Collecting Britains Deetail Figures and Accessories – Part II
Tips for purchasing, wargaming, and display
In Part I of this post, which is adapted from an article which appeared in a 2011 issue of Toy Soldier and Model Figure magazine (copyright James Delson), I gave an overview of William Britain’s Deetail plastic toy soldiers and accessories. In Part II, I offer advice on how to acquire retired Britains Deetail figures, wargaming ideas, and display tips.
If you choose to begin collecting older sets, all of which are long out of production, you’re unlikely to find them in toy stores. For retired sets there are, basically, four routes to follow. First, there’s eBay, the on-line international market place for all things to all people. Second, you can buy from dealers of vintage plastics, on line or from catalogs (yes, I run The Toy Soldier Company, and am a dealer of vintage plastic toy soldiers). Third is to buy at toy soldier shows. Fourth, you can buy from auction houses.
Let the Buyer Beware: Educate, Watch and Wait
In order to buy using eBay, from an on-line dealer or from a traditional auction house (Vectis Auctions Ltd, in England, offers regular sales of toy soldiers), you need access to a computer, common sense and careful attention. The trick is to know what you’re looking for and to decide in advance what you are willing to pay. This may require months of research to see how much figures actually sell for, depending on condition, rarity and the completeness of the set(s) you are seeking.
As an example, Britains originally made two sets of World War II Germans. The version in the photo above was produced in 1976 and remained in production through the mid-90s. The second set, shown below, was released in 1977 and also remained in production through the mid-90s.
The difficulty for a collector is that the models in both sets wear the same uniforms, are painted in the same style, and have the same helmet decals. One can only differentiate between the sets by knowing the poses, as most dealers and auction sites sell them in mixed lots, rather than in their proper groupings.
My best advice is to visit eBay and auction sites often, keeping a written record of the items you are watching. For the first few months, write down the sets you are following, their condition and the final prices achieved. You will begin to see a pattern of which sets are most popular (and which may thus achieve higher prices), which sets are listed less frequently and which sets are shown mint-in-box if that’s your choice.
One thing you will find when buying old Deetail figures through any of the routes listed here is that very few sets, except the boxed ones, are ever offered in complete form. Few dealers or auction house employees can accurately identify what Britains Deetail figures they are selling in terms of production year, set number and whether the figures they have grouped together were actually made in the same year, much less in the same set. In the photo above I have assembled a mismatched set. This shot contains (reading from left) 1 fully painted figure from the 1st version dismounted Mexicans (1977), 2 more traditional “Deetail-style” painted Mexicans from the 2nd version (1978), and then 1 mounted Cowboy and 1 dismounted Cowboy from the 1st version of their respective series’ (1972). When buying from dealers and auction houses do your research unless you don’t mind buying mixed lots.
With few exceptions, Deetail figures made in any given year share the same style of paint job. Thus one can tell an early cowboy, WWII Japanese or WWII British infantryman made in 1971, from a later version because it is fully painted, while later versions were not. But some paint jobs of the same figures in a set of six also changed dramatically from year to year. Further, ALL Deetail rectangular bases are dated 1971. This is NOT the year the sets you are looking at were probably made (as many dealers and auction houses incorrectly attest), but just the copyright on the base. If you are serious about collecting, it’s up to you to determine the authenticity of a set before buying it.
Buying at shows
Although the selection is decidedly hit and miss at shows, there are often dealers who bring a selection of Deetail figures and boxed sets to set out on their tables. The danger here is more for the uninitiated than the experienced collector, as many dealers have no idea what determines a complete set, which versions they are offering, whether the weapons are correct, if the figures have been repainted and, most of all, what they are worth. But the virtue of being able to actually examine the goods before making the purchase, and for some, the joy of haggling, are worth the price of admission. The key, as always, is to know what you are looking for, and have some idea of what the merchandise is worth, before going to the show.
There are definite advantages to displaying plastics that you don’t get with metals. Because they’re far less breakable, they can be displayed in areas that would be considered unsafe with metal figures. Because they’re generally painted with more durable paints, if they get dusty they can be washed in hot soapy water. And, because the accessories which go with them are so easily obtainable, you can generally find a selection of items to add to a setup such as buildings, vehicles, entrenchments and artillery. In the Napoleonic diorama shown above, one could arrange the modular Classic Toy Soldier’s Hougoumont farmhouse building as shown, or in a more elongated manner on a bookshelf.
While many plastic collectors seem content to keep their figures piled in a shoebox, only to take them out after dinner and set them up on the dining table for a couple of hours, others are more interested getting down on the floor and playing – either by themselves, with friends or with their children or grandkids.
Some of the most popular ranges Britains produced were their farm, wildlife and equine lines. Most of the figures and accessories in these lines strictly qualify as Herald models, having made their debuts before the advent of Deetail. But they remained in production through 2003. Shown above are setups featuring these charming ranges.
Gaming with Deetail Figures
When Britains released their Medieval Deetail range in 1973, I was excited to find they had created opponents for their knights. As the years sped by they added more sets to this era until it became the broadest of all Deetail ranges, offering figures, castles, siege equipment, jousting lists, tents and other period-specific toys. In my war games I have always used large numbers of Deetail Medieval models for Saracen regiments, European knightly entourages and other Medieval levies. In addition, by repainting and/or converting Deetail figures I have produced hundreds of additional poses for added realism and excitement on the battlefield.
In the photo above, showing the climax of the battle of Agincourt, I have combined several different versions of Deetail knights. At left is the king from the 1st version Knights (#7740, 1973) and 3rd version archers (also #7740, but made in 1993). On the right are foot Knights from 3 different ranges (7740, 3rd version Knights 1993; 7770g current fully painted Super Deetail 5th version; and #7805 Champion Knights, 1993). Mounted knights on the right are, likewise, from 3 ranges (7744, 3rd version Knights, 1993; 7772g current fully painted Super Deetail 5th version Mounted Knights; #7806 Mounted Champion Knights, 1993). Also included in the game setup are foot and mounted knights, plus accessories, from Forces of Valor’s “Historical Legends” range.
Where to Start?
My final photo, shown above, features a carefully-selected group of figures and accessories combined to create a massive Civil War setup. It includes 3rd version Deetail Civil War Union and Confederate infantry and cavalry, 1993, Deetail Union and Confederate Gatling guns (#7570 and #7470, 1977), Britains farm fence, stone walls, small hay bales, round hay bales and small accessories, plus buildings by BMC, trees, dead trees, rocks and hills by Marx and cannon by Dulcop.
The reason I was able to create such a massive, yet cohesive, image, is that I assembled the setup from carefully chosen elements of my collection. And this, I believe, is because I approached the building of this collection with an organized and well-thought-out plan. I knew I would be playing games with my figures, so I always sought a balance between what I just WANTED and what I felt I really needed to play large-scale games. Instead of purchasing figures on a whim, and ending up with a bunch of guys who are mis-matched and don’t really look like they belong together on the shelf, ask yourself what sets you really want.