Q: I just started collecting stuffed toys made by the Steiff company. Can you give me some advice about what to buy and how much the toys should cost?

A: Margarete Steiff made the first Steiff toy, a stuffed elephant, in 1880 and soon she had a factory in Germany making all sorts of stuffed animals. So you have thousands of toys to choose from.

Look for the button in the animal's ear, a trademark used since 1904. They have also used labels and other tags. The button and tags give assurance that it is really by Steiff, and the price will be higher than that of a similar unmarked toy.

Like all antiques, condition, size, supply, demand and that intangible "appeal" also determine price. Serious collectors and experts say to buy the best example you can afford, and original condition is the most important feature.

Some still want toys that have "been loved," but that is another way to say they are in bad shape. The ugly toys are rarer than the pretty or cute ones, so the prices are higher. Large ones (over 10 inches tall) are rare, cost more when new, and are more expensive as antiques than small ones.

Keep accurate records of what you bought, price, description, history and a picture, so when eventually your collection is sold, all the information for taxes or claims to importance are available.

And remember to sound like an expert. "Steiff is an animal for life," was their rhyming slogan, so you can remember not to mispronounce the name as "Steef."

Vinaigrette bottle

Q: I have just been given an antique vinaigrette, but I don't know how it was used. The gift tag says it was to help revive a person who felt faint or had fainted. I thought from the name that it had something to do with vinegar and food.

A: Before 1900, an 18-inch waist was an important part of a fashionable look. Women wore corsets at the waist, and someone would have to tighten the lacing at the back to shrink the waistline. This uncomfortable clothing often interfered with proper posture and breathing, so women would feel faint and sniff a vinegar or ammonia-soaked sponge in the vinaigrette. The shock of the sharp smell would revive the woman.

Vinaigrettes came in many shapes, from boxes with a grille to fanciful containers shaped like fish, cornucopias or books.

Bisque doll

Q: My antique bisque-headed doll is marked on the back of the neck with the impressed letters S.F.B.J. /301/ PARIS. Does that tell who made it?

A: The letters stand for the French company Societe Française de Fabrication de Bebes & Jouets. The firm was in Paris and Montreuil-sous-Bois, France. The mark was used from 1899 to the 1950s.

Researching marks

Q: I am trying to find out more about a teacup from my mother's collection. How do I research the mark and the value?

A: It's like solving a crime, and it takes time. Follow the clues. First, look up the mark by shape. Pottery marks are sorted by shape in the book "Kovels Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain." Or you can search online. Your mark has a shield and crown with the word "Germany," so search in those sections.

We found a match that says the mark was used by Galluba and Hofmann from 1905 to 1937. The German company made decorative porcelain, dolls (especially bathing beauties) and gift wares, but it is best known for making Snowbabies.

Other marks for this company have the word "Marmorzellan." Now search for prices in a book like "Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide." Category: Porcelain.

You may not find a teacup by the same company, but you can find other German dishes of the same period and get an approximate value. Or you can go to a matching service with the information and search its prices.

A single cup from a set has a low price because there is little demand for old patterns or buyers who are looking to replace a missing cup. The price is under $20.

Appraisals always depend on when and where something is sold. You might learn your piece isn't an expensive treasure, but it's still a part of your heritage worth keeping.

Terry and Kim Kovel will answer as many letters from readers as possible through the column only. For return of a photograph, include a self-addressed, stamped (55 cents) envelope. Write to: The Kovels, c/o King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019. The website is kovels.com.

current prices

Prices are from shows nationwide.

Nailsea fairy lamp, green, opal loops, satin finish, three-part construction, scalloped rim, about 1875, 5 by 5 3/4 inches, $810.

Shearwater figurine, lion, crouching, curly mane, coiled tail, blue, 13 1/2 inches, $1,025.

Webb peachblow vase, flowers, dragonfly, white, cameo, 1875, 5 inches, $1,370.

Webb Burmese vase, Virginia creeper, green enamel, gilt, gold berry cluster, 8 inches, pair, $1,510.

Red Crown Gasoline thermometer, Power Service Economy, red, blue, white ground, 74 by 19 1/2 inches, $2,160.

Sideboard, mahogany, satinwood, inlay, bow-front, frieze drawer, pedestals, drawer, fitted cupboard, carved paw feet, 88 by 20 inches, $2,240.

Newcomb College pottery vase, scenic, pine trees, full moon, blue glaze, bulbous, folded in rim, Anna F. Simpson, 1918, 7 inches, $2,250.

Plique-à-jour salt cellar, chair shape, birds, leaves, hinged seat, Gavril Grachev, 2 3/4 by 2 3/4 inches, $3,330.

Scrimshaw, whale's tooth, sailing ships, island, eagle, flag, inscribed, Shore Flensing Near Samoa, 5 1/2 inches, $3,565.

Tub chair, mahogany, carved, rounded back, scrolled arms, leafy uprights, flared legs, brass cuffs, casters, 36 by 24 inches, $7,040.

Anna Pottery flask, "Hot Spring," applied woman, man, hat, belt, sword, cobalt and manganese glaze, about 1880, 5 7/8 inches, $10,455.