Collecting Antique Dolls by Joy Bradley

Antique doll collecting has grown rapidly in recent years, fueled by the staggering numbers of new internet shoppers flooding to online shops and auctions every day.

Trends come and go in all collecting avenues and antique dolls are no exception. Currently, it seems that one of the hottest categories is antique rag dolls. Several large and well-known collections have come on the market recently, and this has fueled the fire. Collectors clamor at the chance to own these “one-of-a-kind” homemade dolls from the circa 1900 era and even earlier. Care must be taken to be sure that the dolls are truly antique, as great strides have been made in “fake” period rags. While many of the early collectors of these precious rag dolls were purists, others purchased newer fakes as well because they loved the character or just wanted another doll and they did not necessarily care whether it was antique or not. Today, collectors are faced with determining whether or not the doll is truly an antique, as value is seriously affected by the age of the doll.

Newer collectors often write to ask us what type doll they should begin their collections with. First and foremost, we advise collectors to purchase what they really love. First purchases are often made timidly because new collectors are afraid of making costly mistakes and they do not want to spend large sums of money on a doll until they really know what they are doing. This can be a double-edged sword. Many new collectors focus solely on price; this inherently brings with it the likelihood of disappointment. They may have their eye on a c1870 Bru Jne which may be valued at $6,000 or more, but they do not want to risk that kind of money on their first purchase. What if it isn’t authentic? What if they don’t like it when they see it in person? So they buy an Armand Marseille #390 for $450 and although it’s a lovely doll, it just doesn’t excite them the way that Bru Jne did.

Here are some suggestions for beginning collectors that I hope will answer some basic questions and also set out some guidelines to protect their investments while at the same time keeping their collecting appetites satisfied.

1. Read! Start with generalized books and encyclopedias on dolls before progressing to more specialized books on specific types of dolls; unless, of course, you already have decided to collect one type only. Building a good library is absolutely invaluable, as you will refer back to it constantly while building your collection.

2. Establish a relationship with a seasoned and knowledgeable dealer who takes the time to answer your questions thoughtfully. This will help you make wise investments and you won’t have to worry about making costly mistakes. Because the dealer’s reputation is on the line, you will not have to worry about unknowingly buying a damaged or restored doll or one that is a fake. Your knowledge will grow more quickly as the dealer assists you in making your purchases.

3. Always purchase what you love, rather than seeking out the best “bargain”. There are many collectors who begin their collections with bargains collected from all kinds of sources. This is an extremely risky endeavor. I’ve encountered many collectors who have lots of dolls in their collection but absolutely no excitement. When they stand back and contemplate what they have purchased as a “collection”, they wish they had purchased that one doll that really excited them instead of all the inexpensive ho-hum dolls they see in front of them. They may want to sell or trade their bargain dolls for something they like more, but find instead that they cannot even get what they paid for them.

4. Investigate some “untapped” markets where you can find some very reasonable prices, while still collecting high quality dolls which will appreciate in value. Some categories of dolls are still considered to be priced “below their potential” in today’s market. China head dolls and parian dolls are two of my personal all-time favorites and are still largely under-priced in the market, as are early papier mache and wax dolls. People seem to either love them or they don’t. Why their prices have remained so low is a mystery. After all, when you consider that they were purchased as “toys”150-200 years ago, it’s amazing they exist at all. Prices are all over the spectrum, based mostly on the rarity and scarcity of the hairstyle and decoration, as well as condition and originality. Compared to later German and French bisque dolls, their prices are truly still in the bargain category although their quality can be extremely high.

5. Whether you buy from online shops, doll shows, mail order, store-front shops, or auctions, there are common sense safeguards to follow. First and foremost, know who you are buying from. In all venues, discover who the seller is and get a sense of their ethics as well understanding their shop policies.

• Dealers: Still the best place to start for new collectors, reputable dealers will take the time to answer questions thoughtfully and will give sound advice that will ultimately save you money in costly mistakes. A good dealer will help you build your collection wisely and along with your doll purchases, you will be buying his or her knowledge and years of experience, assuring that you will build a collection you will cherish. A reputable dealer will also offer a return policy to protect you; know what it is and be sure you agree with the terms prior to committing to a purchase. If you are buying from an online dealer, look for full descriptions including flaws, and lots of clear photos. If you have a question unanswered in the photos and written description, send an email or call the dealer for the answers. If they are reluctant to help you, move on; there are plenty of dealers who will help you and will be sure you are comfortable with your purchases.

• Auctions: Here you will see a lot of dolls in person, but a strong word of caution is needed: auctions are extremely risky for the new collector. Beware of auction houses or online auction sellers that do not thoroughly describe the condition of the dolls. “Generally excellent” is overused in the industry and tells you absolutely nothing about the condition of the doll. Also, auctions are “final sale” venues, so if you did not fully inspect the doll prior to your winning bid, you will have no recourse and will not be allowed to return it. Most auction houses today charge a buyer’s premium or penalty and you must be aware of it and consider it in your bidding. Currently, these penalties range from 10% - 20% of the winning bid and we know of a few even higher.

• Doll Shows: Doll shows are located in most major metropolitan areas at various times throughout the year. Find one near you and attend. This will give you an excellent opportunity to meet dealers and see many dolls all in one day. You can find show schedules in doll collecting magazines and online. Keep in mind that not all doll dealers display at doll shows, so this will not be an all-inclusive representation of dealers.

• Doll Clubs: Invaluable for meeting other doll collectors and dealers and broadening your knowledge in this collecting field. There are doll clubs located all over the US and in foreign countries as well. Most meet monthly and there are even online clubs which have formed within the last few years.

• Flea Markets, Yard Sales, and Antique Malls: While you may be lucky enough to find a real bargain in a rare and valuable doll, serious caution must be exercised in these venues. You may be purchasing a reproduction or a “put-together” doll, which may not be such a bargain after all. Reproductions are plentiful and may be offered as authentic by unwitting sellers or knowledgeable sellers who mean to trick you. The old adage: “if it looks to good to be true, it probably is” should be remembered here.

I’ve met many, many doll collectors over the years through all of these venues, and enjoy a robust antique doll business which is blessed with a high number of repeat customers who have added such joy to the way I earn my living. Even after 30+ years of collecting and selling dolls, I continue to learn more about these cherished treasures from the past.

Joy Bradley of Joy's Antique Dolls


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