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Collectors need a sound strategy when it comes to drafting fresh recruits into a private army of antique toy soldiers.

“It’s much like learning how to paint,” Christian Keller said. “You can’t master it overnight, nor do you want to. The process is part of the enjoyment.”

Keller, a history professor at the Army War College and Middlesex Township native, has been collecting toy soldiers for 30 years.

For him, the hobby grew out of a need as a boy to expand and upgrade the army he used to play with out on the living room floor.

Today, he buys and sells antique toy soldiers from a display case at the Northgate Antique Mall in Carlisle.

Market research

As shoppers this holiday season muster to invade local stores, Keller’s advice is to start a campaign by gathering intelligence.

The key to buying any antique toy is to do the research into the history of the manufacturers and the cycle of their production runs.

“People need to remember these were the play-things of the past,” Keller said. “They were manufactured to turn a profit for the company.”

Then as now, toy manufacturers monitored sales figures on products sold and adjusted their production runs to meet consumer demand.

More often than not, the relative value and rarity of an antique toy depends on how well it was received when it was first released and how well it maintained its popularity.

The less popular the toy, the shorter the production run, which could mean fewer examples of that particular toy exist today, Keller said.

One would think the rarer the toy, the greater the value, but so depends on the fickle flux of what is hot and what is not in the antique toy market.

Buyer beware

Age is only part of the story. “Condition is everything,” said Judy Shumaker, a Dillsburg area collector who does business at Bedford Street Antiques in Carlisle.

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Her advice to new collectors is to make sure your object of interest has all its original parts and most of its paint job. Above all educate yourself on the real McCoy.

People have been known to bury collectibles in the ground to stress them to appear older, said Shumaker, who started collecting a variety of antiques almost 50 years ago.

Both Shumaker and Keller agree the worst thing you can do to a vintage toy is try and restore it. “If a toy has been repaired, its relative value goes down,” Keller said. He added the same is true if the toy has been partially or completely repainted.

While auctions can be a good source for finding antique toys at reasonable prices, new collectors should be wary at first about placing bids until they know more about the products, Keller said.

He added, beyond book learning, it is important for new collectors to reach out and form working relationships with those already established in the hobby.

Connections are key

Keller grew up with an interest in history that blossomed into not only a profession, but a side business. He credits three men with helping him develop into a serious collector and dealer.

“It was a bond of friendship and mutual interest in the artistry and history of the toy soldiers,” Keller said. “This is an inclusive hobby that welcomes all comers.”

When Keller was 10, he met a prominent dealer in antique toy soldiers at what used to be the Silver Spring Flea Market — now the site of the Wegmans shopping center on the Carlisle Pike.

That dealer got him started. Bob Miner, a vendor at the now closed Antique World, took it from there teaching Keller what to look for and what to avoid.

Connections made led Keller to Warren Mitchell, an Ohio man who operated a mail order business that specialized in toy soldiers. At a time when long distance calling was still costly, Mitchell spent hours on the phone advising Keller on the scope and breadth of a hobby that has a global reach.

For Judy Shumaker, her mentor was a favorite uncle who took her to public sales when she was a girl. What drew her to collecting was curiosity over the stories behind the antiques.

About 40 years ago, her husband Jed quit drag racing and joined her in the collection and sale of antiques of all kinds. Due to his fondness for automobiles, the couple has a wide variety of antique toy vehicles and items associated with transportation, including scale model gas pumps, tow trucks, car carriers, taxis, Popeye the Sailor on a motorcycle and Burma-Shave road signs.

Both Shumaker and Keller encourage new collectors to be patient with themselves as they navigate the learning curve. “Nobody knows everything,” Shumaker said. “Every now and then, you will get the wool pulled over your eyes.”

“Enjoy the process for what it is,” Keller said. “Do not be afraid to ask questions.”

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