Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vinegar Syndrome: Breyer Shrinkies and Oozies

Over the Christmas break, I flew down to Atlanta to visit my family. Between delicious meals slathered in gravy, my sister and I started inventorying our collections. They have been in storage in my parents' basement for more than 10 years now, and given that I've been collecting since the early 1980s and my sister since the late 1980s, we knew we were doomed to find some shrinkies/oozies.

What exactly are shrinkies and oozies? Both names are used to refer to Breyer models that are beginning to disintegrate from a problem that seems to be akin to vinegar syndrome in film. Like some kinds of film, many Breyers were made of a kind of plastic called cellulose acetate, and they are likewise starting to break down on a molecular level. The problem has only cropped up in the last few years, and so far, the only models that seem to be affected are those that were produced from around 1987-1992. (It is certainly possible that models may crop up from outside that range of years, but let's hope not many.) Not all models from those years are affected though, and it stands to reason that the affected models were made from a defective batch (or batches) of plastic.

Symptoms of vinegar syndrome include shrinking of the model in height and width, warping, slow implosion of the body cavity, legs that warp inward, paint discoloration (it gets lighter), a whitish film on the model that feels like chalk dust or soft powder, a strong vinegar smell, liquid oozing from the plastic, yellowing of white plastic areas, and in extreme cases, bubbling and collapse of the model.

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no known method to stop vinegar syndrome. So far, models that have been kept out in the open air tend to just slowly shrink and warp without any of the uglier symptoms. But as this is a recent development for Breyers, we don't yet know exactly what will eventually happen. Models kept in storage and models exposed to heat and humidity are much more likely to ooze and frequently go through the full gamut of symptoms.

My sister and I found more affected models than I would have liked, all in varying stages of decay. None of them are especially valuable (other than my red bay 1988 Your Horse Source SR Phar Lap), but many of them have sentimental value. Here are a few of the victims:

These two Mustangs are both examples of #118, the "American Mustang," made from 1987-1989. I purchased the one on the right on sale at a Breyer signing party in 1990. The one on the left was a flea market acquisition, and at the time I bought him, he was not overtly affected by vinegar syndrome. He was lighter in body color and mane and tail color, a common variation of the run, but he was not nearly so light-colored as he looks now. In person, he is a textbook shrinky/oozy. He is smaller than his normal counterpart and starting to curve to one side, he is leaking goo from various places, and he has the tell-tale paint fading that is so typical of vinegar syndrome horses. From what I've seen, the lighter discoloration often seems to start where the model's legs meet the hollow body, as evidenced here.

Sadly, my awesomely eye-scorching neon palomino FAS is also a shrinky (purchased 1987 or 1988). He was signed by Peter Stone in 1990, and as you can see, the decomposition of his plastic has turned the once crisp signature into a blurry grey haze. His delightful lemon yellow color has also faded.

The bag he was in is full of oozy droplets.

And here's a close up of my sister's #702 buckskin variation Stretch Morgan (1988-1989). His paint hasn't faded too much yet, but you can see he's oozing and the plastic is starting to crinkle.

Sadly, he was one of my sister's favorite models. I was going to give her my own buckskin variation as a replacement, but alas, he is a shrinky, too.

For some reason, the #821 Rocky (1990-1992) pony is one I have seen several times over in spectacularly bad shape. This example, provided by longtime collector Penny Lehew, is bubbling and showing signs of crystalization. (My own Rocky has not reached this stage, but he was bad enough that I didn't even dare to open his bag.)

When removed from storage or from hot and humid conditions, affected models generally seem to stop oozing. My #109 dapple grey Five-Gaiter (1987-1988) was found swimming in brown goo in his bag when he was removed from storage several years ago. His white areas had yellowed and he had begun to shrink. He was then washed thoroughly and left on a tray on a shelf in the open air to see what would happen. Interestingly, he has stopped oozing, and his white areas have brightened up. He has continued to shrink, however, and as you can see in the picture below, he is beginning to curl sideways.

Happily, not all models from 1987-1992 are affected, and contrary to some early reports, vinegar syndrome is not contagious from model to model. For example, my Cips has turned out to be a shrinky, but my sister's Cips is fine. My Sears SR Black Blanket Appaloosa Performance Horse is oozing like mad, but the other two horses from that set who were stored in the same box are still normal.

It's taken around 20 years for these models to begin to manifest symptoms of vinegar syndrome, and there's no way to predict whether or not the currently unaffected models from those years will remain thus. Certain models do seem to be more likely to be affected, such as the 1987 Black Horse Ranch SR Proud Arabian Stallions, but because they were small runs of only 500 pieces per color, it stands to reason that many were made from the same batch of bad plastic. Because this is such a new issue with the 1987-1992 era Breyers, only time will tell which models will be affected.


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful, educational post about this unfortunate topic, Kirsten. I personally find it extremely important to get this information out there to collectors, and applaud you for doing so here.

  2. The bags are probably half the problem...and storing them in Florida hasn't helped either!

    Plastics should be stored in bleach-free card boxes, away from direct sunlight and severe temperature/humidity changes. If they need soft packaging that should be shredded bleach-free paper as well. museum/archaeological suppliers are the people to get storage packaging from...

    Not that I follow my own advice...I've everything in click-shut bags!

    You're right about batches though...with ethylene in Toy Soldiers we have the brittle plastic problem, and like with your cellulose breakdown it only seems to affect some batches, with identical products lasting fine!!


    1. Thanks, Hugh, for weighing in! Very interesting!

  3. I just today got a purchase for another collector that is an Alabaster Running Stallion. This model smells like vinegar and has the telltale chalk all over the body. She is telling me that it is an original ARS and I really do believe that is what she was told as well when she bought it. It has also started to darken on the belly as well. I looked it over and I think whoever had it before her, or down the line, stripped this model to look like the Alabaster model. It still has either bay or a color similar in the mane, tail, and around the hoof edges. It's too bad because at one time this was a nice model. One thing I have learned from this is "Buyer Beware.

    1. Really late commenting on this, but it just occurred to me that your model very likely was a Breyer Unicorn minus the horn and beard rather than an alabaster RS. The RS much predates the shrinky era, but the Unicorn was right in the middle of it. (I once ended up with what I thought was an old alabaster RS but what was in reality a former unicorn.)

  4. I'm very interested to inventory my own collection!

    Mine have been stored open air, mostly out of direct sunlight (though I know they've gotten some). We live in Maine so it's not terribly humid.

    I'm curious to see how my older models fared.

  5. o BOY. I live in Houston, TX "Humid Capital of the nation"! Now I am a little worried and scared!! I'VE GOT quite a very large number of Breyer' from the years you mentioned, most are stored away for lack of room right now. I never heard of that condition before but, I am wondering maybe I should remove them all or sell them.

  6. Bought a bay appy Indian pony 1973-1985 and she smells really weird( mix between vinegar, mold and the normal Breyer smell on steroids), is chalky and she's much tinier, thinner and dull in color that the other 2 I have on the mold same color.

    I love the mold and would love to keep her with my conga but is that too dangerous to do? Will she just decay in a little?

  7. When I did Chemistry at school, there was a mature student in our class who collected plastic and cellulose vintage items...she wanted to eventually work in the field of conservation of these modern materials. At the time I knew that old rubber toys disintegrated, Julip model horses cracked and became sticky, ''bendy'' toys became distorted and crumbled..
    Myown field of collecting is antique rocking horses, [bought when they were cheap] but even they are prone to wet rot/woodworm if stored incorrectly.
    Of late, I have bought some modern Breyers, [Marwari, Valegro, Salinero and Snowman simply because I liked their shapes.
    I thought that being ''plastic'' they'd be immune from the depradations of fungi [rot], and insect attack..but it seems on a molecular level these models may be vulnerable.
    I have seen the chalky powder on some ''plastic'' acrylic items.
    For those really serious Breyer collectors who invest serious money in special runs or customs, this must be very anxiety provoking.
    Heat and humidity accelerate the problem, as does an airless storage bag?
    Acid in paper can do serious damage to stored items too...acid-free tissue paper and storage materials mat be the way to go, plus fresh air by the sounds of it.
    I wonder if Breyer have acknowledged this problem[?]
    Hope this vinegar problem is just limited to a specific era, and won't affect all models.

  8. Sherry-Sharon BowenOctober 8, 2017 at 3:35 PM

    Have never seen this problem in any of mine. They have been stored since I've had them (many since the early 1960's) in a wooden cabinet kept closed. No bags or boxes. I have recently bought back some models that I sold a while back and they don't fit in the cabinet so they are on top. But the room they are in is temperature controlled without direct sunlight. All are fine except a buckskin mustang that had a broken tail which I repaired. I will watch these later ones carefully as I had no idea such problems existed. So thank you for the information!!

  9. Food for thought looking forward as we spend hundreds on individual designer models and new products manufactured from hard and soft plastic blends...although my horses have gone through years of storage, in between they have also been out on display. I have most of them in one room now...but left sealed, the room exudes an odor that isn't pleasant, and I've taken to leaving the windows open as much as possible. I am throwing custom models in that aromatic mix as well...and heaven knows Dull Cote is not the most fragrant sealer.

  10. I forgot to far I only have one bloated model...a buffalo. I have not yet noticed any other models changing shape, texture or viscosity.

  11. I just acquired the same dapple grey five gaiter as yours that has the same problem. He is in good condition except for the syndrome, and I am super sad. He hasn't reached the oozing stage yet, but he looks just like yours currently. So very sad that models do this.

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  13. This is valuable info that needs to be spread. In the film world people are finding ways to treat this but none would be recommended for figures. Vita-Film, the one most widely used would wreck the paint and probably craze the surface.

    The need is to get more people aware of this and looking for/trying methods of treating it. There is nothing to force Breyer to take steps or re-issue (for trade-in replacement) but it would be a great if they did. But that won't happen until they are embarrassed enough to take a public step.

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