Speaking of Dolls: Leave your modesty at home and inspect bodies of antique dolls before you buy

In the doll world, what you see is not necessarily what you get. There is an old saying, “Clothes make the man” and with dolls, clothes very often are the first thing to catch a collector’s eye. Fabulous dresses and fancy hats can often hide unforeseen surprises – both good and bad. 

When you are looking at dolls at a doll show or auction, you should always ask to see the body.  Bodies do not have to be perfect, after all, we are looking at antiques, but the doll in question should have the correct or appropriate body.  If the body is correct, the second thing you should examine is its condition.  Expected age wear and rubs at sockets or leaks at gussets is expected but replacement parts, replacement bodies and repaint are all things that should influence the price of the doll. 

Knowing what body is correct for a doll takes study.  Some doll manufacturers such as Simon and Halbig primarily made doll heads so their heads come on a variety of bodies.  What collectors look for with a Simon Halbig head is a quality German body.  Kestner, on the other hand, produced heads and bodies.  For a Kestner doll to sell at top value, the head and body should both be by Kestner.  Kestner bodies are often stamped “Made in Germany or Excelsior” or have a paper label.  If no identifying mark is visible, Kestner ball joint bodies, like the bodies found on Simon Halbig heads, are high quality bodies with good molding and substantial weight.  The leather bodies found on these dolls are also high quality with beautiful molded bisque hands.

The German doll firm, Heinrich Handwerck, produced sturdy, high quality bodies for the heads they purchased from the Simon and Halbig firm.  These heads are usually marked Simon and Halbig, Heinrich Handwerck and should come on a body stamped Heinrich Handwerck if a top dollar price is asked.   

Many of the French doll manufacturers also stamped or put a paper label on the bodies of their heads.  Jumeau bodies can have a stamp on the base of their back or later dolls often have a paper label.  Steiners are often stamped on their left hip.  French fashion dolls on leather bodies can be found with a maker’s stamp on the body.  Marked French bodies add to the value of the doll but just as with German bodies, if it is not original or marked, it should be appropriate for the period of the head.  Does this mean that you should not buy a doll on the wrong body?  Absolutely not. 

Through the years, bodies and heads have been changed over and over.  Cloth bodies have deteriorated and have had to be replaced.  Kid bodies have begun to leak excessively and have had to be patched or replaced.  Ball joint bodies have lost arms and legs or have been destroyed by insects or lack of care.    Heads have been swapped from body to body or a head has been broken and another head has replaced it.  China shoulder heads were often purchased as heads only and the bodies were handmade.  Because of this, collectors find all qualities of sewing and body proportions. 

A smart collector is aware of these things and will buy a doll taking all of this into consideration. When you approach a doll dressed beautifully, ask the dealer, “May I look at the body?”  Then consider:  Is this body appropriate to the age of the doll?  Has the body been repainted (if it is a ball joint body)?  If it is a cloth body, is it of the period of the doll?  What is it stuffed with?  Are the limbs original or replacements?  If the body is leather, what is the condition of the leather?  If it is patched, are the patches done correctly and is it sturdy?  A smart collector will look at the body and what he sees should influence what he is willing to pay.
If you are not allowed to “sneak a peek”, is there a reason?  Is the dress too fragile to be touched?  If so, then the buyer can be fairly certain that the body is the original.  If a doll cannot be undressed for examination, often just looking at the feet or hands will tell you all you need to know.   

Top value can be placed on a doll whose body is the original or is the appropriate age and form for the head.  “Original” is often impossible to prove but “appropriate” is acceptable.  Heads on reproduction or replaced bodies or on old bodies that are not appropriate for the head can drop the value of the doll by as much as half.  This is also true of dolls whose bodies have been poorly repaired or repainted. 
If I buy a doll on the wrong body, how difficult is it the find the right body?  Because there were so many German doll manufacturers and because the bodies for most of the German dolls were very similar, German ball joint bodies are not too difficult to find.  It is finding the one that will fit correctly that is the problem.  Body manufacturing was not very standardized and sizes of neck openings, arm openings, leg openings vary more than you can believe.  I have had doll friends buy several bodies from the Internet before they finally found one that would fit exactly.  Leather and cloth bodies in good condition are more difficult to find.  They are much more fragile than ball joint bodies and did not hold up as well.  Because many French dolls have unique body styles, their bodies are not so plentiful and are usually rather costly. 

And last but not least are the all bisque dolls.  These are the dolls that you very often find with replaced or incorrect arms and legs.  Originally attached with cord, elastic or wire, many little dolls lost their limbs and finding correct limbs can be a challenge.  Look at how the arms and legs fit against the body.  Are the joints or the arm and leg edges chipped?  All of these “problems” are easily covered with clothes that are often sewn on.   It is advisable to examine closely if possible. 

On the plus side, buying a doll on the wrong body is not always a bad thing.  At a recent show, I found a very ordinary Armand Marseille 390 with no eyes and an ill fitting dress.  I am always looking for nice quality ball joint bodies and when I looked under her dress, I found that she was on a Jumeau body.  In this case, the wrong body was the right body for me.


Sherry Minton has served as president of three clubs belonging to the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc. She is a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers with a Designated Specialty in Dolls and Toys. Minton can be contacted at dollypictures@aol.com.

More from Sherry Minton

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