Bring on the Bears! We chat with ‘Steiff Star’ Rebekah Kaufman

Rebekah Kaufman is a third generation, lifelong Steiff enthusiast. Her collection of vintage Steiff collectibles numbers north of 800. Rebekah’s German grandmother kindled her love for the brand over four decades ago, and today Rebekah is the proud steward of many of her childhood Steiff treasures.

Rebekah’s passion became her vocation for several years when she had the pleasure of working for the US division of Margarete Steiff GmbH as the Steiff Club Manager. Today, she consults for the company as one of three North American archivists, leads company-sponsored collector’s events around the country, and authenticates and appraises vintage Steiff treasures.

Rebekah is a regular contributor to the publications Teddy Bear and Friends and the Steiff Club Magazine, which is translated into five languages. Her award winning blog, My SteiffLife, (http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com/) receives thousands of visits per month and focuses on interesting vintage Steiff items, Steiff antiquing adventures, and the history behind older Steiff treasures.

Rebekah is the admin for the vintage Steiff Facebook fan page, the National Steiff Examiner at Examiner.com, and the US and European Steiff Worthologist on WorthPoint.com. She is frequently tapped by auction houses and the media for Steiff expertise; recent engagements include James D. Julia, Theriault’s, Christie’s of London, Teddy Dorado, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the television programs Inside Edition and Pawn Stars. She and her collection are featured in a lifesized portrait by artist Michael Oatman which is part of a permanent installation at the West Cambridge Youth and Community Center in Cambridge, MA.

Rebekah truly leads “The Steiff Life.”

What are some notable discoveries that have been made recently in your area of expertise?

The world of Steiff is fascinating because just when you think you’ve seen everything, something uncataloged or extremely rare comes up for appraisal or auction. Many times these items are one of a kind, or hand-samples, or custom items without records, so it is fun and challenging to catalog and value them.

Recently, a most unusual all black Steiff bear from the turn of last century was discovered wrapped up in a blanket in an old suitcase. The suitcase and contents were purchased sight unseen for about £35 in the UK. This Ted is so rare, and so remarkable, that it and his story have caught the attention of the global Steiff community. He is coming to auction this summer and I would not be surprised if he ends up realizing €20,000 to €30,000.

What are your top tips for an aspiring collector in your area of expertise?

Only buy exactly what you love. Buy items in the best condition possible. Have a collection strategy and stick to it, so you don’t get distracted and waste time, money, and space. And finally, do not buy items only “to make money” and resell them – this does not happen too often!

What should a collector ask to identify an item and avoid common pitfalls?

Know the marketplace and what things cost – or should cost – before you buy anything. Comps are important, especially in a relatively soft collectibles environment. Don’t 100% trust the story behind every item, or at least don’t take it on a seller’s word that the item is “rare, old, and expensive!” Yes, it’s possible that an item came from a grandmother’s collection, but their grandmother could have purchased it new 3 or 4 years ago! If you are not sure, ask an expert for their opinion.

What questions should a collector ask to determine the fair sale price of an item?

Due diligence and research are key! The best way to stay up to date is to monitor auction results (make sure to understand the difference between hammer price and prices realized), check out what things sold for on large online channels like eBay, keep good records of your purchases, and to talk to other collectors about prices. Collector networks can be wonderful sources of information.

What is selling best in today’s market (which particular makers/styles)?

The lovely, rare, and expensive items in good, very good, or excellent condition. In my particular category, it is easier to find a buyer for a $3,000 item than a $60 item.

What other questions do people ask you most frequently in your area of expertise?

I am frequently asked how to clean fine Steiff items. I’m also asked about the importance and value of restoration for older treasures. And, for better or worse, I am often asked about the best way to sell an important piece of Steiff, or an entire collection when heirs or family are not interested in the items. As you can imagine, this does make me a little sad!