Recently, a friend said, ‘I’d like to collect dolls. But there are lots of different kinds. How do I start and what are the best to buy?’ This really had me thinking; it’s a difficult query to reply to as there’s no easy answer. The first thing to establish is why my friend wants to collect – if it’s for investment purposes, my reply will be, “Don’t!” That isn’t to say there is no money to be made in the doll collecting world – a lady I know must be rubbing her hands with glee at the moment having just sold a mint in box Pedigree doll (which originally cost £5) for over £650! While anyone who still owns their childhood Blythe doll could, with a bit of luck, be sitting on a nice little earner of £500 upwards.
I’m sure that if you ask Kathy Martin which bears to collect, Mark Hill which glass to collect or Tracy Martin which handbags to collect, they will all tell you the same – “Buy those which you really love (as long as you can afford them!).” There is no point in buying items which you dislike purely because they might possibly rise in value in ten years time – after all, you have to live with them until then. If you invest in an ultra rare, mint, perfect doll, but it happens to be one of those types which scares you even before you placed your bid, well, yes, you might possibly make a profit in a few years – but in the meantime, you’ll have turned into a nervous wreck, with the doll haunting your dreams and scaring all your friends away! Stick with what appeals to you, and you’ll be fine.
What if you decide you want to collect the kind of dolls you like, but the trouble is, you like them all? Well, firstly, welcome to the club, most doll collectors face this exact dilemma! Sometimes you can narrow it down a bit. Maybe, fashion is your thing and the new fashion dolls, especially those by the American designers such as Tonner, will fit the bill. There are many ranges of exquisite dolls to choose from, whether you decide to go for the 1940s look as worn by Mel Odom’s Gene, 1950s chic encapsulated in such dolls as Tonner’s Kitty Collier, 1960s zany styles as demonstrated by the new Doug James range of Gabby and Violet teens, or ballet and theatrical glamour found in the stunning range by Clea Bella. All of these dolls are worth checking out by fashion fans.
If, however, your fashion tastes are more simple, then you might prefer to begin your collection by seeking out old Sindy, Barbie, Daisy, Tressy and Tammy dolls. All of these have their fans, and it is still relatively easy to pick up good examples without laying out too much money – a Sindy, for example, in her original Weekenders outfit, or a Quant Daisy wearing her trendy Bees Knees get-up, can be bought for the price of a meal out. Barbie and Sindy are still being made, so you could add some you really like to your collection just by popping along to your local toy shop.
Maybe, though, it’s the older dolls which really appeal to you – it must be said that some of the bisque dolls from the 1920s and before are stunningly beautiful, with large glass eyes, creamy smooth porcelain cheeks and rosebud mouths. To me, it is a really special feeling to hold one of these old dolls, to imagine the children who played with her and the history they witnessed, a nd, especially, to marvel at the way a china doll which has been loved and played with by generations of children, can still be so fresh and perfect. Antique dolls are often expensive – yet, some modern dolls can cost just as much, if not more. If you are hoping to collect antique dolls, now is a very good time to buy. At present, many of the more commonly-found old dolls have dropped in price, possibly due to an influx on the market as elderly owners decide to part with their possessions; look out for makers such as Armand Marseille, Ernst Heubach, Simon & Halbig and Schoenau & Hoffmeister, all of whom made delightful and popular dolls. At present it is possible to buy a reasonable antique doll in good condition for around £150 from a dealer or fair. I would never recommend that you buy any antique doll without inspecting it first, unless the seller is someone known to you who you trust implicitly.
When you find an antique doll which you really love, ask the seller if there are any cracks, including hairlines, chips or other damage (normally this should have already been noted on the tag attached to the doll). Check to see whether the wig is original (a replacement isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as it isn’t a modern nylon wig), and ask if you can remove some of the clothing to check the condition of the body. Sometimes you will find there are scuffed toes or missing fingers; most collectors are not overly concerned with minor play damage such as this, and some will accept a hairline crack if it doesn’t detract from the doll’s beauty. Antique dolls aren’t always made from china, there are some very beautiful wax dolls about. Many people dislike wax dolls as they find the wax likeness to human skin rather creepy for comfort, while often the faces tend to craze which can give them a sinister air. Anther reason they are out of favour is because they can dry out in modern centrally-heated homes. Nevertheless, wax dolls can be very pretty, and often not particularly expensive. With a little care, they can make an excellent and interesting collection, as can celluloid dolls, which, though prone to dents, and which, being inflammable, mustn’t be put near a naked flame, are delicate and often beautiful.
Frequently, it’s nostalgia which prompts people to begin their doll collections – maybe you remember a doll from your childhood and decide to search for it, or you’re at a boot sale and suddenly come across a familiar face. You might be watching a programme on tv about retro toys, or find a photo of yourself as a child with your best doll. I get lots of letters from people who vaguely remember a childhood favourite, but can’t recall the make or exact model, yet with a little prompting it’s surprising what information can be gleaned. It’s very satisfying when they report back later to say that at last they have found a doll which they believe is identical to their cherished childhood companion. Depending on when you were born, your childhood doll might have been made from hard composition (a kind of plaster mix), hard plastic or softer vinyl, and all these types of dolls are perfect for a doll collection. Some collectors are drawn to cloth dolls; perfect examples of the ‘golden era’ (1920s-30s) dolls by makers such as Chad Valley, Dean’s, Farnell or Norah Wellings are very expensive nowadays as so many succumbed to moth damage, or even too much loving, but that are plenty of modern cloth dolls around.
Probably the easiest way to start a doll collection, certainly the way many of us began, is by acquiring souvenir dolls of our holidays. Every gift shop abroad, it seems, is stuffed with colourful costume dolls, especially shops at airports and tourist venues. Some are better than others – try to avoid the obviously plasticky Taiwan examples, and look around for dolls hand-crafted in the country that you are visiting, or at least, dressed there. There are still gems to be found with a bit of diligent searching.
Designer dolls are those usually intended just for collectors, they are not for children to play with. Often, these will be very expensive, especially if you go for ultra-limited editions, or dolls by exclusive makers who have long waiting lists of customers. However, you can buy pretty, good quality dolls from companies such as Ashton-Drake, Lee Middleton, Sigikid or Helen Kish – though, as with the majority of dolls I’ve mentioned here, don’t expect them to hold their value, at least not in the short-term.
Only buy dolls which you like, never let anyone else influence your taste. Buy from the heart – if you find a doll yo u really love and feel she would be perfect for your collection, then get her. But if you don’t like the doll, even though you know she is a bargain, then leave her for someone else. A doll you dislike sitting amongst your collection isn’t an asset, it’s a waste of your money!