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Strange New Worlds Issue 9 - Jun/Jul 1993

Fantasy Miniature Collecting
by Scott E. Green

You go into any toy or game store and there you see them: figures out of Tolkein, Lovecraft, and other fantasy writers captured in white metal and neatly confined in plastic blister packs. They range in size from 25mm to 54mm and are intended to be used in Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games.

What do these tiny metal warriors, wizards, dragons, and maidens in distress represent to collectors? Are they an unusual element of the toy field or a fascinating extension of military miniature collecting? They could be an all new area of collecting.

Roger Besaw is the Associate Publisher of Stroke and Dagger, a magazine that covers the field of fantasy miniature collecting. He spoke to me about the immediate origins of fantasy miniature collecting.

"In the early 1970’s fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons started to become commercially popular. The way that these games’ rules are written is similar to the rules for table-top games involving military miniatures. While you did not actually need figures to play, their use certainly helped a role-playing game come alive. An old shoe from a Monopoly set could be used, but it would not be the same thing. The rise of role-playing games created a need for fantasy miniatures," said Besaw.

The first white metal fantasy miniatures became commercially available in 1974 and 1975. Three different companies started to release lead fantasy miniatures. Minifig, a leading British maker of military and historical miniatures came out with a line of 25mm fantasy figures loosely based on Tolkien’s novels. These were clearly intended for gaming use.

In this country, Squadron Shop, a mail-order retailer of gaming and modeling supplies released a line of 70-90mm tall figures also based on Tolkien’s work. These were initially released under the imprimatur of Squadron-Rubin -- "Rubin" being Ray Rubin, a designer and maker of military miniatures at that time.

Because of their size, the Squadron miniatures were for collecting and display. At the same time, Superior, a company better known for its pirate miniatures, also came out with a line of fantasy miniatures for collectors.

Most of the designers, sculptors, and makers of white metal fantasy figures had their roots in the military and fantasy miniature industry. Tom Meier, a leading sculptor and manufacturer of fantasy miniatures commented on this element of the field. "The people who started to make fantasy figures were those who already had careers in military miniatures. For example, my first work in 1975, when I was a teenager, was simply modifying existing medieval miniatures. However, it would be an overstatement to infer that interest in fantasy miniatures was an outgrowth of military miniatures. All during the 1950’s and 1960’s there was interest in fantasy figures. Mattel and other toy companies were making plastic action figures based on television, movies, and comic books. Aurora had their famous model kits based on the Universal Studio monsters. The interest was there, but it took the rise of fantasy role-playing and military miniature makers response to it in order to create fantasy miniature making as we know it today," said Meier.

Meier also noted that through the seventies and eighties, fantasy miniatures were mass-produced primarily for gaming. However, collecting interest was developing at the same time. The average collector was not a bad market for miniature makers.

"A collector buys three examples of each fantasy miniature that he or she wants. One would be kept in its package for the collection. One would be painted and used for gaming; most collectors would also be gamers. The third would be kept for swapping with other collectors," Besaw noted.

Many gamers paint their miniatures in order to personalize them. Normally this might reduce their value to collectors. However, there are now professional artists who paint fantasy miniatures for their owners. Their work enhances rather than diminishes the miniature value. It is rather like a pristine 1950 Mercury being worth more if it was customized by George Barris.

For many years the only principal exception to the mass-production of miniatures was the occasional large piece in finished pewter (usually over 70mm) made for the gift shop market. These were frequently dragons or unicorns.

In the last years several fantasy miniature makers have started to make fantasy miniatures specifically for the collector. These miniatures have several things in common. They are of limited production (usually a thousand pieces or less); there is documentation for each piece; they are generally large (54mm or greater) and are either designed by leading miniature sculptors or are based on the work of major fantasy/science fiction artists.

Besaw also stated, "The quality of the artwork in these pieces is fantastic. For example, New England Pewter produced 1,000 foot-high statues called War Against the Gods, copied from a Frank Frazetta< painting. The manufacturer’s list price was $400 and dealers have received offers of $1,000 or more from collectors for them. One company, Thunderbolt Mountain Studio, the personal studio of Tom Meier, was formed in 1988 for sales to the collector’s market. Their very first item was a set of six figures called Series A The Adventurers. One thousand were made. They retailed for $9.50. The set is now going for $75-$150."

An interesting point is the attitude of collectors towards who did the work. Certain sculptors, such as Tom Meier, have a strong reputation among collectors. His work, and that of his peers, is always going to be among the most expensive for collectors to buy.

There is a dispute among experts, however, concerning the value of work that is based upon the output of artists not associated with fantasy gaming. Andy Chernakis, a co-owner of Grenadier, a major manufacturer of fantasy miniatures, noted that "...collectors are going to look for artists whose work has been closely identified with heroic fantasy gaming, especially those who do covers and other artwork for TSR, this country’s major publisher of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons." On the other hand, Tom Meier said, " artist who has a well-established reputation such as Frank Frazetta is going to do well with collectors. Pieces based on his work have already attracted considerable collector attention. I am sure that other major fantasy/science fiction artists such as the Brothers Hilderbrandt and Michael Whelan should do well with collectors though their work has not been associated with fantasy gaming..."

The future of fantasy miniatures is unclear. There are debates over which medium to use (white metals vs. resin), what sculptors are going to be collectible, and whose designs are desirable for translation into three-dimensional form.

One thing is clear, fantasy miniature collecting is developing into a strong field of collecting and is just not a passing fad.

(Printed with permission from the Antique Trader Weekly, Dubuque, Iowa.
PHOTO ON ADJOINING PAGE: Miniature figures made from tin based alloy.   Produced by Heartbreaker Hobbies & Games, Inc.)


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