COLLECTING ANTIQUE DOLLS
by Denise Van Patten
First printed in County Lines Magazine March, 1999. Reprinted with permisson.
There is SO much to learn about antique dolls and their costuming--their history, the history of their creators, manufacturers and seamstresses, how children played with them--research turns up more information about all of this each year, as prices and collector interest continues to rise on all but the most common antique dolls.
All dolls created before approximately 1930 are considered antique. This is a somewhat arbitrary division, but in general, most pre-1930 bisque, china, papier mâché, wood, and wax dolls are considered antique by collectors. For years, all-composition dolls were considered modern, but that is slowly changing, and many of the pre-1930 composition dolls are also considered antique. One reason for this division is that many of the German manufacturers of bisque dolls made them from the 1890s through about 1930, and it is often hard to tell exactly what decade the doll was produced if it is not in original clothing. Most dolls you find today are, unfortunately, NOT found with original clothing, wigs, shoes and undergarments.
The majority of antique dolls found today were manufactured from 1850 on, although dolls representing adults from the 17th and 18th century are rarely found. Most of the very early dolls were made in England by individual craftsmen who carved the dolls of wood, painted their features, and also costumed the dolls. Collectors call the wood dolls from England from the 18th and early 19th centuries "Queen Anne" dolls, which is somewhat confusing, since Queen Anne's reign ended in 1714! These dolls, in good to excellent condition, are extremely rare, and cost from about $1,500 for an early 19th century doll, to over $40,000 for dolls made in the late 17th century (very few have survived--less than 30 by some reports).
Next oldest, and easier to find are the papier mâché dolls made from the beginning of the 19th century through the early 20th century. These dolls were mass-produced in Germany, France, and the United States, and proved a cheaper alternative to wood dolls, since molds could be used. The beginning of production of these dolls marked the beginning of the powerhouse German dollmaking industry, which would dominate the doll industry (except for the heyday of the French Bébé) until World War I. The first well-known American doll maker, Ludwig Greiner of Philadelphia, made papier mâché dolls from 1840 to 1874, and then his sons until 1883. Most papier mâché dolls have molded hair painted black, wooden limbs with a kid body, and painted eyes. A few choice dolls have glass eyes. The value of papier mâché dolls has started to rise because of the difficulty of finding them in excellent condition, as well as the out-of-sight prices of the sought-after early French and German bisque dolls. Prices range from about $500 for a small, marked post-1872 Greiner up to $2,000+ for exceptional German "milliners" models, and French examples from the early to mid 1800s.
The wax doll is generally a contemporary of the papier mâché doll. The earliest wax dolls found by collectors tend to be the poured wax dolls made in England (after the demise of the wooden doll industry) from 1840 through the remainder of the 19th century, although pressed wax dolls were made before this time for the very wealthy. The poured wax dolls were made by pouring liquid into warm molds, and then, the hair, and glass eyes were set in the head. Poured wax dolls were mostly made in home-based businesses, and making wax dolls was very hazardous--if a doll maker wasn't seriously burned by the hot wax, he could have his lungs harmed by the sawdust used to stuff bodies, or, he could be poisoned by the lead used to color the wax!
Bodies of wax dolls were generally made of stuffed cloth, with wax limbs (as you can see, the genre that dolls fall into is determined by the material that their heads are made of--NOT from the materials used for the bodies). Wax dolls can have beautifully realistic heads, because wax can mimic skin much better than either wood or papier mâché. Poured wax dolls from mid-19th century England are mostly valued between $1000 to $2000; earlier dolls much higher. Some later wax dolls are stamped by the maker on the torso; such identification greatly enhances the value. Wax dolls were also made with plaster or papier mâché reinforcement in both England and Germany, and later examples are less costly to today's collectors, often only a few hundred.
China Dolls and Parians
Now we come to the first type of antique doll that is widely-known among non-doll collectors--the china doll, and her close cousin, the rarer parian. The china doll had her heyday between 1840 and 1880, before bisque dolls became preferred by children, although china dolls were still mass-produced as late as the 1920s. China dolls have heads of glazed porcelain, and parians have heads of unglazed porcelain, and the majority were produced in Germany from 1850 on. China dolls are often identified by their hairstyles--be it a covered wagon style (hair flat on top with sausage curls around the head, 1840s), an Alice in Wonderland (molded head band, 1850s) or the Dolly Madison (curls all over and a molded ribbon)--whatever was fashionable at a certain time. Most china dolls represented ladies, and were fashionably dressed in up-to-date fashions. After about 1880, china heads were often sold separately, leaving the doll owner to make her own doll body and costume. The more elaborate the hairstyle and decoration on a china or parian doll, generally the higher the value--from about $300 for a common 1860s Highland Mary, to several thousand for a rare, elaborately decorated parian with a swivel-head and glass eyes.
German and French Fashion Dolls
Finally, we come to the best known group of antique dolls--the German and French bisque dolls. These dolls were produced from the 1840s until after World War I, with the amount of production and number of manufacturers increasing significantly around 1860. The years from 1860 through 1890 were dominated by fashion dolls. These dolls were made to represent ladies, and they were dressed in exquisite, elaborate reproductions of current fashions. Most were made in France (frequently from heads produced in Germany, although Jumeau and Bru produced their own heads) with inset glass eyes and woman-shaped kid bodies, by companies such as Jumeau, Bru, Gaultier, Rohmer and Huret. Fashion dolls, despite their elaborateness, were definitely playthings. Little girls (usually affluent since these dolls were quite expensive) would perfect their sewing skills by sewing wardrobes for their dolls, as they learned about the importance and substance of fashion for mid 19th century women. Often these dolls would come with entire trunks of clothes and accessories! In fact, an entire industry existed to costume and accessorize these dolls, in the Passage Choiseul area of Paris. These businesses included seamstresses, milliners, shoemakers, jewelers, and shoemakers! Magazines instructed girls on the proper fashions, and also provided patterns for making clothing. Today, fashion dolls are very expensive to collect, varying in price from around $2,000 for unmarked or later dolls, up to $20,000 or more for Hurets and rare examples in original outfits.
Bébés, or dolls made to represent children, were quite revolutionary for their time (starting about 1850), since most dolls up until that time were made to represent adults. Eventually, Bébés would overtake fashion dolls in popularity, and would lead to their demise. French Bébés, made by the master doll makers Jumeau, Bru, Steiner, Rohmer and others would have their ascendancy from the 1860s to the 1880s, followed by the German doll makers, who basically took over the industry with their quality, but lower priced products in the 1890s.
French Bébés were the pinnacle of the dollmaking industry. These dolls, with their kid or composition bodies, fine bisque heads, and beautiful expressions, were again expensive toys made for upper-class children. Bébés were usually sold exquisitely dressed, in doll-sized fashions worn by children of that era. Today, prices for French Bébés vary widely, depending on quality. Expect to pay several thousand at minimum for Jumeau or Brus. Later French Bébés, by the S.F.B.J (which was formed by French doll makers in 1899 in response to the threat from the German manufacturers) are not as fine quality, with more heavily tinted faces, and lesser clothing, can be had for several hundred dollars, especially for post-WWI examples.
German Dolly-Faced Dolls
BébésThe German "dolly-faced" child dolls are the ubiquitous antique bisque dolls that collectors today are most likely to find, produced from 1890 to about 1930, from such manufacturers as Armand Marseille, Simon and Halbig and Kestner. Most of these dolls came from the Thuringia region, which had rich clay deposits used to make the porcelain. Many of the German dolly-faced dolls are unmarked as to manufacturer, and there are many manufacturers that had their names and other details literally obliterated by the World Wars. The most sought-after of the German dolls of the early 20th century are the character-faced dolls, produced in response to consumer demands for more realistic-looking children dolls. Kämmer and Reinhardt, Heubach and Kestner produced many high-quality expressive character dolls which are eagerly sought by collectors today. Also eagerly sought by collectors are all-bisque dolls (head, torso and limbs all made of bisque) from manufacturers such as Kestner, Heubach, and Simon and Halbig.
For German bisque dolls, as with all antique dolls, remember that quality varies widely even within one manufacturer's products--dolls with finely detailed features (such as feathered brows and individual upper and lower eyelashes) and pale bisque are always preferred over dolls with single-stroke or other simplified features and darkly tinted bisque. Also, today's collectors prefer closed-mouth bisque dolls, since many fewer of them were produced than open-mouth dolls. Common German bisque dolls of average quality which are unmarked or from Armand Marseille can be found for as little as $200 or $300, with prices for sought-after German characters soaring into the thousands.
Collecting Tips: The first thing to remember when you start an antique doll collection is that the majority of these dolls were greatly loved by little girls. They were played with, dressed and redressed, bodies sometimes worn out, patched and replaced. If your budget is limited, well-loved dolls, often without their original clothes, can be a wonderful way to start a collection, especially if you can sew. Do remember though that replacing eyes and body parts, as well finding original or period clothing for an antique doll can be a very expensive proposition--good antique doll shoes, for German and French bisque dolls can be well over $100 a pair! Original clothes for a Jumeau or Bru can run several thousand dollars. Reproductions of clothes and shoes (as well as the expensive dolls themselves) are widely available, but before investing in such items, you should study antique dolls for awhile, seeing as many original dolls and outfits as you can to better help you judge authenticity and quality. Museums and doll auctions (run by such auction houses as Theriaults, Frashers, and McMasters) are two excellent places to see antique dolls in person, and many well-illustrated books are also available. Antique Doll Collector, a bi-monthly magazine, is an excellent place to find specialist antique doll dealers.
New collectors should also consider that many, many lovely antique dolls can be purchased for prices that are equal or less than prices for current artist-made dolls, or late 20th century collectible dolls like Barbie. For instance, many, many lovely china dolls can be purchased for under $500, whereas a #3 Barbie mint in box will set you back $700 or so! Many papier mâché dolls are also under $500, as are lovely German dolly-faced dolls. When selecting a German dolly-faced doll for your collection, try to especially notice the facial painting, which can vary greatly. For instance, if you are purchasing a common German bisque doll by Armand Marseille, pay attention to the individual artistry of the doll--some are hastily painted with one-stroke brows and heavy tint and blush, while others have nicely feathered brows and pale bisque, and are as nice as dolls from better-known makers. Also, although the prices of all-bisques by Kestner and other known makers have skyrocketed in recent years, there are many affordable all-bisques, such as unmarked stationary-head German "candy dolls" often for under $200, and frozen charlottes (china dolls, all stationary) which can be had for as little as $25-$20 for a doll under 2" tall.
Most experts will tell you to stay away from dolls with hairline cracks or other imperfections. This is sound advice if you have any expectation of reselling your doll in a few years time. However, if you are primarily buying your doll for personal enjoyment, and the discount is fair, you can afford rarer examples of dolls for your collection that you might not otherwise be able to afford by buying a slightly damaged doll. Often, minor damage is not noticeable when a doll is displayed.
Another niche for someone who admires the artistry of the antique dolls, but cannot afford the finer examples, is to concentrate on the lovely garments, shoes, hats and accessories made for the dolls. Fine French dolls had entire stores devoted to their clothing and accessories, and accessories included everything from purses to card games, and chatelaines to bibles. The clothing made by expert seamstresses rivaled the finest fashions for women. All of these items are quite pricey, but fine examples can be had for much less than complete dolls.
If you are not limited in funds, try to find dolls in original condition, which are in original or period clothes. This is especially true for dolls which are not as rare, such as many of the china dolls or German dolly-faced dolls. All-original dolls are getting harder and harder to find, and their values are likely to continue to soar.
Sources of antique dolls include antique and specialty doll dealers, auctions (uncataloged auctions offer the best bargains, but they are "buyer beware," so it is wise to study dolls for awhile before participating) and from the Internet, from both doll retailers and auction sites such as Ebay (www.ebay.com ). One caveat--it is very difficult to purchase antique dolls over the Internet. Unlike modern collectible dolls like Barbie, which are painted in a standard way, with standard manufactured clothing, antique dolls and their clothing tend to be unique, like individual works of art, and therefore antique dolls are extremely difficult to purchase without a personal inspection.
If you are interested in learning more about antique dolls, please visit the author's website, at http://www.dollymaker.com. Also, for MUCH MORE about Antique Dolls, visit Doll Collecting at About.com
County Lines Magazine is published monthly by ValleyDel Publications, and subscrptions are available from P.O.Box 31, Westown PA 19395