In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I went through my 10-year archive of dolly pics and selected a variety of my girls in green. Some of these beauties have moved on, but most have stayed with me and continue to bring me joy. I hope they bring a smile to your face as you celebrate today with kisses to your loved ones and a nice frothy mug of green beer.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that Robert Tonner’s dolls hold a special place in my heart. I discovered Tonner’s dolls in 2003, when Tyler Wentworth and her world reigned supreme in Robert’s offerings. I was primarily enticed by the dolls’ uber-realistic, beautiful faces. They were so full of personality, and each one was distinct from the others. I loved that Robert injected racial diversity in his collections, regularly adding gorgeous African-American, Asian, and Hispanic characters into the mix. Today, I have hundreds of dolls from Tyler’s world in my collection, and they remain first in my heart.
But, of course, doll lines have short shelf lives in the world of high-end fashion dolls, and Tyler and her world were gradually phased out as collectors’ tastes changed. Tonner went on to create other doll lines. Cami, Re-imagination, DeeAnna, Antoinette, and Deja Vu took their turns in the spotlight, and many were gorgeous dolls. But while I purchased several of these dolls, none grabbed my attention like Tyler and Sydney once did. Back in those days, it was difficult for me to winnow down the list of dolls I wanted to purchase in each subsequent line unveiling. Like many collectors, I’d count down the days until Tonner’s latest unveiling, quickly emailing my dealer my wish list in hopes of getting to her first before my favorites sold out. But with Tonner’s subsequent lines, there were usually only a couple that stood out to me, and they rarely sold out.
It could be that I’m romanticizing my early collecting days, and the Wentworth family is a source of wistful nostalgia. It could be that I’ve matured as a collector, and I am now choosier with what I add to my collection. After all, I have to be out of necessity. My collection is bursting at the seams of my many doll cabinets.
At any rate, the point of all this rambling is to say that Robert Tonner just released a collection that has captured my imagination more than any other line since Miss Wentworth entered the scene. Her name is Miette, and she is far from a fashion doll. Miette’s back story casts her in the role of a character in the fictional, fairy tale-esque French village of “Faire Croire.” As described on Tonner’s website:
“Once upon a time, in a far off corner of a very southern part of France, lies a tiny village called, Faire Croire. Don’t bother to look on any map, you’ll never find it. It’s a lovely village where the people enjoy a life of beauty and peace. Every house in the village is a different color and has window boxes filled with flowers of all kinds. The moss covered thatched roofs slant in all angles. There are no locks on any doors or windows. The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with fragrant flowers growing in beautiful pots adorned in jewels. The air is always thick with the scent of freshly baked pain au chocolat. It seems like a place you would hear about in a fairy tale. Although Faire Croire is well over 500 years old, no one knows it’s there. But, Faire Croire does have a quality, something sinister that hangs over the heads of all the villagers. Something like a dark cloud. Could that feeling be coming from the castle on the hill?
How could a village be over 500 years old with no one except the people that live there knowing of its existence? Miette, the lovely daughter of the Mayor of Faire Croire, intends to find out.”
I love Tonner’s quirky back stories, and I hope he expands on this one. Miette’s aesthetic is full of pastel colors, ruffles, and eyelet fabric. Her face is open and innocent, her lips ever-so-slightly parted as if she might speak. She reminds me a great deal of one of my other favorite sculpts of Robert’s, Euphemia, one of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters. But while Euphemia is pouty and cross, Miette is sweet and tender.
It seems that I am not the only collector enchanted by Miette. She was just released yesterday, and the status of many dolls has gone from “in stock” to “coming soon,” which I assume means they have sold out of much of their first shipment. While I’m delighted for Tonner Doll, as I can’t remember this happening for some time, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to place my order today. I’m going to start out with a raven basic, and if she is as lovely as her pictures, I’ll likely add a dressed doll. If money were no object, my wish list would consist of the Raven Basic, Dainty Miette, Fanciful, and Enchanting Miette.
I wish Tonner the best with this new line, and I’m looking forward to adding Miette to my dolly world. Who knows, perhaps she will fill the empty place in my heart that Tyler left when she exited the scene.
Many of you have been following my recent move from Florida to Maryland and the trials and tribulations of transporting 500+ dolls along with all of my other crap. Well, it’s been two months since my family arrived in our new home, and the process of constructing my new office/doll room is complete. I am lucky to have a basement as well, which will house a couple cabinets that did not fit in my doll room. But today I wanted to share just pics of my anointed Dolly Room in all its glory.
My apologies for the poor quality of these photos. The room gets no direct sunlight, and my camera does not operate well in artificially lit rooms. But you should get the idea. So here’s the grand tour.
Immediately to the left when you enter the room are three cabinets and one bookshelf. The cabinets contain mostly Tonner fashion dolls, and the bookshelf is home to my mini dioramas. I am a big believer of taking advantage of any vertical space that is available, so some of my dolls aren’t far from the ceiling. Floor space is also valuable real estate, so I’ve positioned several of my Annette Himstedt girls there.
Confined to a small space, my dioramas are compact, but I enjoy making them. It really doesn’t take much to put together a classy diorama. An upholstered chair, a rug, and a glass of “wine” can show off a favorite doll to great effect. Sofas are great too—especially for the smaller girls.
On the opposite wall are two more narrow IKEA cabinets, on either side of a large window. By being creative, I managed to get quite a few Himstedts on that side. I’ve stacked up my plastic drawers that contain doll outfits and props.
Some of you may remember when Tonner Doll Company created totally over-the top table centerpieces during their annual convention and other events. I’m lucky enough to own two of these heavy, resin creations. My favorite is Aquaman riding his huge purple seahorse, “Storm,” his wife Mera by his side. The other is a street scene in which Rufus (who was making his debut) offers his heart to Ellowyne.
So there you have it. Once I get the remainder of my dolls set up in the basement, I’ll post pictures of them as well. I always love to see how others display their collections, so feel free to share a pic of your hoard as well.
So several of you contacted me after I wrote my entry about the travails of moving a considerable doll collection, asking to be updated as my move progresses. At that point, I was trying to impose some order into packing up my 514 treasures (yes, I counted). Since then, my husband and two other manly men undertook the task of moving “my girls” to a storage facility in anticipation of showing our house (not without the occasional snarky remark, of course). Our Realtor seemed to think that 514 dolls may be a bit distracting to prospective buyers looking the place over. I can’t image why. Personally, it would make me buy the house in a minute. But that’s just me, I suppose.
Anyway, with the majority of my girls secured in a climate-controlled facility, their former home (the erstwhile “doll room”) is astoundingly spacious. I did reserve my right to keep a few (well, 30) out of captivity, as those dolls are either very close to my heart or represent a significant financial investment (sometimes both). And there is no way I am going to let them out of my sight. I’ll walk all 1,000 miles to Maryland with them in my arms, if need be.
Today is the first day our house is on the market. I’ll be sure to keep you up to date as the Great Dolly Move Drama progresses. For now, without further ado, below is a pictorial timeline of my dolly move thus far.
The vast number of collectors of fashion dolls are also sellers of fashion dolls. Some people are retailers as well as collectors, but the main reason people sell is to generate funds for the market’s newest shiny objects. Fashion doll collectors are a notoriously fickle lot. What they are scrimping and saving to buy today, they are selling at half-off tomorrow to buy something new. In recent years, I’ve seen collections turn from vinyl to resin seemingly overnight. Although my own collection has undergone a similar transformation, I tend to be a hanger-on to dolls no longer in vogue while my collector friends march on ahead of me to the next trend.
And yet, in the two decades I’ve been in this hobby, the hundreds of Barbies that once populated my shelves have given way to Tyler and Co. and many of her 16-inch sisters. Child dolls created by Annette Himstedt, Jan McLean, and Helen Kish also adorn my doll room. I’ve even returned to the 12-inch crowd in the form of the occasional Fashion Royalty gal who joins the ranks. In all, I probably have about a dozen Barbies left—out of the hundreds that once populated my mini-Mattel Altar of Pink.
In the very recent past, even my strong determination never to let those expensive, fragile, bitchy-looking fashion resin BJD monstrosities onto my shelves has come crashing down as two Numina sisters and a Modsdoll somehow made their way into my home. And then they were joined by two child resin BJDs, which had previously looked like grotesque alien children to me. (What’s worse—I actually sold some vinyl dolls to afford them. Oh, the hypocrisy!)
Now Tonner’s fashion dolls—and even the occasional Silkstone Barbie—still make their way into my home. I still purchase more Tonner dolls than any other. With the possible exception of Paul Pham, I think Robert Tonner continues to corner the market on beautifully realistic facial sculpts. And, of course, I do not have to sell a kidney to afford a Tonner doll. But when a gorgeous resin BJD does turn my head and I “have to have” her, there usually isn’t an extra $600 floating around in my bank account. So the rows of girls currently lining my shelves cower in fear as I contemplate how much each is worth and who to vote off Dolly Island.
But turning those dollies destined for new homes into cash is no easy proposition. It’s not that there aren’t potential buyers out there—there are plenty. The question is how to reach them and entice them to buy your goods. So below is a brief primer on how to sell a fashion doll in today’s secondary market—even if you have to do it on EvilBay.
Rule #1: Treat eBay as a last resort.
The first rule of selling on eBay is to avoid eBay at all costs. Long-time eBay sellers will tell you that the world’s largest flea market has become incredibly hostile to sellers to the point that their sales have become entirely dependent on the good will of their buyers—which is often in scant supply. Over the years, eBay has slowly chipped away at any recourse sellers once had against dishonest—and sometimes outright criminal—buyers. And we are not talking nickles and dimes here—high-end fashion dolls can be quite pricey.
Listing eBay’s sins against buyers would take up more space than I care to dedicate in this column, but suffice it to say that the company now compels sellers to accept returns from buyers for any reason and to pay the buyer’s return shipping on top of that. Oh, and your seller rating will suffer as well. I once had to accept a return from a buyer for a baby doll that the buyer claimed was defective because the baby doll would not stand up. I paid return shipping and had my nine-year-running 100% rating downgraded. Because this woman expected a baby to stand up.
Yes, it’s gotten that ridiculous.
And the fees have quadrupled since I joined eBay in 2004. The company now cheerfully takes a whopping 10% cut of your sales in return for its stellar customer service. And, of course, eBay also owns Paypal, and, since sellers are required to conduct their transactions through Paypal, they too can raise their transaction rates at will. It’s like paying to be mugged—twice—with each transaction. And until a viable competitor arises, those double fees are going nowhere but up.
Rule #2: Explore alternative selling venues.
So before heading to eBay with your precious dollies, exhaust all other resources. They do exist, and they can work well. Sellers on doll boards not only avoid eBay’s headaches and fees, selling within the doll community also often means dealing with a much more honest group of people. Over the past ten years, I’ve had two doll deals conducted on doll boards go bad. On eBay, I’ve lost count. Doll boards do a terrific job at policing their own communities. Buyers and sellers know that if they screw one person, their names quickly become mud as their identities spread like wildfire across the dolly universe. And it’s not a large group of people we’re talking about, so it’s not difficult to ruin your reputation across multiple boards after a deal gone bad on just one board. As I’ve said before, you don’t want to f*** with doll collectors.
When searching for venues for selling your dolls, don’t just limit yourself to your local doll message board. Collectors have set up swapping/selling/trading Facebook pages specifically for collectors of specific dolls. Mister Dollface, a new collector-run secondary marketplace, has gotten off to a good start. I’ve had some very smooth transactions on both Facebook and Mister Dollface, although not without first doing my due diligence. Honest buyers/sellers should always be happy to provide good references. Use caution and common sense before approaching any deal—particularly a pricey one.
And speaking of pricing, keep in mind that when you are selling off eBay, you are saving yourself not only the hefty eBay fees, but also a potentially significant amount of pain and suffering. So when pricing items for sale on a doll board, Facebook, or Mister Dollface, I start with what I think the doll will sell for on eBay, deduct eBay’s 10% fee, and then take another 5%-10% off for avoiding what I call eBay’s general “pain and suffering.” So if the doll sells, it’s ultimately not for much less than I would have gotten on eBay, and the savings is passed on to the buyer. Everybody wins.
Rule #3: Do your homework.
So, if the informal, online doll collector network is such a great place to sell, why do we need EvilBay at all? One word: Reach. eBay’s vast, international reach means that more potential bidders will see your goods than on any other venue. When I really need to sell a doll fast, EvilBay is unsurpassed in its reach to interested buyers. Dolls that have lingered for months on the doll boards to which I belong often sell in days on eBay. So, whether you have a particularly expensive doll to sell and need a wider reach, or if you are robbing Peter to pay Paul, if you must go to the Dark Side, follow these tips:
Rule #4: Price to sell.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that about 75% of the fashion doll auctions currently listed on eBay are priced in the upper stratosphere of the market. I’m sorry, but an unremarkable mint Tyler Wentworth doll from the 2006 line is not going to fetch you $249. No matter how many times you renew your auction.
The optimism I see in such auctions is truly stunning to behold. And it gives people like me a chance. Sellers who know how to price, sell. And they can sell high. One weekly reseller of mostly Tonner products lists each item on eBay at $9.99. And her items often fetch top dollar.
But sometimes they don’t. Pricing competitively also means taking a risk. How much of a risk is, of course, up to you. But whatever you decide, do yourself a favor and don’t price your item in the dark. Do your homework. Researching price is one thing eBay does make ridiculously easy. A simple advanced search of completed listings will tell you what amounts your item has fetched in the recent past. And it will likely give you a longer list of overly enthusiastic prices that bidders have passed on—repeatedly.
My own strategy is to take the average winning bid and price somewhat below that. How much below? Here comes the gambling part. Simple psychology will tell you that bidders are more likely to bid an item up if the starting price is low. That’s why an item with a starting bid of $29.99 may ultimately go for $225, while the same item listed at a BIN of $225 will linger unpurchased indefinitely. When bidders see a $29.99 starting bid for an item worth eight times as much, they are more likely to take a gamble to get a “deal,” even if they ultimately end up paying the same price as a fully priced item. Thrill of the hunt and all that.
So let’s say I have a doll that I wish to sell on eBay. I research past prices and find a high-selling price of $150 and a low-selling price of $100. So I list the item at $75, which will hopefully make the item attractive to bargain-hunters hoping to score a deal. The risk, of course, is that bidding will stop at $75, and I will end up low-balling myself. The rosiest outlook is that I will start a bidding war and the auction will close on the high end—or beyond. Pricing the item very low, say, at $9.99, can attract a good number of bargain hunters and ultimately drive your item sky-high as bidders lose their collective heads in the auction’s waning moments. But, like all bets, don’t count on it. It does happen. But not always.
Rule #5: Take damned good pictures.
Following this simple rule will put you heads and shoulders above your eBay competition. Nothing—and I mean nothing—can make your item more attractive to potential buyers than a few decent photographs showing the item to its best advantage. This especially holds true today, given that most bidders no longer bother with actually reading the item description at all.
I have scored more than a few bargains on eBay by bidding on poorly photographed items that I knew to be valuable. And I have sold at higher-than-market prices items that I managed to photograph particularly well.
You don’t have to be a gifted photographer to make your item visually attractive to potential bidders. Just light your item well, take crisp, clear images, and highlight those little details (shoes, earrings, embroidery) that make your item worth its asking price. This is the best no-brainer advice I can give you on achieving eBay selling success.
Rule #6: Protect yourself.
eBay’s never-ending slew of policies hostile to buyers has put on the onus on us to protect ourselves. Of course, there is only so much we can do within the eBay universe, but some proactive measures may shield us from potential problems before they begin.
First, try to protect yourself from well-publicized “past offenders.” Many doll boards will keep lists of the eBay IDs of dishonest buyers and sellers, and those lists are often updated frequently as IDs are changed and new scammers emerge. Adding these individuals to your “blocked bidders” list on eBay may provide you with some measure of protection.
Also pay attention to your auction “boilerplate,” which should detail your terms of sale. eBay will not enforce any of these terms, of course, but there is the off chance that a bidder will actually read your description and police him/herself. Terms in my own boilerplate include “final sale,” “no full or partial returns,” “please ask all questions before bidding,” and “payment expected within three days.” Again, non-enforceable, but there’s the off chance someone may read it.
One can dream.
Rule #7: Use eBay “services” as little as possible.
Over the years, eBay has multiplied its convenient seller “options” that exploit its ability to rob you of more of your already-miniscule earnings. All-inclusive international shipping services are but one. Avoid these like the plague.
I’ve always avoided squabbles over shipping fees but simply offering flat rates. Sometimes this works in my favor, sometimes not. But it all generally works out in the end, saving both me and the buyer much unnecessary grief. The buyer is under no illusions as to what the shipping costs will be, and it is much, much easier on my end. And my educated guesses are usually pretty accurate. For example, for an average-sized Tonner doll box, I’ll usually charge about $13, and the actual costs, nation-wide, generally fall into that range.
Whether you’re a newby collector or a hardened veteran like me, selling online isn’t for the faint of heart. But that said, it’s also–at least for me–one of the most exciting things about the collecting experience. Refreshing my collection by letting go dolls that I have cared for and loved in favor of new discoveries yet to be experienced is fun. And trying to get top dollar for my dolls can be an enjoyable challenge. But–whether you list on eBay or elsewhere–always look before you leap, and remember that, in today’s online environment, the first rule of doll commerce should always be: “Seller beware.”
Like many long-time Tonner collectors, I have vivid memories of my first encounters with Ms. Sydney Chase. Sydney made her entrance into Tyler Wentworth’s world of high fashion in 2001—just two years after Tyler’s debut. Sydney’s beauty was entirely different from that of Tyler’s, a notable contrast that quickly captured the imaginations of her growing legions of fans. Whether intentional or not, Tyler’s wholesome beauty stood in stark contrast to Sydney’s haughty sophistication. Their physical differences sparked the creativity of their fans, and different forms of fan fiction soon surfaced. Most fans agreed on the dichotomy the two dolls represented—Tyler the wholesome, over-achiever, and Sydney, the world-wise, scheming business woman. While Tyler cultivated friendships and family bonds, Sydney thrived on duplicity and deception on her way up the New York City social ladder. While Tyler designed wholesome outfits for her prep-school tween sister, Sydney bought and sold the models at her Chase Modeling Agency like so much chattel. While Tyler slept exclusively with her boyfriend, Matt O’Neill, Sydney slept exclusively with everybody.
I began collecting Robert Tonner’s dolls in 2004, three years after Sydney made her appearance in the Tyler Wentworth line. She was then at the peak of her popularity, often selling out on pre-orders. I recall those heady days of anxiously awaiting the newest Tyler line to go live on the Tonner website, jotting down which dolls I wanted to order and quickly forwarding my list to my dealer, in hopes I would get to her in time. Most dealers gave modest discounts to attract business, but in those days there was no need for deep reductions. Those dolls went like hotcakes, and, even though their edition numbers ran into the thousands, they could multiply in value several times over on the secondary market. Accusations of dolls scalping ran high as people bought low and sold high.
The vast majority of my early Sydneys remain in my collection. Dolls like “Black and White Ball,” “Love Is Blue,” and “Absolutely Aspen,” with their fantastic fabrics, exquisite detailing, and perfect tailoring have remained classics long after their novelty faded. Many of my dolls remain dressed just as they were they day I received them. “Cocktails on the Plaza,” “Beyond Envy,” and “Just Divine” are all perfect combinations of sculpt, color, and style. Looking back on Sydney’s numerous incarnations 15 years after her debut, it’s astounding how few of them were fashion “misses” (I’m looking at you, “High Style 1.0”). That’s quite a feat when you consider how many fashion dolls Robert Tonner was churning out at the time. Once he introduced Tyler and Sydney and their fantastic fashions to the world, Tonner’s reputation in the hallowed halls of doll artistry was sealed.
And so I begin what will be my new weekly feature, “Throwback Tonner” (#TBTonner), with a brief homage to Ms. Sydney Chase with a handful of the many photos I’ve take of her in years past. Here’s to you, Syd. May you remain as beautiful—and as bitchy—as you were the day we first met.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about my impending move out of state and the unsavory task of packing up an obscene number of dolls acquired during my 22 years of collecting. Many of you wrote me, asking to be kept updated on the drama of moving a doll hoard—I mean collection. You’ll be happy to know that I have succeeded in my task, and the seven curios, nine shelves, and innumerable boxes that once occupied my doll room have been replaced by what my family has dubbed “Doll Mountain.”
I must admit that it’s an impressive sight. And I think I did an admirable job of consolidating the real estate that my 500+ girls occupy. I tossed out about 70% of my doll boxes, and instead carefully packed about 300 girls in sturdy plastic bins (complete with desiccant packs to avoid molding). The remaining 200 or so girls had either intricate gowns or hairdos or were deemed “too special” to travel via cargo. So they were lucky enough to get their own individual boxes.
The larger girls also got their own boxes in which to travel. Packing my dozen Himstedts (many taller than three feet) was no easy task. I have most of their huge boxes and shippers, but dragging those boxes out of storage meant confronting the ever-present “palmetto bugs” that reside in our garage. If you’ve ever seen a Florida palmetto bug, you know that it can reach roughly the size of a small rat. Now, I’m not frightened of many things. Snakes and spiders are fine with me. But Florida roaches are a fucking freak of nature and need to be destroyed at all costs. Needless to say, there was a lot of shrieking in the garage and orders to my husband to “kill the damned thing.”
The things I do for dolls.
I was nervous about packing my porcelain and resin dolls. In particular, I have one delicate porcelain Native American mother and child dressed in real leather and adorned with turquoise and sterling silver. Her artist named her “Butterfly Mother,” and she stands about two feet tall. I love this doll. I purchased her at, of all places, Trump Tower in Las Vegas for an amount of money that I will divulge only upon pain of death—and perhaps not even then. It was 2004, and I was in Vegas with my mom to see Barry Manilow in concert. (Yes, you read that right. Don’t judge.) This was also the trip in which I took my mother to see a Chippendales show. She enjoyed it way too much.
So, as you can imagine, this doll is not only gorgeous—it’s steeped in memories. I used a combination of bubble wrap, foam, and packing peanuts to cushion mother and child. I’ll be putting this box in the car with me when we make our journey. Not trusting any moving dudes with this treasure.
Packing up my girls did give me the opportunity to appreciate each one individually. It also was a chance to do an inventory. I entered the name of each doll in an Excel spreadsheet as I packed it away and noted the numbered box it was going into, which will help me identify where specific dolls are when we arrive at our new home. I’ve always been terrible at keeping track of my hoard, instead relying on memory, which, when it comes to dolls, is scarily good. I only had to consult the Internet a handful of times to identify specific dolls or their outfits as I packed them away. If only my memory worked just as well when it comes to locating my keys or glasses.
I was also able to identify a dozen or so dolls that I can live without. I’ve mostly sold them off, which will allow me to pay for a particular doll I’ve been waiting for all year. Paul Pham’s latest Numina doll—Sung—will join my other Numinas—Stratus and Alma—in October. Pinch me.
With the dollies and lots more of our household in boxes and ready for storage, hubby and I are working on some minor house fixes. So if anyone out there is interested in relocating to sunny Tampa, let me know and I’ll give you a deal!
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.
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.
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.
Doll people have an interesting lexicon exclusive to their community. Besides our acronym alphabet soup (BJD, FBJD, BW, AR, SA, NRFB, MIB, etc.), we coin terms that often betray our tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. “Hoo-hoo stands” in particular springs to mind. But my personal favorite by far, is “grail doll,” also occasionally referred to as “cold, dead hands doll.” (As in, “You would have to pry this doll from my cold, dead hands.”) Every collector I know has, at one time or another, used this phrase to refer to that special doll that, were their house engulfed in flames and they had time to rescue just one doll from their collection, this doll would be the one.
Sometimes one’s grail doll is an OOAK piece that has been repainted by a favorite artist and wears a piece of couture created by a talented seamstress. Sometimes it is an exclusive, limited edition factory doll that they’ve pursued for years. It may be a particularly expensive doll that took them months to save for. Or it could be a doll whose value is purely personal, perhaps a gift from a dear friend.
My local doll club chooses a theme each month and encourages members to bring to every meeting a doll or dolls that fall into that category. February’s theme was “grail doll,” and the variety of dolls that members brought in represented a wide interpretation of what constitutes a grail doll. There were factory dolls and customized dolls–repainted, rerooted, and redressed. There were resin dolls and vinyl dolls, fashion dolls and child dolls. The owner of each doll gave a mini-presentation explaining why their doll was special to them, often sharing the story of how they came to own the doll after pursuing it for years or working with artists to create their vision of what it should be. There were widely varying interpretations of what makes a grail doll, but a common theme was the strong emotional connection collectors have to their dolls as miniature pieces of art created by respected artists.
It seems to me that when we take time to think about which dolls in our collection that someone would have to pry from our “cold, dead hands,” we reflect on why we have taken up this hobby to begin with. What do we appreciate the most about the hobby that occupies our spare hours? The art? The creativity? The “power of play”? The friendship? The sense of community? Often, it is a combination of all of these factors.
Even though you may not personally prefer what another collector calls her grail, you can always respect why she does.