Robert Tonner, artist and collector extraordinaire

Sweet Sue

If it isn’t already in your hot little hands, the Summer 2015 issue of FDQ (Fashion Doll Quarterly) is on its way to your mailbox (if you are a subscriber, that is). This issue of FDQ marks my first publication in a doll magazine. I’ve been writing about the business of healthcare for more than two decades as a journalist, but it wasn’t until this year that I decided to use my way with words to explore the world of fashion doll collecting through my blog and industry magazines. Pat Henry, editor of FDQ, was kind enough to give me space in her terrific magazine to talk about my experience of coming to own a couple of vintage fashion dolls from Robert Tonner’s personal collection.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Robert decided to auction off a large part of his massive vintage doll collection through Theriault’s auction house last November, and I placed two winning bids online. Afterward, I talked with Robert about his own journey as a collector. During my attendance at various doll conventions over the years, nearly all of the questions I’ve heard fans ask of Robert have to do with him as an doll artist–never a doll collector. But Robert himself never tires of saying that it is precisely his perspective as a collector that shapes his vision as an artist. So I thought it was time someone explored what makes Robert the Collector tick.

My interview with Robert forms the basis of the FDQ article, “Robert Tonner: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Collector.”  Although the only place you can read that article is in the pages of FDQ, below is a partial transcript of my conversation with Robert that examines a bit of the interplay between doll collector and doll artist. (For the full article, check your mailbox. And if you’re not a subscriber, find out how you can become one here.)

Is there a doll or dolls that first inspired you to begin collecting?

Robert: Back when I first moved to New York, when I went to school and started working, I often went through FAO Schwartz while walking home. It was on 57th Street, on the ground floor. I had walked through it many times; I always liked toys, and I liked looking at them. I stopped one day when I saw a Sasha doll. To me, it looked like art. It was sculptural—it wasn’t like a cutesy doll. I looked at it, and looked at it, and looked at it. And I finally bought one. That was really the doll that started me off.

I wasn’t thinking about collecting, but I then I saw a flyer in the city for a doll show. I think it was in a church auditorium or something. I took a friend, and we went together. I was blown away. I had no clue there was such a thing as doll collecting. I had no idea there were mint-in-box (MIB) examples of dolls that I had seen on TV as a kid.

The thing that really got me were the Barbies. I hadn’t seen those MIB dolls since the day they came out. My interest immediately turned to Barbie, and I became a Barbie collector, which I think is what a lot of collectors do. There are all kinds of different quality ranges and price ranges for Barbies, allowing people to amass a large collection for not a lot of money.

Sasha doll
Sasha doll

How did you first become interested in the business of making dolls?

Robert: I became obsessed with collecting and read as much as I could. By then, I had met Glenn Mandeville, who was a long-time doll dealer, and I remember going through the doll stores with him. That was when Macy’s and Gimbels had big doll selections. And Glenn pointed out to me that people had sculpted those dolls for toy companies. I didn’t understand what he meant at first. He said to me, “Where do you think the heads come from? People have to sculpt them.” And something clicked. I thought, “Oh, I have to try that.”

Do you remember your first doll?

Robert: When I was a kid, my sister was a year younger than me. My parents were kind of progressive at the time, because I remember that all four of us children got a Tiny Tears doll one Christmas. I thought that was pretty cool, probably because I wanted one. I do remember that when Mary got her Miss Revlon doll, I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was the “Kissing Pink” doll. I remember the outfit and everything. Mary renamed it “Janet.”

During my collecting years pre-Internet, I picked up a Miss Revlon doll whenever I saw one MIB. They didn’t come around that often, so I didn’t have very many. And then when eBay came along, forget about it. I just went crazy. It became fascinating to me to learn why manufacturers made the choices they did, what dolls had which features, and what rarities were out there. I think I had a representation of at least about 95% of the styles that Revlon put out.

Where did you put all of those dolls?

Robert: I often joke with people when they ask about storage, and I ask them, “What do you mean you have trouble storing your dolls? Why don’t you put them in your factory like I do?”

I literally did that. I do not keep dolls in my house—I do not have a doll room. I live with them all day; my office is filled with dolls. My life is filled with dolls, so I don’t need to go home to them.

I had two storage units at one time, and I stored more dolls in the factory. When I got new dolls, I’d look at them and live with them for a while, take them out and display them. And then at a certain point, I’d pack them up and think, “I’ll get back to that.”

How did you come to decide to part with so much of your collection?

Robert: UFDC (United Federation of Doll Clubs) asked me to do a display of my Revlon dolls a couple years ago. I was able to display beautiful examples of many of my favorite dolls. That finished the collection for me, in a way. I felt that I didn’t have to have every single one. I felt that this was, to me, a finished collection. But I didn’t know what to do then. I had had every intention of keeping my dolls before.

Then one of the doll magazines asked me to do an article. I was working on it, and there was a doll I wanted, and I knew I had it. I thought I knew where it was. I don’t remember much, but I usually do remember where I put my dolls. So I went down to the basement, and I was digging for it, and there were dolls there that I did not remember that I had purchased. And I thought, you know what, this is enough. I have got to let other people enjoy these. This is hoarding, and it’s unfair to other Revlon collectors, or to people who have never seen some of these dolls. So I decided I was definitely going to let some of it go.

Theriault's action catalog
Theriault’s auction catalog

Why was the auction entitled, “Inspiration”?

Robert: Florence Theriault (founder of Theriault’s auction house) and I were talking, and I told her that these dolls are the inspiration for a lot of the work that I do today. They are many times removed, but there is a spark there that leads me in a specific direction. These dolls are the inspiration for the dolls I do.

Of course, there’s direct correlation when I do a reproduction of a 10” Little Miss Revlon. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the feeling you get when you open a box and look at a doll for the first time. I try to capture that, although if you put the two dolls together, they look nothing alike. It’s very hard to explain – it’s part of the design process for me – it’s a very personal thing.

What dolls did you choose to keep?

Robert: I of course held on to all of the dolls that I have made. I don’t keep everything I make – I have to pick and choose, because we just don’t have the storage space. As far as the vintage ones, I kept an example here and there of dolls that really appeal to me for some reason or another. For example, there is a 22-inch Revlon I have that is really beautiful. It was a gift, and I would never let it go, because it’s part of a story. I like when dolls have a background to them.

When I see that someone has loved a doll, I love that. The “mommy-made” dolls that I have, I hold on to. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t worth anything on the market.

I sold off my Barbie collection 25 years ago, but, in 2009, Mattel came out with all of these reproduction dolls, and they did the most beautiful #1 reproduction. So I bought up a whole bunch of those. And then I found repro and vintage outfits, so I have mint #1s in all of these mint outfits. They aren’t worth much, but I love them. If a repro outfit I bought didn’t fit, I’d take it apart and make it fit. I probably have about 40 Barbies now.

Do you still collect modern dolls?

Robert: Yes, I do. I like the Pullip dolls; they are very quirky. I have a couple resin BJDs. There are a lot of people out there making wonderful fashion dolls, but we do too. So I don’t really collect those.

My collecting is taking a new turn – I now look for odd things that have never been seen, or things that had a very short life span. I like dolls with an interesting story behind them. I just bought a “Happy to be Me” doll. There was a Kickstarter campaign recently, and this guy produced a similar doll called “Lammily,” and I bought one of those. I just think these things are very interesting. I like the quirky and “interesting to me” things. I’m not looking for anything particular at this point.

Robert Tonner
Robert Tonner, doll collector extraordinaire

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