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Bushels of Bears, Nary a Growl : Ever Thought of Decorating Your Den With a Teddy or Two?

Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Like mischievous gremlins, teddy bears have multiplied like mad and taken over the home of Rosemary and Paul Volpp.

There are bears everywhere inside their two-story Buena Park residence--sitting on top of the refrigerator, napping under the coffee table, overflowing from bookshelves and china cabinets and just making themselves comfortable on tables, beds, dressers and the mantle above the fireplace.

There’s King Arthur, a rare 1904 Steiff holding court in his red velvet cape, inside a curio cabinet; Bo and Dearheart, two 1905 creations of the Steiff Co. in what is now West Germany, cavorting in a crib, and Poirot, a contemporary bear who sits in the Volpp’s bathroom in his shower cap, waiting for his turn to bathe.

“He’s been waiting two years,” Rosemary says.

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The Volpps have about 5,000 teddy bears, one of the largest collections in the world--probably even the largest, the Volpps say. Those bears that can’t fit in the home have been put in storage--enough bears to fill 100 boxes.

“It was getting to where we couldn’t walk around in here,” she says.

The Volpps collect bears big and small, from a six-foot, 1970s Steiff bear made for display in a toy store who greets visitors at their front door to a bear so tiny that it can fit inside a walnut shell.

“A bear is a bear is a bear,” Rosemary says.

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They have bears of all ages, from the earliest prototypes made in the 1900s to contemporary “artist” bears.

Artist bears are handcrafted, elaborately dressed bears that can sell for several thousand dollars even when they’re new. Often they’re numbered and issued by the artist in limited edition, just like a fine print.

The Volpps have one of eight special-edition teddy bears made for Whoopi Goldberg when the comedian was a presenter for a Make-A-Wish Foundation benefit. The teddy, dubbed Whoopi Goldbear, wears dreadlocks and sequined sneakers.

There’s also a Southern belle bear with an elaborate cream-colored satin gown, Little Bear Riding Hood in a red cape, a Cinderella bear, a Theodore Roosevelt bear in his riding outfit, a Statue of Liberty bear, a bear dressed up as Father Christmas in a red-velvet, fur-trimmed cape and even a crazy bear in a straitjacket.

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“I call that one a self-portrait,” Rosemary jokes.

Old bears, meanwhile, attract the couple because they wear the badges of their previous owners’ affection.

Rosemary loves bears that look well loved, their mohair fur matted or bald in spots from too much play, their button eyes scratched.

“If they could only talk,” she says, admiring their furry faces.

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Many of their old bears are rare, including the celebrity bear, Aloysius, a patched-up 1907 Steiff featured in the British TV miniseries “Brideshead Revisited,” and a bear identical to the original Winnie the Pooh bought at Harrod’s in London for Christopher Robin, son of Pooh author A.A. Milne.

Among the older bears, those made by the Steiff Co. in Germany in the early 1900s are the most sought after by collectors. These childhood toys, revered for the quality of their workmanship, are bought and sold by adults for thousands of dollars.

Hans-Otto Steiff, the company’s ambassador, has called the Volpp’s collection of Steiff and other bears “unequaled in the world as to rarity and quality.”

While the Volpps have uncounted Steiffs, among their favorites are Bo and Dearheart, 24-inch golden-haired bears with center seams down the middle of their faces. During its first years in the bear-making business, Steiff was frugal and used remnants of mohair for the faces of some of the bears, making them an especially rare find today.

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The Volpps enjoy dressing and displaying their bears just as much as they like adding to the collection.

The couple has orchestrated bear wedding parties, bear beach outings, bear hayrides, bear fishing trips. They’ve dressed the bears as cheerleaders, Dracula, baseball players, chefs, an ice cream man and Hawaii-bound tourists. At Halloween, the bears wear pumpkin suits, at Christmas they wear Santa hats and at Thanksgiving they’re dressed like pilgrims.

Rosemary’s 82-year-old mother, Marie Chidesta, makes most of the bears’ costumes.

The Volpps give each of their bears a name and often endow them with a personality.

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“The bears kind of talk to you,” Paul says.

Ambrose, a copper-colored Steiff made about 1907, arrived in the mail that afternoon wearing a green velvet suit. Paul swears that the bear looks ornery.

“He hates that suit. I think he’s worn it long enough to be upset. He may even bite,” Paul tells Rosemary.

The Volpps don’t regard bears as investments.

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“It bothers me when Steiff comes out with limited-edition bears and people buy (one), thinking it will double in value in a couple of years. It will not,” Rosemary says.

While they prefer bears made with mohair fur, jointed limbs and a cone-shaped nose that isn’t too long, they’ll take any bear whose overall appearance makes them feel “comfortable.”

“One of the best ways to measure a bear is if it makes you smile,” Rosemary says. “Some will make you laugh out loud.”

The Volpps began collecting bears in 1982, joining what has become the fourth-largest adult hobby in the United States, according to Rosemary.

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Paul already had impressive collections of antique model trains and full-size trucks. While at a model train and toy show, a friend of Paul teased Rosemary into buying her first bear, a North American Bear Co. creation she bought for $42 and named Amelia Bearheart. A similar bear recently sold at auction for about $1,000.

Since then, bears have found their way into the Volpp home via all kinds of routes.

“The bears come with crazy stories. One woman sold us her childhood bear because she needed money for a furnace,” Paul says.

They found Tucker, a 1903 caramel-colored Steiff, at an estate auction. He had been sitting nearly untouched for decades in an old Arrow shirt box.

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“It was kind of sad,” Rosemary says. “I wonder why nobody played with him.”

Grand Fellow, a 28-inch 1905 Steiff, came in a barrel, “wrapped unceremoniously around the good china,” Paul says.

The Volpps love to get a bear directly from its original owners. Paul recalls when two well-dressed, elderly women approached Rosemary at a bear show:

“One of them said, ‘I have my childhood bear, would you like to see her?’ The bear was a collector’s dream--one of the first bears made by Ideal. She’d bought it in 1904.”

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The woman liked Rosemary and would sell it only to her.

Often, old people sell their childhood bears to the Volpps because they know that the couple will give them a good home instead of selling them to the highest bidder.

“We don’t sell bears, we collect them,” Rosemary says. “Unfortunately, we keep picking them up.”

The Volpps adopt the bears, calling them by the same name used by the original owners.

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“You’d be surprised how many people name their bears Teddy,” Rosemary says. “When we get a Teddy, we usually add on another name.”

Teddy Long John, a 1905 Steiff, got his name when he underwent repairs and was found to be stuffed with old underwear. The Steiff factory sometimes used old rags when workers ran out of stuffing.

The Volpps also have picked up rare bear memorabilia, including a sketch of a little bear by Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman that appeared on all of his cartoons depicting Theodore Roosevelt, for whom teddy bears are named.

The couple travels up to 40,000 miles a year to teddy bear conventions sponsored by collector clubs, giving slide shows and exhibits of their bears.

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They write a column for the Teddy Bear and Friends magazine, telling other collectors how to best display their collections, and they’ve written three books on decorating with bears.

Paul, who turned his construction machinery business over to his son and son-in-law, spends much of his time photographing the bears in their costumes for the books and magazines.

While the Volpps try to keep from buying more bears, they have trouble resisting bears when they attend a show.

“A bear will jump out at you and you’ll take that one,” Rosemary says. At the Volpp home, there’s always room for one more.

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The International League of Teddy Bear Clubs will hold a teddy bear show and sale today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel at the City, 100 The City Drive, Orange.

Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children, with proceeds used to buy bears for the Orangewood Children’s Foundation.


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