Doll Repair: Expert tips and insider knowledge

Experts give insights, tips on antique and vintage doll repair

By Sara Jordan-Heintz 

A great aunt’s 1930s composition Shirley Temple arrived loose and with no hair. Photo courtesy Jill Alvord, Jack and Jill Doll Hospital

A great aunt’s 1930s composition Shirley Temple arrived loose and with no hair. Photo courtesy Jill Alvord, Jack and Jill Doll Hospital

Stuffy attics, musty basements, wear and tear through years of hugs, dragging down steps and improper handling — the effects of Mother Nature’s touch and Father Time’s hourglass on precious antique dolls.

When it comes to restoring luster and prestige, locating a skilled doll repairer is essential in achieving the desired outcome. Whether a doll goes in for a minor tune-up, or a complete revamping, changes made to the body and accessories of a doll can greatly enhance or depreciate its value — and some work can be irreversible, to the chagrin of the doll owner. Repairs performed to increase the selling price of a doll are approached in a different manner than fixing broken body parts and redoing the hair of beloved family heirlooms not set for the auction floor. Three seasoned doll repairers, with decades of experience restoring thousands of antique dolls, offer some professional advice in making the right repair decisions for your doll.

Jack and Jill Doll Hospital

After: A charming Shirley Temple complete with a replaced vintage Shirley Temple wig, curled, strung, and her original outfit cleaned. Photo courtesy Jill Alvord, Jack and Jill Doll Hospital

After: A charming Shirley Temple complete with a replaced vintage Shirley Temple wig, curled, strung, and her original outfit cleaned. Photo courtesy Jill Alvord, Jack and Jill Doll Hospital

“I have been around antique dolls for the past 52 years,” said Jill Alvord, owner of Jack and Jill Doll Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, formerly based in Omaha, Nebraska.

Alvord took over her mother’s doll repair work in 1978, pooling skills from her art, history, and fashion knowledge.

“I see antique dolls as a work of art; the craftsmanship and fine details involved is incredible. My belief is to keep dolls as original as possible. This also keeps their value higher … my philosophy is to have a light touch. I have to explain this sometimes to owners who want to keep the doll to pass it down in their family. I jokingly tell them that the doll is almost 100 years old, 70 years old, etc. — it has earned its patina and aged look. To completely repaint a doll destroys its look and wipes away a lot of the value. If the doll has a crack, for example, repair and touch up that area to match the rest of the arm, leg, etc,” she said. 

When dolls are brought to doll hospitals for evaluating, doll repairers diagnose and prescribe much in the same vein as medical doctors.

Klein’s Doll Repair Shop & Hospital

“I don’t do anything I wouldn’t want done to one of my dolls,” said Teresa Klein, owner of Klein’s Doll Repair Shop & Hospital, located in Milford, Indiana.

As someone who has repaired over 3,500 dolls in her career, she noted how it is essential to make sure the doll repairer and the customer are in agreement as to what changes should be done to the doll, and how such repairs and augmenting will affect the resale value.

“Some collectors are fine with restored dolls, but others I know would never buy anything that was restored, so it’s sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sometimes there have been dolls I have said let’s not touch at all. A lot of times, if you are doing a restoration on a valuable doll, [the work] should be able to be undone,” Klein advised. “If a dealer comes in with a really valuable doll, you do the least amount of work on the doll. If it’s missing an arm, you find the exact one. If some lip paint is missing, you might just want to touch it up, but only on the spot that’s missing.”

Antique Child Doll Restoration

Janie Nafsinger, owner of Antique Child Doll Restoration, based in Caldwell, Idaho, has 35 years of experience repairing dolls created between 1850-1950. She cautions against pouring large sums of money into repair work — especially if the doll is not particularly rare or highly desired on the market.

“If somebody comes to me wanting to resell, I say don’t put any money into the doll, because what it will cost to restore will probably balance out with what it will sell for. The market has changed,” she said. “But if they’re looking to pass a doll on to future generations, it is totally worth repairing.”

Alvord expressed concern about when doll collectors are merely profit-driven when it comes to making repairs.

“I have seen composition dolls for sale online, that appeared to be expertly repaired. I followed the auctions’ endings, and they went for a fraction of what they would have if they were all original vintage dolls,” she noted.

How can you maximize a restored doll’s monetary value?

Keep the old, tattered clothing

“I wince when people tell me that they have thrown away the original outfit because it was ‘so old.’ If I am asked to dress a doll, I seek out a doll dress that is vintage, the right style for the period, and the right scale for the size of the doll,” Alvord explained. “Mohair wigs for bisque headed dolls, and tagged clothing for particular dolls, go for good prices online.”

Klein recommends re-stringing a doll to start with, and gently cleaning the outfit. “Say you got a $10,000 French doll in original faded dress, leave it be,” she said. “There’s something about an original outfit on a doll, and in all sales I’ve ever seen, it always brings more money.”

Related Story: Dolly Spa freshens old, tired dolls –>>

Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. She works as the features writer for the Marshalltown, Iowa Times-Republican daily newspaper. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press, the Iowa Historical Review, Collectors Journal, Antique Back Roads, and Antique Doll Collector magazine. You can reach her at rose111@netins.net.

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