Each time you think you have it figured out, a surprise gets tossed in. I am asked all the time, “Is the doll market dead?” or I am told, “The doll market is dead!” I decided to step back and watch the market for several months and try to see what was happening at shows, online and at auctions.
What I found might surprise you in both a good and not so good way. Our weak economy has definitely taken its toll on buyers and sellers. Travel is expensive, and dealers hesitate to travel long distances if shows are not well attended. Good advertising is very expensive and what promoters are able to spend on advertising is determined by the number of dealers supporting a show. It is a “catch 22” with no winners.
But there is an upside to this predicament. Since December, I have been a participant in five doll and toy shows. The attendance has been good and the dealers have been selling, but the show demographics have changed. No longer are shows attracting dealers from long distances, and the buyers seem to be from a 100-mile radius. Advertising is concentrated on local fliers, antique shops, newspapers and local TV stations. Dealers and buyers can attend and return home in one day, keeping costs down.
And what items are drawing the most interest? The doll world is complicated because it is divided into so many completely different areas. In the modern and vintage area, dolls from the 1950s and ’60s have a strong following. Many of the dolls from this period had extensive wardrobes and the dresses and accessories for dolls such as Revlon, Cissy, the Chatty Cathy family, the Barbie family, Ginny, Muffy or any of the fashion dolls are in great demand. During this period, children played with their dolls, so finding the dolls in excellent condition or finding their accessories is a difficult search and condition is very, very important.
Most of the dolls of this period were made of hard plastic or vinyl. The hard plastic dolls tend to fade and many of the vinyl dolls get sticky. Coloring is very important, and a faded 1950s doll or a sticky Barbie doll will often have trouble finding a home. The same is true for clothes that have been washed or are missing tags. Many dolls of this period also were mechanical in some way. Some “grew” hair, some walked, some talked and others had pull-string eye movements.
Collectors want these mechanisms to still work, and if you have the original box, that is even better. Very high prices are paid for Mint condition dolls of this period, and played-with dolls in poor condition bring almost nothing.
In the more modern area, the BJD dolls with their multi-jointed bodies and the reborn babies have attracted a new group of collectors. At the IDEX (International Doll Expo) in Orlando, Fla., in January, there were babies that were so real that you had to touch them to see if they would move. The BJD dolls have articulated bodies that even have jointed fingers and toes. Many also exhibit a new face look that is very reminiscent of the Avatar characters or the wide-eyed street waifs.
Quality antique dolls still remain strong in the market. “Quality” is the key word. In the days when collectors’ buying was limited to what they saw in shops or at shows, they bought what was available. The Internet now gives collectors access to an international doll market 24 hours a day. With this supply, collectors can pick and choose. Advanced collectors want the best that is available and they are willing to wait for it. Damaged items or very ordinary items are left behind or have to be priced very inexpensively. Rare German, English and French dolls in perfect condition do not remain available long.
Another area of antique doll collecting that remains strong is clothing, shoes, wigs and accessories. During the 1960s and ’70s, many collectors went through a period of wanting their dolls to look like new. Old clothes were tossed aside for new bright outfits and wigs were replaced with synthetics. Often, bodies were painted to cover wear and eyes were set stationary to keep them from falling out. Now, we are trying to undo those bad choices. It was the same time that other bad choices were made concerning antiques like polishing Remingtons and stripping beautiful furniture. It is difficult work to undo these bad choices and, at times, the damage cannot be undone. That is why we see very ordinary dolls with significant problems left behind or priced very low.
What does the future hold? I wish I knew, but I do know one thing: Doll collectors are going to continue to buy. It is in our blood and a poor economy will not stop us. It might keep us from driving hundreds of miles to a show, but it will not keep us from turning on our computer. It will also not keep us from supporting shows in our area and the dealers who continue to participate in these shows. Seeing what you are buying and talking to the person you are dealing with is still the best way.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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