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.
Though his father never liked to talk about his battlefield experiences, the Tiffin television set often screened cinema’s great war classics, affording the growing boy ample opportunity to brush up on military basics. “[My father] loved his war movies and I got to know a lot about the history that way,” Mr. Tiffin says.
But after a decade of careful collecting, the teenager had to give up his miniature army when the family moved back to his father’s native Canada in 1967.
A five-year stint with the Royal Canadian Navy straight out of high school took him through Vietnam. When he returned home to Windsor, Ont., the newly minted veteran found himself drawn once again to his former passion, but he would never recapture the nostalgia of those first soldiers. “The stuff I got as a kid was definitely the most memorable,” he admits.
In his mid-20s and with a bit of cash to burn, Mr. Tiffin started afresh. He began collecting Japanese-manufactured Tamiya kits, at the time considered top-of-the-line plastic figurines. “I fell in love with Tamiya kits because they were unlike anything I’d grown up with. They’re the top armour company in the world. I started making dioramas” with them, he says.
By the mid-’90s, the military history buff started visiting all the major Civil War and revolutionary battlefields in the United States and frequented their shops in search of high-quality Trophy of Wales kits. “They’re the first animated (mobile) figures made out of lead and they’ve got all the historical ones: Egyptian, Crimean War, Napoleonic. Really bright colours and solid figures and I fell in love with them. I bought everything out there,” says Mr. Tiffin, who spent many years in Kincardine, Ont., where he still keeps a home, before setting up shop in the Toronto area.
As his interest increased, so did his splurge.
“I got really crazy by the mid-’90s,” he explains. “I went to a place that I heard about, this toy soldier show in Chicago. I was used to spending $200 to $300 per week on toy soldiers and that was it. Then I went to Valley Forge. The first time there, I spent $6,000. Second time $10,000. Third time $15,000.”
When seeking out a new toy, Mr. Tiffin’s criteria are simple. “I’m searching for the best there is,” he says. “The best painted, closest to history, these things make [items] go up in value.”
Despite his preference for the best, the collector often purchases on a whim. “I’m not looking for anything, I just go to these places and they pop out,” he explains. “I’m very impulsive. Extremely impulsive.”
This accelerated spending pace was aided early on by his success as a financial planner for companies such as Prudential Insurance and London Life. A sharp mind for statistics coupled with an ability to predict how demographic trends would affect the stock market earned Mr. Tiffin a pile of “agent of the month” plaques and allowed him to average a 24-per-cent rate of return on client investments throughout the ’90s.
By 1999, Mr. Tiffin had grown tired of the culture and branched out on his own. He amped up the demographic portion of his practice and added a research and forecasting component.
“Because I’m a financial planner, I use demographics to tell people where to invest,” he explains. “We take the blinders off for our clients and we tell them, ‘Japan’s where you want to invest right now, China’s where you want to invest right now, and down the road, gold, because these are the things you should be looking at. Stay away from the U.S., stay away from Europe.’
“No one else does what I do,” Mr. Tiffin adds.
And in between clients, he loves to interact with his treasures, a far cry from the collectors who keep their goods tucked away in boxes, never to be touched again.
Without prompting, he will pull out a Zulu spear or place a replica of a gladiator helmet used by Ancient Roman centurion generals on his head. Though he prefers the real deal, Mr. Tiffin has had numerous replicas of famous gear made for his own enjoyment. Highlights include an elven helmet and sword wielded by a pointy-eared Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the crusader chain-mail armour worn by Mr. Bloom in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
He’s also been known to walk around the building wearing the iconic black hat of the Queen’s Buckingham Palace Guards.