The Case of the Missing Figurine

Mother's favorite decoration, ca. 1953

Mother’s favorite Christmas decoration, ca. 1953

Sometime about December 1953, my mother decided to go shopping for a special Christmas figurine. We were living on L Street S.W. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa–the area where I grew up. My parents’ house was an older two-story with the dining room just off the kitchen. My mother (Elva Gail Spence Inman) had a large buffet inside the dining room, and she wanted to find a Christmas piece to display on top of it beside the candy dish. We were in school at the time, so she caught the bus and went downtown, engaging in her shopping expedition.

“I know what I want to get!” she told me. “And I hope they still have it in the store!”

Later that afternoon when we arrived home from school, a candy cane figurine adorned with angel children decorated the top of the buffet.

“Is that the one you wanted?” I asked.

“Yes, and I bought it in Sanford’s! It was the last one they had!”

Mom kept the figurine inside its box through the year.  Then each December, she removed it from the box and displayed it on the buffet. After Christmas was over, she returned it to the box where it remained for another year. She took excellent care of that figurine. I think she enjoyed it more than she did the tree. Mom wasn’t one to “deck the halls” like I do. She kept the holiday simple: a decorated tree standing in the living room; a Nativity scene on the book case; and that candy cane figurine on her buffet.

Mom passed away in September 2003. Shortly after her death, boxes began arriving from Iowa. One of them contained all of her Christmas decorations. And at the bottom of the box, I discovered the familiar green holiday box containing the candy cane figurine.

“Oh my! She still had this!” I exclaimed.

That was the first year I displayed the figurine in my front window, something I have done each year since 2003. And then came the present year. After spending nine hours “decking the halls”, I realized that something was missing. I scanned the living room while wondering what I had overlooked. That’s when I noticed the empty spot on the window sill!

My discovery propelled me downstairs to the room now cluttered with empty boxes. I always go the extra mile when the annual “decking” takes place. Each year I add something new to the environment. My sister once told me I reminded her of Snoopy and his heavily decorated dog house. Let’s face it! I like a lot of figures and lights! I think my love of “decking” was born from the department store windows I saw in Cedar Rapids as a child. Those windows were full of movable figures and lights–something you really don’t see any longer. So each year,  I royally “deck the halls”–a display that lasts a month.

I stood in the “storage” room, staring at the empty boxes.

How could I be so stupid? I wondered.

For eleven years, I had been so careful placing that figurine back in its original box and placing the box back inside the large storage box with other decorations. Then I packed away all those boxes beneath a large table for the year. Now, I was really frustrated, launching me into another ransacking of all the boxes in the room. No green Christmas box or figurine could be found. But I located a number of other items I had been looking for.

“It will turn up somewhere!” Howard told me.

That didn’t ease my concern! I was soon tearing into other places in other areas of the house, and I found more things long placed on the Lost-and-Hope-I-Find-It list. Some of those lost items are now members of the “decking”. But no figurine!

This year, the “decking” took place the day after Thanksgiving. By now, it was Saturday, and I was still flustered concerning the missing figure. I realized how little I knew about it. I wondered whether I could find something about it on the Internet.

China candy cane with kids on it!

My search term!

It wasn’t long before I was directed to eBay. And after accessing eBay, it wasn’t long before I discovered how expensive that little figurine had become ranging from $100 on up! I saw one for $295. Then I had to review last year’s photographs to verify whether my Mom’s figurine fell into this classification.

It did!

According to Collector’s Weekly:

Founded by Hungarian sportswear designer George Zoltan Lefton, Lefton China of Chicago, Illinois, imported porcelain decorative objects such as figurines and head vases, as well as kitchen wares such as cookie jars and salt-and-pepper shakers, from postwar Japan. From 1945 through 1953, these pieces were stamped with the words “Made in Occupied Japan.” Figures from 1946 to 1953 may also bear a red sticker with either silver or gold trim on their bases, which reads “Lefton’s Exclusives Japan.” Objects made after 1953 added the words “Reg. U.S. Pat. Off,” while those made after 1960 swap that phrase for the simpler “Trade Mark.” Unfortunately, during the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, the use of these stickers (and others) overlapped, so they are not a perfectly reliable way to date a piece of Lefton.

Beginning in the 1970s, Lefton began contracting with potteries around the world, from China and Malaysia to Italy and England. Fortunately, this global diversification had little impact on the quality of Lefton pieces, which is generally better than that of direct competitors such as Nike NAPCO and ENESCO. More variable is the look of Lefton figurines. For example, there is no such thing as the quintessential Lefton dog. Some are realistic, capturing the appearance of poodles, German shepherds, terriers, and basset hounds. Others are a good deal more syrupy and sentimental, such as the numerous versions of big-eyed puppies with bows around their necks. And then there are the figurines that are just plain silly—how else to describe a puppy wearing a hunting cap and carrying a shotgun, looking down at the innocent duckling that’s staring up at him from inside the canine’s bag?

Christmas figurines were a perennial favorite; Santa and Mrs. Claus, of course, but also adorable elves, angels, and children, some of which resembled candy canes with faces, arms, and legs. Especially popular is a character called Little Miss Mistletoe, whose cherubic face and short ponytail are tilted as she leans down to tie her red slipper. In fact, recurring characters were a big part of the Lefton catalog, so much so that Lefton had a number of lines devoted to them, from the secular Doll House Originals and Bloomer Girls to the religiously inspired Christopher Collection, which featured within it a group of Heavenly Hobos. In particular, many people gravitate to Lefton’s angels, which are often marked with the name of a month or a day of the week.(1)

The company’s founder, George Z. Lefton, was born in Hungary and set up his company in Chicago. Some of his pieces are marked George Z. Lefton, Geo Z. Lefton, G.Z.L. or just Lefton. An article titled “The Lefton Company” notes:

Japan was occupied by the Allied forces with its unconditional surrender in August of 1945. The Allies’ plan was to help Japan rebuild and grow, but not to allow Japan to have the manufacturing capabilities to rearm itself. Pottery and porcelain manufacturing fit into the areas of acceptability as set by General Douglas McArthur and the Allies.

Lefton was one of the first American businessmen to deal with the Japanese after World War II. The first pieces of Lefton China with the “Made in Occupied Japan” mark reached the United States in 1946.

Lefton China produced in Occupied Japan included a wide range of pieces, dating from 1946 to 1952. Designs ranged from delicate, formal pieces with gold edging and soft floral patterns to the whimsical and playful designs of the 1950s. Many of the pieces of Lefton China from Occupied Japan were produced by the Miyawo Company during this period. The quality and price were both good on Lefton China pieces from this period.(2)

Okay–so I discovered some information about the maker of the piece. But what if I no longer had the piece?

What if I threw it away?

A year ago, I had disposed of some of my boxes. What if I accidently threw the figurine away? What if it was in its original box, with that box lodged inside one of the larger boxes I tossed?

Don’t tell me that!

Wearily I searched eBay, wondering whether I could find a replacement.

Not at these prices!

Perhaps I could find one not in pristine condition–something on the “cheaper side.”

Making a long story short, I actually got two. One is probably the same vintage as my mother’s. It was displayed quite a bit and had been moved around as indicated by some dings and paint wearings. It also has different children figures sitting on the candy cane. I decided to display that piece in my front window. The other was the same type of piece with children figures and no markings. Apparently, the original owner bought it from Cracker Barrel. I checked out the Cracker Barrel collectible store site and discovered they have sold Lefton figures over the years. This one still has the plastic cover on it and is still in the original box. I may just keep it that way.

These acquisitions didn’t satisfy my desire for my mother’s lost piece. However, I soon realized that if I threw it away, searching for it was a waste of time. I might as well just forget about it.

It was Sunday night, November 29, 2015 Howard and I were settling in for the Broncos-Patriots game being played here in Denver. The first quarter was somewhat slow, and it appeared the Broncos were going to lose.

Just like I lost my mother’s figurine! I thought.

But I had made so many “David vs. Goliath” statements prior to the game, I kept thinking “The Broncos are not going to lose! They are going to win!” And that quickly translated to “Just like me! I did not throw the figurine away! I’m going to find it!”

Back downstairs, I studied the empty boxes still strewn about the room. Perhaps I should retrace my steps! Perhaps there was something I overlooked!

I sat on the floor beside the huge box that houses most of my decorations. The smaller boxes had been tossed out of it, so it was mostly empty. The large box partially extended from beneath the table. I scooted to the other side, pulled back the lid and peered inside. And I saw–

“–THAT BOX! OH DON’T TELL ME! DON’T TELL ME!”

When I removed the lid, what to my wondering eye did I behold?

“MOM’S FAVORITE CHRISTMAS DECORATION!”

Followed by my yell up the stairway–

“HEY! GUESS WHAT I FOUND?”

I squealed my way through the rest of the game while admiring Mom’s perfect figurine. It has no flaws and the labels Geo. Z. Lefton and Made in Japan clearly appear on the bottom. No, I would not display it in the front window. That’s where my dinked replacement will reside when it arrives. Mom’s figurine is now displayed inside the box with cellophane over it in a prominent place in the living room! And after the season is over, it will be the first item returned to the large box in the storage area.

Then came another exciting moment of the evening.

Anderson caught the ball and went flying down the field toward the end zone. I leaped from my chair with my favorite pen in hand, getting ready to record the score. Jumping up and down, I screamed: “RUN! RUN! RUN!” My pen flew from my hand just as Anderson crossed the goal line.

The Broncos beat the Patriots–and destroyed their perfect season 30-24– in overtime–in a snow storm–with a second-string quarterback who was playing his second full game–and some running backs!

Now about my favorite pen–

 

References

(1) “Vintage Lefton Figurines.” Collectors’ Weekly Website. Date Accessed: 29 Nov 2015. Available online at http://www.collectorsweekly.com/figurines/lefton

(2) “The Lefton Company”. The American Antiquities Website. Date Accessed: 30 Nov 2015. Available online at http://americanantiquities.com/Journal%20Articles/TheLeftonCompany.html

 

3 thoughts on “The Case of the Missing Figurine

  1. I was heart-broken as I read your account, knowing from experience what it’s like to have lost a well-loved Christmas treasure. Then so relieved that you found your mom’s pristine figurine! Now, if only that good luck would extend to me…… 🙂

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