Describe your collection.
I made it into Guinness World Records with 1,020 metal toy soldiers. That count represents unique figures, meaning that a box set of eight identical metal soldier figures would count as one figure for the Record. My full collection has over 25,000 figures. There are larger public collections in the world, but mine is the largest private collection.
It’s thanks to my sons Reese and Joseph that I’m a certified world record holder. We were at Barnes & Noble one night in 2015 and they picked up a book that featured the collection of a Russian man who owned 661 figures. My kids suspected I had many more than that. They contacted Guinness about how to go about certifying a collection and we took it on as a family project. The counting event had to include two judges approved by Guinness World Records and be held in a public space so people could watch the event. We set everything up in a nearby National Park and local media and residents came out to watch the count.
A man in his 90s came to the event to give me one of the toy soldiers from his collection. It couldn’t be counted as part of the record because it was handmade by him as a child and the record had to be set with toy soldiers that were or are commercially available as toys. It was a wonderful gesture and I kept the figure.
When and why did you start collecting toy soldiers?
I started collecting at about five years old. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida at that time and often visited the toy store, FAO Schwarz, in Atlanta, Georgia for Christmas shopping. The store had a display of historical personalities, including Cleopatra, Benjamin Franklin, and toy soldiers manufactured by Britain. The figures were made of plastic with metal bases at that time. I got back into collecting in the early 1980s, when W. Britain went back to creating the figures from metal for the souvenir market, including ceremonial guards.
How do you display and store your collection?
I have glass display cases in a dedicated collection room. Although, recently my collection has slipped out into the living room despite my wife’s best efforts. I group them by the manufacturer. I have Britain figures of royal families going back to Edward III of England. There are figures mounted on horse-drawn carriages and coronation coaches; some painted in gold leaf. Manoil produced figures of Napoleon’s coronation that were made of metal and wood. I also have Vertunni figures of the French royal family.
What do you consider to be the Holy Grail of metal toy soldier figures?
I own a figure of Jeanne Hachette that I value. She is a heroine from the Burgundian wars of the 1470s. She holds a flag in one hand and a hatchet in another, defending Beauvais, her hometown in Northern France, from the Duke of Burgundy. It’s very rare; I’ve only seen the figure twice. I kicked myself for not buying the figure the first time I saw it.
I don’t generally look for specific figures. My favourite thing about collecting is just finding something new, like a unique manufacturer or country that isn’t represented in my collection. There are 41 countries represented in my collection: Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, Canada, Serbia, Poland, Morocco, England, Germany, and others. I recently purchased a trooper of Frederick the Great’s army and the coronation coach of Napoleon. I’d been looking for the coach for 20 years and finally stumbled upon it. My sister-in-law Rebecca works with the State Department and travels quite a bit for her job. She looks for soldiers for me wherever she goes. I have a shelf of figures just from her travels. The first one she bought me was on a school trip to London, England. She picked up a Buckingham Palace guard from a vendor outside the Palace. This is from before I married her sister, Rachel.
What resources do you use to acquire knowledge about your collectibles and connect with other collectors?
I’m 55 years old now and started collecting when I save five, so I’ve read all of the newsletters and books out there. I go to a lot of toy soldier shows. I was at the Chicago Toy Soldier Show in September and travel all over the world to attend events. If there is a figure I’m looking for information about, I’ll take it with me to a show to see what other collectors have to say. This hobby has taken me and my wife all over the world; we’ve toured toy soldier manufacturing companies in France and Spain and met wonderful people. Toy soldier collectors are very hospitable people.
What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a similar collection?
Collect what you can find. I have figures that have been played with as toys, so they are missing paint and some are scratched. The figures were made as toys. Buying pristine figures on eBay and other markets can be costly and it takes the thrill out of the find. On a trip to London, I came across Robin Hood figures at Andy Morant Toys. I picked up Robin Hood, Little John, Lady Marian, and the Sheriff. They were a little worn but looked great. I bought them and placed them with toy oak trees from Britain that I picked up in Chicago. The displays I’ve created are unique and inspire conversations.
Toy soldier collecting is a great hobby because it revolves around history. When a person buys a figure, they are likely going to know or look up the army, battle, and location the figure represents. Many of the figures are historically accurate in how they are dressed and portrayed. There are some exceptions, but the manufacturers did tremendous research to ensure accuracy, in part because of consumer feedback. Most collectors I know have a passion for history, too.
Visit the Guinness World Records website to see Waters’ profile.
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