Helen and Teacher

Helen and Teacher
The Story of my Life

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Memoirs of a Doll Collector

With the current economy I wonder a lot at prices in the antique market, especially the doll market.  Antique dolls began to get really expensive when I first got interested in them, when I was about six or seven.  I saw my first German bisque doll at Fantasy Land in Gettysburg when I was about five, and then my next group at the Folk Festival we used to have every summer at one of our junior highs.  I was hooked.  My first old doll was a Nancy Ann bisque in her box, given to me by my babysitter.  Her daughter played with them, and her mother had saved them.    There was a ball-jointed doll with a sweet face, not bisque, about 14 inches long in an organdy dress that I loved, a tiny silk wrapped wire doll, a little hard plastic, probably Irwin, in a crocheted dress, and several Dress-me dolls and Nancy Anns.   The Nancy Anns were in a trunk, and I can’t even tell you how many there were, but Sandy, the daughter, was the baby, and had everything, so there were probably at least fifty.

Mrs. G. was about my age at the time, but she seemed so much older to me.  I think the styles of the day didn’t help.  My mother was about 12 years younger at the time, but she looked like she could be her daughter.  The next time I had a chance to see old dolls was our first trip to California in ’67.  The San Jose flea market was full of them, and my first big Arranbee compo baby came from there.  It was “littlest Angel,” and her red dress was melting, it’s gilt polka dots fading.  We kept the dress; one of my vintage cardboard Halloween skeletons is wearing it, but she had had a wardrobe of baby dresses, and now wears a vintage christening gown.  I saw very old Mexican dolls that summer and boudoir dolls were going for 25.00, a fortune.  We did buy a 40s composition doll from Mexico, and her dress didn’t’ even resemble the once bright China Poblana costume, but her comp and mohair wig were near mint.  She wore her hair in braids on top of her head, like my mother did, and like I did once in a while.  After I read Rumer Godden, she became Mrs. Plantaganet, and though not in scale, is still the real mother of my dollhouse family. 

That fall, we went to the now defunct Women’s Club antique shows at our old Masonic Temple.  The dolls were to die for.  We were a paradise for big dealers, including Ralph’s Antique Dolls.  Prices were discouraging, but there were French bebes and fashions for under $100.00.  They would soon climb to  $600, then $1000, then the price of a mortgage.  My first real antique doll came from that show, a tiny china Frozen Charlotte, named of course, Charlotte.  We were thrilled, thought that was a lot of money for us to pay. My mom made her tiny dresses, and she still has a gilt sleigh with upholstered pillows she sleeps in. That Christmas I read all about her in Helen Young’s The Complete Book of Doll Collecting.  This was my second doll book.  The first was Dolls by John Noble, a 7th birthday present.  The third was written by my friend Mary Hillier, still a classic work, Dolls and Doll Makers.  These were people who thought outside the box, and as a result, encouraged me to do so, too, as a collector.

Now, when antique dolls have held steady, but when they still cost well over $100.000, far more than that in the case of the famous Albert Marque that was just sold, I have to wonder who sets these prices, and what do we want to accomplish. Every good collection and antique shop when I was growing up had a variety of bisques, china heads, French bisques, and nice miniatures. They weren’t priced out of the market yet.  Collectible dolls didn’t exist, and vintage Barbies cost under $2.00, and I could buy cases of them with clothes for less than that. Shackman and a few ladies like my Aunt Rose made reproductions, but Emma Clear dolls were already in a league of their own.  Foreign dolls and Mme. Alexanders made up the collections of lucky little girls, and Shirley Temple was about the only compo doll people seemed to want.  Paper doll collectors were just getting started, and later in the 70s or so, my friend R. Lane Herron wrote the first book about them.

Modern dolls an after thought, but I kept my babies, figuring they would in time be valuable.  I was right.  Pat Smith’s books on modern dolls, beginning in 1972, began to identify modern dolls and also to set prices, which also began to rise.  These prices have begun to bottom out, and I have been able to replace the few dolls that did get given away [when I believed as a child that poor little children went to The Salvation Army for toys], and yesterday, I had a real moment of serendipity. One of those Salvation Army giveaways found her way back to my collection.  I recognized her right away, and she came back home for fifty cents.  She was at a local flea market, absolutely filthy, a 12-inch hard vinyl doll, made by Eegee in the sixties.  She was one of the dolls my Uncle used to bring on weekends. She was still wearing the one-piece yellow flannel pjs that belonged to one of my Uneeda dolls that had a Styrofoam body built over wire.   She hadn’t traveled far.  I’d like to think some of her bad condition was due to being well loved, but who knows?

What if all doll prices dipped, and they were no longer playthings of the rich?  What if all dealers banded together and said no doll would be over $1000?  This is real fairy tale thinking; many people, including friends and acquaintances of mine, make a living out of high-end dolls.  But, as Helen Young used to say, there are collections and accumulations.  It bothers me that museums close, and it bothers me even more that they deaccess their permanent collections, either for money, or because they are antique stores in decline.  I know of at least one collection often written about that has all the rare bisques, all-pristine, none under fifteen thousand dollars in value, most worth more.  After about ten of them, they all look alike to me.  The old celebrated collections Johl and St. George wrote about no longer exist.  Everything is too specialized, and the variations on a theme begin to merge together when I look at them.  Advanced collector now means a millionaire or a dealer who can afford to buy and sell in movie star circles, though there are some movie stars who collect who prefer stuffed animals, modern dolls, reproductions, or artist dolls.  No even billionaires and millionaires always want to shell out fortunes for one doll.  Collector and dealer are not interchangeable.  Both are fine titles, and they can run into each other now and then, but not everyone collects to sell.

Veteran authors and collectors who owned dolls that were worth thousands were horrified that that dolls were costing five, ten, one hundred thousand dollars.  Even new dolls for children often begin in the $40.00 range, and American Girls can run parents into thousands of dollars if they buy everything to go with the dolls, which now cost close to $100.   Tonner, Wright, Iaccono, Deval, Ortiz, and other artists are out of the price range of most collectors.  And, the motto is no longer, “buy what you love,” but “buy what is a good investment.”  Well, personally, I say contribute to your IRA, buy bonds, invest in CDs, mutual funds, your 401k, or even play the Market, albeit prudently.  Dolls are not an investment per se.  Plunges in the secondary market have shown that interest can wane, and speculating can be dangerous. 

Collections are meant to be kept for them to vest, any collections.  Quick turnarounds among dealers in all antiques are fascinating to observe, but are they setting a good example?  Who knows?  I love Antiques Roadshow, but a good yard sale is getting harder and harder to find.  I love eBay and Etsy, but good antique shops, even malls are few and far between.  I love books on quirky antiques and collectibles, but once one is written [and I include mine in these comments] prices just go up and up.  Why do we write, I ask, to boost prices, corner markets, or inspire others to follow in our footsteps?

Also, there is often a glut in what’s availability because anyone can put dolls on computer auctions  Even I get jaded sometimes, and rare doesn’t mean what it used to mean.  Any more, I think it is rare if I can’t find it on a computer auction, or in a book!

But, let’s look locally.   Dolls in all types of condition, made of all materials, disappear off the shelves our local thrift stores and rummage sales.   I see people grabbing CPK dolls, and Alexanders of all types, even since 1990,  do very well at doll shows and estate sales.  Doll parts do well on online auctions, and broken, dug up bisque heads are popular no matte what.  A & AM 370 and 390 dolls are Pooh-poohed by dealers, but they sell very quickly, again, in any condition.  I’ve seen many people proudly show them at lectures as their family heirlooms, and the rest of the audience ooh and aah about them.  Grown men have tried to buy foreign dolls and Dress-me dolls out from under me everywhere.

The new, super expensive ball jointed dolls are becoming status items; I see Generation Xers carrying them around, and Living Dead Dolls and Goth dolls are attracting new doll collectors in the same tradition that Barbie, CPK, Raggedy Ann, and Precious Moments dolls attract them.

Hummels are also ridiculed, especially in great doll/puppet film called Team America, but they are still desirable to most people, and selling well.  They are still expensive, and still do well in antique malls where I live.  I still love them.  My mother and I collected the ones with dolls and toys, but we managed to gather quite a few others, including dolls, plates, and other Goebel figurines.  They were, and still are, special in my family.  WE may have been spurred on by her sorority sister, my second grade teacher, who publically humiliated me during show and tell for believing my precious Joseph’s Original figurine was a Hummel.    I was seven; I thought all figurines were Hummels like I thought all gelatin desserts were Jell-O.  Silly me.

My museum will have dolls of all types, for all people, as many as I can gather, a la Samuel Pryor and other great collectors.   There will be representatives from the prehistoric and ancient world, and modern dime store dolls.  There will be figurines and foreign dolls , and costume dolls, and dump babies, and pristine dolls with their boxes, and  antique bisque, wax, and china, and a world of composition dolls, along with their furniture, books, wardrobes and miniatures.

There will be soldiers and robots, and boy toys, and voodoo dolls, and all types of art objects.  Never let it be said we are boring.  We will have clowns and Smurfs and cartoon figures, and the comics will be well represented.

Till then, Happy Dolling.  Collect what you love, rearrange, repair, and read, read, read about your dolls.  Kudos to Doll Castle News for keeping up the tradition of catering to an audience of those who love dolls, and for not emphasizing money and price.  We love the family heritage behind them, and the fact that they love all types of dolls, for just as there are all kinds of dolls; there are all kinds of people.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eugene Field Memoir on Kindle Free

An excellent two volume memoir, free on Kindle!