In Daniel Tiffin’s office in Richmond Hill, Ont., thousands of colourful infantrymen, their bayonets and muskets aloft, charge into battle.
To the experienced eye, their positions will look familiar. The model-scale, hand-painted lead soldiers have all been carefully arranged to recreate some of history’s most famous battles: Gettysburg, Waterloo, and the Plains of Abraham get the full representational treatment behind rows of custom-made glass shelves.
Mr. Tiffin, the architect of these military dioramas, is the principal at Global Demographics Consulting Group, a private research and forecasting company that predicts economic trends. Clients who visit his workspace come for investing advice, but many stay for the view. Along with his toy soldier infantry, Mr. Tiffin keeps weapons, authentic regimental uniforms and a collection of other military miscellany that he says some would peg to be worth as much as $1.5 million.
The 61-year-old London native maintains the other half of his collection in his nearby condo, where – like an enchanted forest – his ever-expanding stash has squeezed him into one of the property’s three bedrooms, while swords, rifles, soldiers and armour spill out over a large swath of his remaining living space. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s living history and I’m a history buff,” he says. “It’s a passion I’ve had since I was a kid and I simply kept up with it.”
There’s also a component of emotional well-being. “When you’re dealing with the public there’s a lot of stress because when people invest with you they think they own you. I take a break and paint [my soldiers] and when I paint it takes the stress out,” he says, admitting he doesn’t paint as much these days thanks to the higher quality of toys he purchases.
“Why paint when someone else does it better?” he adds with a laugh.
Toy soldier collecting is a serious business that attracts communities in the hundreds of thousands, while magazines dedicated to the miniature men boast impressive global circulation. Judges, lawyers and businessmen are the biggest collectors, says Mr. Tiffin, although artists have shown a similarly enthusiastic attraction. Canadian actor Mike Myers is a notable fan, while director Steven Spielberg, singer Rod Stewart and actor Russell Crowe are also known to have private collections.
Toy soldiers can range in size from 25 mm to 60 mm – or 1:28 scale – but in some popular manufacturing depots, such as Germany, they can measure up to 75 mm and higher. They’re also far more valuable and lifelike than you might expect. While dime-store plastic model kits sell cheap, there is a world of collectors that will shell out hundreds of dollars for a single, hand-painted pewter or lead figurine, depending on its rarity and make.
Perhaps that’s why, amid the bugles, red coats, swords and helmets that line his office shelves by the dozen, Mr. Tiffin’s toy soldier tableaus are so striking.
The entrepreneur singles out his pewter Henry V, regally perched on his horse during the Battle of Agincourt, as a prized possession. This Henry was forged out of pewter and hand-painted by artists at the famed Russian design house Faberge. The bellicose king cost him $650, but Mr. Tiffin estimates that as a limited edition it could be worth $3,000.
“Items become valuable because there’s a limited number made and once they’re sold they become more valuable by virtue,” Mr. Tiffin says, explaining military memorabilia prices are determined by the community of collectors. Name figures, or soldiers modeled after famous historical fighters, are also costlier than an average infantryman, he adds.
Collections of this scale often take root in childhood and Mr. Tiffin’s is no exception. His interest began at age five when, during a bout of nephritis that kept him bedridden in a London hospital for two years, his parents would bring him a toy soldier from a shop across the street each time they came to visit. The hospital staff that had become like a second family to him soon took note of his playtime preferences.
“Because I spent two birthdays and two Christmases there, even the nurses started buying me presents. One year, the nurses got together and bought me a fort. It was my favourite fort. That’s what started it,” says Mr. Tiffin, who worked as a mechanic before becoming a financial planner in the early 1980s.
The fourth child of a Canadian World War II veteran and his English war bride, Mr. Tiffin found his new hobby indulged at home once doctors released him from the hospital. A one-time member of the Essex Scottish regiment, the elder Mr. Tiffin fought at Dieppe and bore the collateral damage from a pair of war wounds. “He was picking shrapnel out of his feet until the day he died,” Mr. Tiffin cracks.