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Discover Mid-America — December 2007

‘Tis the season for Santa
and his collectors

by Anne Gilbert

For collectors and dealers, ‘tis the season to start thinking about Santa, as in displaying what you’ve got or thinking about adding to the collection. But such thoughts go a little further for Kathy Banowetz, owner of Banowetz Antique Mall in Maquoketa, IA.

While expecting her son Ben, Kathy found an old Santa at an antique show in Cedar Rapids. “Hadn’t paid much attention to them before,” said Kathy. “But they began to get my attention. I saw the variety and started collecting, and put one aside for Ben.”

Mrs. & Mr. Claus, Harold Gale Santas, from the collection of Dale and Sandra Jones. (photo courtesy of Dale and Sandra Jones)

Ben was born on Christmas Day and received his first Santa from mom. He got one each birthday/Christmas until those teen years starting creeping up.

The Santa giving stopped when Ben said something like, “No mom, I don’t need another Santa,” related Kathy, laughing. Ben will be 30 this Christmas.

Kathy’s collection of 500 or so Santa is private, not for sale. Her favorite is a papier-mâché German Belsnickle, from the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Kathy. “I bought it from some people whose mother had it.”

At first the folks didn’t want to sell because it was their mother’s prize Santa. Kathy remained patient and told them to let her know when they might want to sell it.

“The contacted me later and said they wanted to sell…because they knew it would ‘be treasured and loved,’” Kathy said.

Sandra Jones of Kansas City, MO says she thinks her husband Dale got her into Santa collecting. He worked for Harold Gale, a window display company in Kansas City that is now out of business. Santa, of course, was a mainstay for window displays during the holiday season.

“You see one, then another, and pick it up — it starts that way,” said Sandra.

The couple’s collection found its way to their beauty shop. The Santa display was popular with customers. When the shop was sold, the Santas took up resident again in the Jones’ home.

“Sometimes I miss not having a display,” said Sandra. When that happens, she “digs them out.” Her favorite is a Mr. & Mrs. Clause from Harold Gale. “Real distinctive faces, you can tell they are Harold Gale,” said Sandra.

With over 1,000 Santas, Ron Potter wants to say, “No more, Santas!” But it’s hard, especially when your mother gives you one. “It’s hard to turn down a Santa from your mom,” said Ron, a member of the board of the historic Vaile Mansion in Independence, MO.

He has collected for 30 years and says the attraction, for him, is the face. Though he once viewed the template Santa face as the one used by the Coca Cola Company.

Once he began collecting, Ron found out that all the faces looked different. “It became intriguing to me,” he said.

And the Santas keep coming. “People still like to give them to me — clothes pin, dried peppers, gourds, Santas painted on sand-dollars…it just goes on and on.”

But it’s not only the faces. Santa Claus is also known by many different names and his likeness has been used on a diverse group of items — all of which Ron Potter might not yet have gotten.

Tin Roly Poly Santa. Made by Schoenhut in the 1930s, just before they went out of business. Sold, February James Julia auction for $1,380.

Santa’s likeness appear on family Christmas tree ornaments and decorations to toys, illustrations and books. If you are a serious collector of antique toys, you may have to pay over $2,000 at auction for a Hubley cast iron sleigh with Santa and reindeer. Less expensive are the plastic Santa sleighs made in Japan in the 1950s for under $100. Santa has been around for hundreds of years. What you call him depends on what country you reside in.

One of the earliest Santa images can be traced to 200 AD and the harbor of Myra in Turkey. Legend has it that St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was credited with many miracles.

It began when he helped saved some poor girls from being sold into slavery for lack of dowry money by dropping gold into their windows. As Christianity spread so did the story of St. Nicholas. In Russia he was made a patron saint in the 9th century. He kept his bearded image. There was even a Mongolian version of Santa in the 13th century. At the end of the year, they celebrated and exchanged gifts. These days the Chinese God, Tsai Sen Yeh visits the children at the end of the year. And, like Santa, carries a sack filled with toys on his back. While the white beard remains, he is dressed in elegant robes.

By the 14th century, he was depicted with a long white beard and riding across the sky on a horse. However, he kept his religious image, dressed in robes of a priest. In Holland, Santa was originally known as “Kristkindl,” the German word for “Christ child.” Over the centuries it was translated into “Kris Kringle.”

Hubley Santa Claus sleigh. Father Christmas is drawn in the sleigh by two galloping reindeer, enameled in white with red, black and gilt trim. Sold at James Julia February auction for $2,300.

It wasn’t till the late 1840s in England that Santa developed the look closer to our present image. He was known as “Father Christmas.” Another influence on his appearance was the publishing of A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1848 by Clement Moore. In the illustrations he was pictured with his reindeer that had names. However, it was Thomas Nast, for the American magazine Harper’s Weekly, who showed him for the first time as plump and happy as he carried a bag of toys on his back. Santa played a role in politics in the 1860s when a drawing of him appeared, dressed in Stars and Stripes, giving Union Soldiers gifts.

Toy collectors are willing to spend big money, into the thousands of dollars, for antique Santa-image toys. There is a wide diversity that includes Jack-in-the-box, Santa acrobat on a stick, pull-toys and mechanical Santas. In 1875, Arthur Hotchkiss patented the “walking Santa,” one of the most popular Santa toys. The rights were sold to Ives. In 1893, it was offered in their catalog for $2.75. These days, if you could find one, the price could be $6,000/$7,000. Another version was made in the 1930s by Julius Chien of lithographed tin. It could sell for around $300.

In the 1960s, a Santa walker was made in Japan of tin and celluloid as a wind-up. With the popularity of Japanese-made toys, it could wear a price tag of $200. For the collector of mechanical banks, there is a Santa bank. When Santa drops his arm coins go down the chimney. It is a pricey $1,000 or more.

By the end of the 19th century Santa images were sold in many forms. One of the best-known Santa games was made in 1899 by McLoughlin Bros. If you could find “Visit of Santa Claus,” the price could be $2,000 or more. Still reasonably priced are the Santa decorations from Christmas tree ornaments and lights, to the paper decorations that often held candy.

There are dozens of different figural Santa ornament for the ornament collector. Not only in blown glass but in spun cotton, crepe paper and the expensive Dresden ornaments. Dresden ornaments were made of embossed cardboard. Most only two or three inches and embossed in metallic silver or gold. They were produced in the Dresden-Leipzig area of Germany beginning around 1880 until World War 1. Because of their fragility they are rarities, and expensive. Santa in a sleigh could cost over $700.

Equally fragile were the paper cornucopias that hung on the tree and held candy. Santa was a favorite subject. Most of these were made at home. Just coming into their own are early Christmas tree lights as a collectible category. While there are many variations of Santa, prices range from $20 to $300. Collectors include decorations, especially when they can find German Belsnickles of plaster or papier-mâché. These Santas aren’t usually dressed in the traditional red garments but gold or silver. Prices can be from $300 to over $700 depending on the size.

After collecting for over 30 years, Ron Potter now has over 1,000 Santas. (photo courtesy of Ron Potter)

For Disney collectors there’s a Santa handcar with Mickey Mouse in his pack. Made in 1937 by Lionel of pressed steel and composition, it could sell for over $2,000.

Santa has been used in advertising for decades. One of the most famous Santa ads was for Coca Cola, an illustration by American illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Years later the original artwork was purchased at auction for $3,250 by Mort Walker, known for his cartoon strip Beetle Bailey. He and his wife Cathy collect original illustration art.

Stores found Santa’s image a good sales tool. Since they were usually trashed after Christmas, collectors of advertising memorabilia are willing to spend hundreds of dollars to add them to collections.

These are only a few possibilities for Santa collectors. Who knows what is waiting to be discovered in a basement, attic or garage sale.

Anne Gilbert writes the Antique Detective syndicated columns. Bruce Rodgers contributed to this article.

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