By Ellen Tsagaris
The Bru doll, made by Bru & Cie, was the Cadillac of antique dolls. The dolls reached their heyday during the 1880s, the Gilded Age of the Victorian Era. Brus were featured in paintings by Renoir and in novels by Edith Wharton, including The Age of Innocence.
Casmir Bru, who founded the firm, was of Portuguese descent. Early on, like Jumeau and other French companies, he may have imported heads from Germany, but soon his famous marks, including the “circle dot,” were found on dolls made of French kaolin clay. They were expressive, and among the first dolls to have a varied, almost astonished, expression on their faces. Some of the bébés had molded breasts, those of a young adolescent. Their gusseted leather body had individual toes and their long hands were expressive, with tiny nails outlined. The so-called Mona Lisa Bru smiling fashion has inspired modern artists as well as antique collectors. A Bru is featured in Anne Rice’s novel Taltos, and appears on the back cover of some editions of Interview with the Vampire. Rice’s own doll sold at auction for over $34,000.
The Bru is one of the most reproduced of all antique dolls, and some versions have open mouths and teeth. Seymour Mann dolls reproduced a Bru mold for a doll dressed in a traditional outfit from India. The founders of Seymour Mann were the parents of best-selling novelist Erica Jong. Other Asian companies reproducing antique porcelains during the ’80s used the Bru Jne R molds; faint markings from the original Bru factory appear on the backs of some of the dolls’ necks. Dynasty Doll also created dolls that were a nod to Bru.
The best of the best
During its best years, the firm was run by Paul Girard. Dolls included Bebe Teteur, a baby doll with bottle and layette that nursed, and Bebe Gourmand that digested food and was considered vulgar. It is one of the eccentricities of the doll collecting world that such unpopular dolls later become valuable collectibles. There are rubber Bru bébés, and one reported to be of metal. Many had ball-jointed composition bodies. There are black dolls in bisque and one tribal woman in papier mâché, perhaps a Masai warrior woman that is attributed to Bru. The doll once was part of the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art in Seattle.
One pair of papier mâché-head Bru sisters are dressed identically in pale pink silk dresses with matching bonnets. Their wonderful shoes are marked “Bru” underneath. The dolls are opened mouthed with glass eyes and have ball jointed bodies. They are rare and once belonged to two sisters.
Bru dolls have always been scarce and expensive, even in the late 1950s; they sold for $75,000 and up when other dolls could be found even for small change. By the 1960s, they had risen to around $500, and by the mid-1970s, $5,000. Collectors kept them in safes, and while they were still plentiful in ads for Hobbies and other magazines, one was advised to “call for price,” since no price could be printed, rather like the market price of lobster on a menu.
Helen Young in The Complete Book of Doll Collecting tells the sad story of a whistling Bru that ended up in an American collection after spending World War II in a French convent. Her owner left the Bru and her sisters at the convent for safe keeping, but she never came back. She was a member of the French resistance, and captured and shot by the Nazis. An American doll dealer visited the convent and bought all the dolls. She sold the others, but kept one for herself. The dolls’ costumes were trimmed in handmade lace that the nuns made for sale.
I remember seeing an unmarked, white bisque Bru lady in a lavender dress at The LaSalle Peru Doll Show in 1974. She was $75 — too expensive for my mother and me in those days. Her twin appears in Mary Hillier’s Dolls and Doll Makers; that doll has a key-wound music box built into her body.
There are interesting Asian bisque reproduction Brus in my collection that bear traces of the original marks on their shoulder plates. Myth has it that reproduction Bru dolls are not authentic because a plaster mask was never made from their faces, since to do so would have damaged these super-valuable dolls. Another myth is that the doll cannot be accurately reproduced because the models were destroyed in the Blitzkrieg. Yet, I can vouch for lovely reproduction Bru dolls made by Karen Julie Swanson of Galesburg, IL, my friend, Violet Ellen Page of Galesburg, The Franklin Mint ‘Nicole’ and artist Pat Loveless. These dolls are collectibles in their own right. Peck makes wonderful Bru paper dolls, as does Peggy Rosamund, master paper doll artist.
There are also two dolls attributed to Bru in my collection. One is brown bisque Bru Jne R with a ball-jointed brown composition body that may not be original. She wears her original eyelet dress, however, and has brown glass eyes. Her black, long-haired wig appears to be authentic.
The other doll came to us as a head, with a cloth body meant for a china head, a wooden dowel for making dolls, and a pair of bisque arms. The head bore a “0,” which the Colemans attributed to Bru. It is opened mouth with tiny teeth, and large eyes and pierced ears. The crown is concave, almost like certain Belton-type dolls, which, notwithstanding, usually have solid crowns or domed heads. The doll has the quintessential French eyebrows and is good quality pale bisque. She wears an old mohair “Bru” wig and was dressed by my mother. She was a favorite of my late mother’s, and I wrote an article about her in the late ’80s for The Western Doll Collector.
The last dolls made under Bru’s mark were made through the 1890s. By the end of the Century, Bru and Cie had become part of the S.F.B.J. For more on Bru and other French dolls, I recommend the video by Jane and Dorothy Coleman, “The Golden Age of Dolls.”
Ellen Tsagaris is a doll advocate, an educator and the author of With Love from Tin Lizzie: A History of Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls and Automatons. The life-long doll enthusiast confesses to have never met a doll she didn’t like. Read Ellen’s blog at http://dollmusem.blogspot.com/.