A humble teddy bear sold for 10 times its estimate at auction as phone, room and internet bidders fought to buy a toy with an incredible war story.
The battered early 20th century bear, which was used as a soldier’s pillow in an army tank and played a part in the Allies’ Victory Parade in Berlin in 1945, sparked interest from both bear and militaria collectors in Britain and around the world when it went under the hammer at Hansons London.
Two phone bidders, room and internet buyers lined up to win the battle of the bear but it was a room bidder and bear collector who triumphed on the day.
Kirsty Johnston, a 59-year-old retired nurse from Barnet, London, paid £4,000 for the very special bear – more than 10 times its low estimate of £400.
She said: “I thought it would sell for more than its estimate thanks to its provenance. I saw a story about it in the Metro. I collect WW1 and WW2 bears. I have around 1,000. I’ll be taking him home to join a nice collection of old bears in my sitting room. Hopefully he’ll have a good Christmas.”
Amazed owners Tom, 76 and Mo Matthews, 75, from Stafford, were so stunned by the result they rang Hansons in case their eyes were deceiving them.
Mo said: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw the bear had sold for £4,000. I had to ring up to check in case I needed new glasses. We’re delighted.”
Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “I’m thrilled for all concerned. It’s an incredible result for an incredible bear. We had bids from all over the world, including America, but he’s staying in England where he belongs.”
The bear, which had been languishing in a loft for 40 years, was given to Tom Matthews’ father, Thomas Matthews snr, in 1944 by a grateful school teacher in Raamsdonksveer, Holland, after British troops liberated their town during the Second World War.
She was particularly grateful to Thomas, a member of the Royal Artillery’s 62nd anti-tank regiment, because he risked his life to source coal and provide heat for the people of Raamsdonksveer who enjoyed a hot bath for the first time in years.
Tom jnr, a retired aircraft technician from Stafford, said: “We have no children, no one to leave the bear to. I hated the thought of him ending up in a skip during house clearance because someone though he was just a scruffy old bear. He’s seen and done a lot of things – more than most people.
“My father was given the bear by a teacher he was billeted with in Holland. He was humbled by the gift as she had so little. She wanted him to take the bear home for me as she was so appreciative of what he’d done.
“One of my first memories of dad is seeing him – and the bear – after he was demobbed in 1946. I would only have been about three, but I remember him walking through the door at 2.15am and saying ‘what the bl**y hell is he doing up at this time?’. We were all there to welcome him home. He had a large German ammunition box and inside was the bear and a yellow corduroy elephant
“He told me he’d used the bear as a pillow when he slept in his M10 tank destroyer at Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during the Second World War. The bear also crossed the Rhine, came under shell fire and took part in the Allies’ victory parade in Berlin, sitting on dad’s lap.
“It was bigger than me back then. I was a bit frightened of it at first. It sat on a chair by the side of the bed. It ended up in the loft for decades until this year. Our local paper requested stories to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Dad took part in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944 at Juno Beach and the bear was part of his war story.”
Thomas snr, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, told his son that Raamsdonksveer had been stripped bare by the Germans when the British army arrived.
Tom jnr said: “The teacher he was staying with and her two children – her husband had been taken away by the Germans - had a stove but no coal to light it. One of dad’s colleagues knew there was some coal on an old barge grounded on the river. They decided to get it.
“They drove there in a Bren carrier and started shovelling the coal into it but were spotted by Germans who opened fire. They carried on taking the coal but suddenly the barge sank lower and they were up to their waists in water. The carrier wouldn’t start and they realised the only thing that would shift it was an M10 tank. But they were locked up in a compound two miles away.
Tom Matthews jnr with the bear. Credit: Birmingham Live
“Dad jumped off the barge, sank to his chin in water and started to get away. The Germans opened fire but he escaped and began the two-mile walk to the tank park. He tiptoed in, found his M10 and it roared into life.”
“Dad came under mortar fire when he returned with the tank but they managed to get coal back to the town. Stoves and fires were lit and water was heated for the first time in years. All the lads had a decent shave and everyone went to sleep in warm houses.
“The teacher said to dad, ‘you’ve been ever so good to us. You’ve fed us and kept us warm. You’ve made us feel like human beings again. I want to give you a present for your son’.
“She went to the cupboard and came back with the well-worn teddy. Dad didn’t want to take it but she insisted. It had no eyes so she got two buttons and stitched them on. She also darned his nose and paw. She said, ‘it’s not much but I hope your son will enjoy him’.
“My father was also given a pair of wooden clogs in Raamsdonksveer. Dad was a shoemaker and got talking to a clog maker in the town who made the clogs for me. Mum painted them blue and they used to hang on my bedroom wall.”
The bear and clogs were sold on December 9, 2019 at Hansons London, Normansfield Theatre, 2A Langdon Park, Teddington, TW11 9PS.To find out more, email [email protected]