Generally speaking, an antique is an object over 100 years old, or in some cases, over 80 years old. For dolls, the definition has been stretched to around 80 years and over, which makes many collectible composition dolls antiques. Everything else up to the 90s or so is generally considered vintage. Some experienced antique doll dealers and auctioneers use the terms 18th century, 19th century, and 20th century to refer to various dolls from the era.
For this post, let’s focus on dolls from the 1930s and earlier to discuss some beginning tips for collecting antique dolls. As with all dolls, or all collectibles, for that matter, knowledge is everything. Familiarize yourself with as many antique dolls as you can. It’s easy these days; books are available in the publications section of Ruby Lane and other online book sites. Bookstores carry all kinds of books on dolls, even used bookstores or antiquarian bookstores. Study dolls online at places that sell them, especially Ruby Lane. Use old catalogs as research tools, too. Newsletters and magazines about dolls abound, and vintage examples are sold online, too. A website that catalogs old doll and craft magazines is Something Under The Bed. The Strong National Museum of Play has a fantastic online collection of dolls you may study at any time.
A fantastic way to learn from dealers in the trade, or to 'see' some of the finest dolls in the world is to visit the Ruby Lane YouTube channel. Various playlists feature full-length seminars dedicated to the preservation, education, and enjoyment of dolls and collecting. The Dolls Lane produces all of the videos, and they are available for free to anyone who would like to learn.
On your travels or within your hometown, visit antique shops and doll dealers and ask questions. Many dealers are happy to talk about and share their passion with doll collectors who are eager to learn. People are among the greatest resources of all. Look for old advertisements on dolls as well as the dolls themselves. Visit museums and historical societies, as well as doll museums. Here is a handy list of doll museums across the globe. If you go to a museum and do not see dolls on display, ask about them. Sometimes dolls appear only in special exhibits or during certain times of the year. When you are ready to buy, do a little research and most importantly, follow your heart, and buy something you love.
Small bisque dolls are out there for under $100. Japanese bisque dolls marked Nippon and Japan can cost around $5 each, even less. “Frozen” dolls or penny dolls make a charming collection. Antique folk dolls made of cornhusks, apples, nuts, and shells intrigue some collectors. These are still affordable, but many, especially Black folk dolls with nut heads, have been increasing in value.
Wax over papier-mache and composition dolls are fun to collect and to study. German papier-mache heads, wooden penny woodens, homemade cloth dolls, and German metal heads are collectible and interesting. So are china heads in the low brow or flat top style.
German bisque dolls by Armand Marseilles, especially the 390 and 370 molds are “gateway” antique dolls to more high-end models. French bisque dolls by UNIS, Verlingue, Lanternier, and later companies can be lovely and often have wonderful costumes. Antique paper dolls are plentiful still, and advertising paper dolls are fun and colorful. Home Made examples inspire some, while others like to collect early examples from the funny pages.
After a while, as you learn dolls and marks, you can trade up to more expensive dolls. Some collectors have a doll fund; others sell dolls they have studied and tired of to buy better examples.
Always try to buy the best you can; look for appropriately old or original costumes and shoes. If you can get a doll in its original box or package, do it. If a doll is expensive, or you are unclear what it is, politely ask the dealer if you can undress it, or if the dealer can show you the marks. A good place to check out reputable dealers is to become familiar with The National Antique Doll Dealers Association, N.A.D.D.A. The United Federation of Doll Clubs is an excellent source of information; you may want to join a doll club after viewing their website, UFDC.org. Visit the UFDC museum if you can, it is a wonderful doll resource. You can study the dolls up close, and they gave a fantastic research library.
At the end of the day, collecting antique dolls is FUN! Lead with your heart, follow your instincts, and enjoy the process of learning - antique dolls teach history and culture. They bring like mind folks together and can be a life-long source of enjoyment. We are always here for you on the Dolls Lane - please pull up a chair and stay awhile!