Christie's offers bidders a bearnanza

HERE she is,'' announces the auctioneer at Christie's, ``all dressed up and nowhere to go . . . . What am I bid?'' ``She'' is held aloft for all to see by a young assistant. He looks as solemn as possible under the circumstances, which is not very. But she takes it very seriously indeed, in her linen smock and blue trousers, with her brown embroidered string nose, large button eyes, plush coat, and long footpads. She wears an expression of profound, well, . . . forbearance . . . mingled with irresistible cuddlesomeness. She is everything a teddy bear should be.

When she was made, all 20 inches of her, circa 1910, who could possibly have guessed she would one day be the star of the world's first soft-toy auction devoted almost exclusively to teddy bears?

Bidding for this nameless bear -- Lot179 -- is keen. It leaps up in tens, soon becoming a tussle between only two bidders. But at last the woman near the back of the hall shakes her head with sad but experienced resignation: She will go no higher. And No. 179 is knocked down to an ``anonymous overseas collector'' near the front. The final figure: 700 (about $1,000, at the exchange rate), 300 more than Christie's top estimate.

This may sound like a lot for a mere teddy, but in fact Sotheby's, a rival auction house, holds the current record for the most expensive teddy bear at 3,400 ($4,890) sold Oct. 1. This more than trebled the record previously set by Phillips last February for a love-worn 80-year-old nicknamed ``Threadbear.'' That bruin, like most of the collectors' teddies fetching high prices today, was made by the much-esteemed German firm of Margarete Steiff. (Steiff is still a leading teddy-bear maker, 82 years a fter the very first teddies were invented.) Threadbear, in his nappy (diaper) and dog collar, fetched 1,100 and set rolling what will have to go down in history as The Year of the Bear.

Another Phillips sale this year included no fewer than 50 teddy bears. But the bearnanza at Christie's put almost 200 under the hammer. All sold, although some reached little more than 20. It was a cheerful Christmas sale. In a way it seemed more a matter of finding good homes for the bears than purely an exercise in making money out of them.

The auctioneer was Robert Brookes, director of Christie's collectors' department, a young man who looked perfectly at home with this enormous hug of bears. He seemed quite familiar with some of them. Lot 152, for instance, a cinnamon teddy with moving arms, legs, and head, was on particularly chummy terms with him. He nodded his head. Brookes nodded back. And then auctioned him.

And Lot 53, who had long arms and feet with felt pads, glass eyes, and a hump back (this last feature being a sign of a comparatively old, and therefore ``desirable,'' teddy), he described as ``actually a very nice bear.''

For Lot 15 he showed a touching concern. This big bear sat nonchalantly on the auctioneer's elevated table. But precisely as someone bid 30 for him, he unexpectedly lost his balance and fell off. Mr Brookes caught him heroically and asked, ``Are you all right?'' A minute or two later someone had purchased him for 55.

Why do people sell their teddy bears? It's a puzzle.

One successful bidder, Elizabeth Cockayne, said, ``I could never part with mine'' (and she has more than 75). Stephen Cockburn of Cuckfield, Sussex, who now has more than 50, feels the same. This cheerful, bow-tied teddy-enthusiast started collecting before the current fad, paying a mere 90 four years ago for a single auction lot of numerous bears. And he has never parted with his childhood bear. ``He's over 40 years old,'' he told me, ``and was bouht in anticipation of my birth.''

Evidently, however, some people do grow out of their love affair with teddies. This shocking fact, made public, may send reverberations of dismay through the bear world. (And anyone who doubts that such a world exists needs only read one of the books on teddy bears published in Britain in 1985, which include ``Teddy Bears, A Celebration,'' by Mary Hillier, and ``The Teddy Bear Lovers' Book,'' by Philippa and Peter Waring. But such had been the fate of Lot 15. He was discovered forgotten in an attic o n the Isle of Man by Mrs. Agnew Somerville, who runs a professional antique service. Thanks to her, he is no longer considered worthless -- even presumably by the family that consigned him to such ignominious obscurity. And he has appeared on national television news.

Nancy Zins, recently moved to London from Washington, had no plan to bid for bears. She was taking photographs in preparation for work as a children's book illustrator. But there she was at the close of the sale hugging three irresistible bears, one of them a raggedy blue chap who could, perhaps, only be described as beaten up.

Did she bid on impulse? I asked. ``Ye-es!'' she smiled a little contritely. ``Now I have to go and face my husband over lunch. He'll say, `What are you DOING!?' But I think bears are going to increase in value, you know.''

That, however, as her three bears clearly knew, was just a rationalization. Surely she was never going to put them up for auction again, whatever the price. How could she bear to?

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