Antiques and Collectibles: The What and Why of Doll Collecting
The "why" people collect dolls is as varied as the "what" people collect. Another huge factor in the doll collecting field centers on the "how"---how a doll is maintained. The how becomes crucial if a collector decides to sell the doll or collection as the value is based, not only on the "what" factors, but also on the "how" it was maintained factors.
Feelings of nostalgia drive many a doll purchase. Beyond that, the collectible doll market focuses on a few elements: manufacturer, being foremost. Beyond that, collectors consider type of doll (some collect only porcelain, for example, while some search for dolls that fall into a certain size range or ethnicity), celebrity, (dolls fashioned after celebrities themselves, not the characters they have portrayed...this is very specific), and fashion such as with Barbie, Jem, and the older Dawn dolls.
Check the Manufacturer
In terms of manufacturers, I'd rank that second only to the nostalgia-driven market in terms of collectibility. In the ‘60s, Madame Alexander was known for her series of International dolls, then character dolls. Her hallmark was the fact that she hand crafted the dolls. They had bent knees, eyes that flipped open and closed, and faces that coincided with the image they were trying to portray. As a testament to that fact, Ebay is now featuring a set of 5 Madame Alexander dolls from Little Women for a starting price of $3,000.
After Madame Alexander's death, her family took over the production of the dolls, and the standard of manufacture changed significantly. The dolls, as with so many other things, became mass produced, with just a few facial differentiations. Though many of the collectors remained loyal, others balked at the new production, as the price of these dolls reflect in resale. The bent-knee, older Alexander dolls will bring quite a bit more than those manufactured today
Another classic manufacturer is Peggy Nisbet known for creating character dolls. Her
Queen Elizabeth doll comes replete with a long, blue velvet cloak and headpiece. King George has a purple velvet garment. Nothing is spared with her dolls. As with the original Alexanders, the Nisbet dolls are meant to reflect the character to make them totally recognizable to the consumer. You would never debate on the identity of her dolls.
Ethnicity or genre speak for themselves, as does celebrity. The only important point to underline is that a celebrity doll is of the human being, not the character. Hence, you'll hear the terms "celebrity" or "character" doll.
Finally, there are always trends which may or may not pay off. I just caught a glimpse of a set of dolls based on the portraits by Ann Geddes. These were babies wrapped up as butterflies. I collect butterflies, so they immediately caught my eye. Before I could go any further than the title, they were sold, instantly bought on eBay. Now, would these dolls bring the same price a year from now? Hard to say. The Ann Geddes doll featuring babies swaddled in butterfly outfits is certainly unique. When you look at it, if you've ever seen the work of Ann Geddes, you know these dolls are her creation.
Keep the Box
As for older dolls, if you scour auctions for vintage dolls, odds are you'll see one term over and over---NRFB (Never Removed From Box). Now, just how important is that? For doll collectors, very, it seems. First of all, especially for dolls created before 1970, it is very rare to locate a NRFB doll. That's part of its popularity. It just adds to the rarity, which in turn, adds to the price. Keep in mind, though you may be collecting dolls, they are toys, pure and simple. So, most dolls will have been removed from the box. To find those still intact is incredibly rare and costly. I've known many collectors of modern dolls who buy them and store them away, as if they were in a shrine...always with the idea that they were merely an investment. It makes me wonder just how much that adds to the value given *everyone* is doing it.
I watched this trend with both the Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Both were deemed collectibles by their manufacturers, and people bought into it and started skirting them away from the store and holding onto them for later. I wonder when later will come? Anything that is introduced as a collectible, I am skeptical about. There are other people who buy one to display and another to hold and sell at a later date. Only time will tell if these things are collectible as years tick by and Generation Xers go looking for things from their past.
To look at it another way, collectors say that by maintaining the dolls NRFB, they are maintaining history which is true enough. Still, I think that is the rarity. I believe most people just think it adds to the collectibility of the item. And, as I said, that's not how most dolls come into the market. They generally are brought into the market as the newest holiday toy for a child.
Beyond NRFB, most doll collectors may remove the doll from the box for display, but store the box. I actually have a box of boxes, which seems redundant, but if I ever want to sell these dolls, it will greatly add to their value. The reason will always remain a mystery to me except that it is in some part a testament to the fact that the dolls were not handled much.
If you already are a collector, how is the best way to display the collection? I prefer keeping my dolls behind glass in a curio cabinet, but I have several sitting in tea-party fashion in one room. Many of collectors keep them in boxes (the never-removed-from-box concept I've already talked about, and basically protect them as if they were part of the National Archives.)
I have a very different theory on this that isn't as kind to people who have resale in mind. But for me, you have to buy what you love (with any collectible) because you may be stuck with it. So, to that end, I integrate the things I collect into my life, as they give me joy. And isn't that the point? Don't most people collect something because it holds a special meaning or feeling for them? That being the case, use the item. I understand it lessens the value of a piece of history. But these things were made to be used, and ultimately, the odds are I will pass them to my children who will love them all the more because they were used.
My life-sized Yoda doll has been on the sale block twice since I got him. Both times I took him off because both children pitched a fit, literally sobbing. He has become a part of their lives. They know he has meant something to me and brought me pleasure, and they want to hang onto that for their future.
Watch the Little Things
If you are a new collector, a few reminders: keep the doll intact (don't change clothes, etc.), keep the doll behind glass for protection as much as possible when not in use, if possible, keep tags and identification on the doll, and store the box. Collectors are fanatical about boxes. If your aim is to sell the doll, keep the box.
When collecting, be careful that what you purchase is not refurbished in any way, if it is important for you to have the original. Do your research. Hunt down photos of the original. Are the shoes, undergarments, dress, etc. from the original doll. Many sellers will spruce up a doll by adding new items in an effort to have them look new.
Also, remember there is doll conservation and doll restoration. Conservation is trying to maintain what is, while restoration is an effort to undo the ravages of time and bring that favorite doll back to its original state. A doll that has been conserved will always bring more than the doll that has been restored, and I think that applies no matter how much nicer the restored doll looks, if you're dealing with a savvy doll collector.
Want to bring an old favorite back to life? A doll hospital is just the place. Almost any antique store can point you in the direction of a repair artist. If not, look in the direction of the Internet. One example is Treasured Collectibles & Doll Hospital which specializes in the repair and restoration of all types of dolls.