Judge's hobby: 4,422 tiny hand-painted soldiers

Legions of tiny metal figures and their historical stories have been a passion of Christopher Money’s for 25 years

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 29, 2010 

It was back surgery that prompted Christopher Money to build his army.

At the time, in 1986, he was a Municipal Court judge in San Luis Obispo. Bed-ridden from the surgery, the military history buff received a toy soldier from his clerk.

While he had a few soldiers as a child, he never collected them. But “pretty soon, I started buying some and putting them together and one thing led to another, and now I have 4,422, representing 22 countries,” he said. “I just got carried away, I guess.”

As Memorial Day approaches, Money’s cadre of soldiers — representing U.S. soldiers from the Civil War, the Nigerian Regiment, the Royal Foot Guards of Denmark and the Euzones Royal Greek Guards among many others — might remind one of soldiers who have fallen in battle. But Money’s unique collection involves few battle scenes. “I like ceremonial stuff, not necessarily war stuff,” he said. “I’m just not into blood and gore and people dying.”

Money, who served two years with the military police in the Army, is a former district attorney who officially retired as a Superior Court judge in 2005 — though he has occasionally filled in as judge since then. His interest in military history dates to his UC Berkeley days, when he served in the ROTC.

If the thousands of metal soldiers don’t prove his interest in military history, the materials in his office do. There, shelves are lined with books with titles like “The Great War in Africa,” “The Uniforms of World War II” and a series of war books by and about Winston Churchill. DVD and video titles include “Patton,” “Braveheart” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” On one wall hangs an English rifle from 1878, with an imposing bayonet, that an American soldier found in a cave in Afghanistan. The soldiers — typically 54 millimeters high (about 2 inches) — adorn two rooms at his home. Most wear elaborately colored uniforms. Some hold instruments, others weapons. A few ride camels. Money, who catalogues everything, doesn’t want to say how much his collection is worth. But each individual soldier (if pre-painted) is worth about $20. And special ones — like Lawrence of Arabia soldiers on camels — can cost up to $130. Some of Money’s soldiers were painted when he bought them, others he painted himself.

“It’s cheaper to buy them and paint them yourself,” he said, proudly noting the artistic detail he achieved on some of the soldiers. To make sure he’s authentic, he has scores of books — such as “The Art of the Toy Soldier” — and magazines.

Whenever Money buys soldiers, he reads about their history as well. “I do try to study a little bit about the various units that are involved,” he said. “Some of them are very unusual — like the Arab Legion.”

While his collection usually involves formations, there are some historical scenes. In one, from 1876, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom is seen presenting colors to the Scots. It took Money three years to acquire all the pieces for that.

Another scene depicts the death of British General Charles Gordon in an overmatched battle in Sudan in 1885. In a scene that was romanticized in a painting by George William Joy that same year, the general is seen falling over a palace rail as Mahdist Sudanese fighters point swords and guns in his direction.

“It’s kind of a weird hobby,” Money said. “But I enjoy it.”

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