next auction from Dolan's Art Auction House takes place at Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork, on Sunday, January 17 at 2pm. The auction includes boxing memorabilia.
A photograph of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) with Elvis is estimated between €400 and €600, as is a photo of Ali with the Beatles (the Fab Four are lying in the boxing ring as though knocked out). There is also a selection of Marvel comics (from €50 to €140) and DC comics (€15 to €25).
Curiosities include a delicate sampler, worked with buildings, flowers, animals, and a poem by Isaac Watts, within a floral border by Elizabeth Ann Johnson in 1816. The piece is redolent of the days when children were encouraged to meditate on mortality: the poem reads: "How fair is the rose, what a beautiful flower, the glory of April and May, but the leaves are beginning to fade in an hour, and they wither and die in a day."
The auction is probably strongest in paintings, which include the ubiquitous Markey Robinson (estimated between €1,800 and €2,400), a couple of aggressive looking cats by Graham Knuttel (€950 to €1,250), and a gentle landscape by Mark O'Neill (€1,450 to €1,850). Several paintings by Henry Morgan include Autumn Sunlight (€1,000 to €1,500). See www.dolansart.com.
This year sees a new monthly Antique and Collectors Fair for Dublin, commencing on Sunday, January 17 at Terenure Community Hall in the St Joseph's church grounds from 11am to 6pm. For further details, call Patricia Doyle on 087 9864678.
The County Clare Antiques Fair, scheduled to take place in Woodstock Hotel, Ennis has been cancelled.
For those based further north, an Antique and Collectors Fair organised by Clanrye Antiques takes place at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast tomorrow from 11am to 6pm.
Other antiques sales include the Old Thatch Mulranny, Westport, Mayo, where reductions continue until January 31. See www.vanessaparkerrarebooks.com and www.rogergrimesantiques.com.