Before and After

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.

From this:

To this:

To this:

Throwback Tonner (#TBTonner): Sydney Chase

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.

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Spring Prelude Syd

A WONDERful Surprise

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It’s not my intention to turn my blog into a doll sales notification service, but I gotta share the love with this one. Tonner Direct sent out an email to its subscribers this afternoon alerting them to a liquidation sale on its Diana Prince (aka “Wonder Woman”) line. This line re-imagines Wonder Woman’s alter-ego, Diana Prince, as a fashionable woman about town. Robert Tonner incorporates into each ensemble subtle references to Diana’s true identity, such as elements of red, white, and blue, and star charms on earrings, bracelets, and belts. I think it is a brilliant re-imagining of a female archetype that strikes a chord particularly for my generation, which delighted in Lynda Carter’s adventures fighting bad guys every Friday evening.

Originally intending to purchase just two outfits, I somehow ended up with three outfits and two dressed dolls in my cart before I checked out. The one drawback fore me is the fear that such an awesome sale is an indication that Tonner Doll is falling on hard times. It’s difficult to believe that the company is making any profit by selling those ensembles for just $29 each. It seems to me that these emails about generous sales from Tonner Direct are coming into my mailbox more and more frequently. Collector dolls are a tough business, and Tonner Doll has been around for a long time.  I appreciate the sales, but I would prefer to pass on them if it means that a company that has brought so much joy into my life is living on borrowed time.

My haul:

Kristen’s Tale (or Why You Should Never F*** With a Doll Collector)

Five years ago I bought a gorgeous repaint off eBay. She was a fresh-faced young woman who had begun life as Tonner’s Cinderella. Her artist sprinkled freckles across her face and chest, gave her nose and eyebrow rings, and painted an understated rose tattoo above her right breast. Her crowning glory was a fabulous head of variegated brown dreadlocks, which hung past her shoulders and down her back. Yes, she had the stereotypical hipster vibe, but she preserved the look of a young innocent and hesitant adventurer. I fell in love with her at first sight, checked my dolly budget, and eagerly clicked the “buy” button.

Her artist, the talent behind “Bordello Dolls,” promptly shipped the doll—christened “Kristen”—and sent me her tracking information. A few days later, I received a USPS notice on my front door advising me that Kristen’s delivery had been attempted. I work out of the house full-time, so I signed the slip, asking the postman to leave the doll at my door. I waited three days for Kristen’s redelivery, but she did not arrive.

I contacted the post office, which swore the doll was delivered per my instructions. I then contacted the artist, who also contacted her post office, and she got the same reply. The front desk worker at my post office produced my signed slip and said they had done their job. The slip indicated that I authorized delivery without a signature, so they were not responsible for the doll once it was redelivered at my front door.

I had never had a package stolen before, and I live in a low-crime neighborhood. I feared I was out both the lovely Kristen and my $300, but the artist kindly offered to paint me another doll, which was more than nice of her, as she was not the one at fault. I knew, however, that there was only one Kristen.

It was the next day or so after my doll disappeared that I was casually browsing my typical haunts on eBay, and I saw Kristen again offered for sale. This time the seller was not Bordello Dolls, but one completely unknown to me. The auction was a carbon copy of the artist’s original one, complete with her photos and description.

WTF?

Was this seller my thief? Or was it another rip-off artist trying to sell a doll he/she did not have, making this a very weird coincidence?

In my confusion, I sought advice from the established online Doll Authorities—my favorite doll community board (in my case, Prego).

The Pregoites immediately swung into action–as I knew they would–doing the background checks and homework that I didn’t have time to do with my hectic work schedule and small child. In no time, they had shut down the criminal’s eBay account (these were the days in which eBay was actually responsive to their customers’ needs). Other Pregoites researched the seller’s background and soon identified him as a well-known con artist in the doll world—although his “real” name was unknown.

By now, conversation about Kristen and her whereabouts dominated the board’s discussion on a daily basis. Theories were put forward, allegations were made, and the most die-hard sleuths remained committed to identifying the thief by name. The biggest mystery, of course, was how this random member of an online doll community manage to identify me as the buyer of this specific doll, get my address, stalk my postman, and then steal the doll from my front door. The unlikelihood of it all seemed to propel my amateur detective friends on in their quest to solve the mystery.

In the meantime, I contacted my local police station to report the theft and enlist their help. As I related my unlikely tale to officers whose job it is to track down stolen goods, I could sense their incredulity in the silence on the other end of the phone line. And when I told them the stolen item was a doll purchased off eBay for $300, I actually heard a chuckle. At which point I slammed down the phone and muttered obscenities about the uselessness of my local taxpayer-funded police force.

But the real detectives wouldn’t give up. Finally, one day I heard from a Pregoite who had not only identified the thief, but also had his street address.

He lived within a ten-minute drive of my house.

After more digging, it was discovered that this individual was a member of Prego himself. He apparently saw a previous post in which I announced my purchase of Kristen, located my address, stalked my postman, stole the doll, and then listed her on eBay.

WTF?

Prego is an international board, but its membership is relatively small. The entire fashion doll community is small—estimated to be no more than several thousand. The fact that someone in my neighborhood was a Prego member, managed to identify a specific doll I had purchased off eBay, tracked down my address, found out exactly when that doll was being delivered, and then stole that doll from me to repost it on eBay strained belief. A few people even hinted that I had staged the whole thing. I almost couldn’t blame them.

With a physical address, Prego really sprang into action. They had a name and an address, and they did everything in their power to shame this person into returning the doll. They also knew his personal email address and they knew that he was on Prego, so they peppered him with threats if he did not return the stolen merchandise. They threatened everything from legal action to a good house egging. I could not help but to sit back and enjoy this rallying to Kristen’s defense.

And now comes the most unbelievable chapter of this unlikely tale of dolly theft. One evening in the midst of this drama I couldn’t sleep and went downstairs into my kitchen to get a glass of milk. It was probably around midnight. I was startled by some scuffling close to my house, and I peered out the kitchen window. I saw nothing. I attributed the noise to some random animal and went back to bed.

The next morning, when I opened my front door to go to work, I tripped over a Tonner-sized box. Kristen had come home.

KristenNews of the doll’s return brought much joy to the Prego community. My dolly friends had accomplished what the post office and police refused to—and they did it with far fewer resources. I learned that day to never, ever fuck with the doll community or one of its own. They will take you down.

Hell hath no fury like a doll collector scorned.

How to shop for dolls

In an age in which brick-and-mortar doll stores are—with a few preciously rare examples—a thing of the past, the vast majority of doll collectors worldwide have been left to navigate the often-confusing world of online sales. I do a great deal of my personal, non-doll shopping online, and never have I come across a commodity that varies so drastically in price as collectible fashion dolls. At any point in time, the exact same doll may vary in price from $50 to several hundred dollars on multiple websites. For a new or unschooled collector, this can be more than confusing.

Twelve years ago, when I made the move from Barbie to 16” collector dolls, most dolls were sold by brick-and-mortar doll stores or online retailers for a modest percentage off retail price. Dolls offered on the secondary market via eBay could be had for a bit less, but many dolls by highly regarded artists were in high demand and either held their value or increased in price—sometimes substantially. If a collector purchased a doll and found that she did not care for it, it was not difficult to recoup her costs—or more—on eBay. And in those days, eBay still stood by its sellers, so they were generally protected from dishonest buyers. And, as is the case now, doll boards were also generally safe marketplaces to buy and sell to other collectors. Shopping around among retailers, eBay, and doll boards was always advisable, but, in general, prices did not vary substantially.

And then came the Great Recession. I think I can safely say that within the span of several months, my collection decreased in value by about two-thirds. Even now, it isn’t worth a great deal more. I doubt it will ever regain its former value. It was painful, to be sure, but I ultimately bought those dolls to keep. They were not my livelihood. They were my hobby. I couldn’t bear to part with most of them anyway, so I didn’t lose much.

The same cannot be said for the brick-and-mortar doll retailer. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, far fewer people were able to buy dolls that cost in excess of $100, so retailers were forced to drastically cut their prices and offer deep discounts to unload their inventory. Their already-small margins got smaller, and their rents went higher and higher. And so, one by one, store-based retailers disappeared from the physical landscape. Some store owners moved to solely online sales, and others simply left the retail business altogether. Many will tell you that today, seven years on from the painful fiscal memories of 2008, being even an online retailer does not pay the bills. One by one, doll retailers are disappearing from the marketplace altogether. Manufacturer direct are slowly but surely cutting out the middleman, and I believe they will soon be the only option for buyers outside of the secondary market. Independent artists who produce their art in small batches generally have no need for a middleman at all.

All this has resulted in a vast array of prices that can be quite confusing to the new or infrequent collector. Based on my experience (and I spend way more time monitoring doll prices than I care to admit), buying dolls has become an exercise in patient research. Below, I break down the five main ways collectors make their dolly purchases and my tips on getting the most doll for your dollar.

Online retailers. There are still some out there. Those that have survived have generally been in the business for a long time—often out of love as much as any financial reward (which generally gets less each year). Long-time retailers usually have a loyal following—customers who would not think of buying from anyone else. But as their pocketbooks continue to feel the pinch of a sagging economy, those customers are dwindling, and retailers must compete for sales with other sellers who often use deep discounts to unload their inventory. And retailers are increasingly competing with the manufacturers themselves, who are turning to discounted direct sales to sell their product.

The biggest rule in purchasing a doll—regardless of where you buy it—is NEVER PAY RETAIL. The second rule: WAIT. For almost all fashion dolls I know of, the longer a doll is on the market, the further its price will go down. There are some exceptions to this rule—some convention dolls and uber-limited-edition FBJDs—but not many. The days of skyrocketing secondary market prices are over. Even one month can make a difference. After retailers sell to all of the suckers with deep pockets who must be first in line and are willing to pay full price, they will discount their product. The longer you can wait, the cheaper it will be.

Impromptu sales are often the best times to grab those dolly deals. Make sure you are on the mailing lists of your favorite retailers AND your favorite manufacturers. Today’s sales can be frequent and generous—and it’s first come, first served. If it’s an announced sale, monitor that in-box often and make sure your Internet connection is a fast one.

Doll boards. Fashion doll collectors are continually attracted to the next shiny object, and, like most people, their pockets are not bottomless. So, when the next pretty dolly catches their eye and they don’t have the funds to purchase it, they rob Peter to pay Paul. Collectors generally recognize that, these days, they usually can’t sell a doll for what they paid for it, so they’ll offer attractive deals. Doll boards are an increasingly popular place to unload unwanted dolls as eBay continues to institute seller-unfriendly practices that put sellers at the mercy of dishonest buyers.

My general experience has been that doll boards keep buyers and sellers more honest than eBay does. People on doll boards generally know one another, and if a buyer or seller cheats a board member, you can be sure that person will never trade on that board again. Nothing—and I mean nothing—is scarier than a doll buyer scorned. And when she/he has loyal collector friends, watch out. (I once had a posse of angry doll collectors scare a person who had stolen a doll from my front porch so much, that person snuck back in the dead of night two weeks later and returned the doll to me. True story.)

Suffice it to say that, if you scam a fellow collector, your name will be spread so quickly across the doll community you probably won’t be able to conduct your scam twice. Doll collectors who have been scammed frequently spread the name and/or eBay ID or screen name(s) of their scammers far and wide, limiting their ability to run their scam more than once. In all of my 12 years of buying and selling dolls on the Internet, I have never had an unpleasant transaction with a doll board member. My history with eBay, on the other hand, is littered with deals gone bad with dishonest buyers and seller to which I have lost money, with eBay doing nothing to protect me.

One favorite site among collectors to buy and sell their ways has been the “Show and Sell” site of The Doll Page. For many years, Steve and Rae maintained this site out of the goodness of their hearts—never charging users any fees. Recently, the Show and Sell page fell victim to the relentless tide of changing technology, and Steve and Rae were forced to shut it down when their old software could no longer accommodate their needs. Steve and Rae provided an invaluable service to our community for a long time, and they deserve our deep gratitude.

In February, several collectors launched what they hope will become an alternative to Show and Sell. Mister Dollface aims to serve as a platform for buying, selling, and trading dolls as well as a community for collectors to share and learn from one another. Based on its current look and feel, I have high hopes for this site, and I encourage everyone to check it out and take advantage of its services.

The bottom line is, doll board sellers frequently offer incredible deals, and it’s first come, first served. Keep your eyes open, and you may find a long-sought doll for a steal of a price—offered by an honest person.

evilBay. So if doll boards are such a great place to buy and sell, why bother with eBay? The simplest answer: volume. eBay’s ubiquitous presence across the globe means that any items you place for auction or sale will be seen by a limitless number of people. And more volume means more cash. If your item appeals to more than one collector, you have the potential for a lucrative bidding war. Despite all of the transactions I conduct on doll boards, I am nearly always able to obtain a higher price on eBay. HOWEVER, the ever-escalating cut that eBay and PayPal take out of each transaction is giving me less and less motivation to use their sites. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with dishonest buyers and little or no seller protections, and those doll boards look more and more attractive.

An alternative auction site reserved just for collectible dolls called dollbid was launched last year to provide doll collectors with an alternative to evilBay. As with any David going up against a Goliath, it experienced considerable difficulties getting underway. Today, visitors to the site are greeted with a message saying the site is being “updated.” We’ll see if its owners take another stab at it.

IRL stores and shows. There is a handful left out there. If you are lucky enough to live within driving distance of one of the few remaining doll shops, GO THERE IMMEDIATELY AND BUY SOMETHING. Yes, you will likely have to pay more. Brick-and-mortar stores have overhead that online stores do not, and that needs to be taken into account. But you will not pay shipping, and you will be able to talk to A REAL HUMAN BEING about your purchase and hold it in your hands and examine it before you commit to purchasing it. If you do not live near a retailer, patronize a physical store that has an online presence. Remember, how we choose to spend our dolly dollars will determine the fate of the industry. The way we are currently purchasing our dolls means that the days are numbered for the few physical retailers that have been left standing.

Doll shows are another way to make purchases “in real life.” But they are few and far between. Check out this year’s schedule to see if there is one scheduled near you. They are great fun to attend. Even if you don’t find anything to buy, the novelty of actually seeing dolls for sale in person is more than worth the effort of going.

Manufacturer direct. More and more manufacturers are cutting out the middleman and selling direct to consumers. Some have been doing it this way for a while, and others are new to the practice. Whether this trend is good for the consumer is subject to debate. While many collectors like the personal contact and relationships they’ve cultivated with retailers, others appreciate not having to shop around for price. And going direct doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices. Manufacturers who have too much product on their shelves may offer deep discounts to liquidate their wares when necessary.

It can take the new collector a while to learn how to navigate all of these choices in order to come up with the best price. I’ve been at it for 12 years, and I still manage to overpay now and again. But if you follow the two Cardinal Rules of Doll-buying, you should be okay: 1) Never pay retail, and 2) Hold your horses. If you take time to shop around and wait for a bargain … Chances are you’ll find one.

A (doll) room of our own

Every doll collector knows that the only thing better than a new doll is new doll space. For those of us outside of the 1%, the biggest burden we bear as doll collectors is trying to find space to display the damned things. Dolls, of course, are like potato chips. … You can never have just one. Or two. Or two dozen. Dolls get lonely too. They need friends. And friends with benefits. And spouses. And kids. And mistresses. And extended family. And nemeses. They breed like rabbits. And they need their space.

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Surely I can squeeze one more in…
Perhaps not.
Perhaps not.

I am one of those lucky people with a “doll room.” Which, for me, means that the majority of my dolls are crammed into our small third bedroom. When my husband and I purchased this house–our first–eight years ago, I was delighted to finally have that “grail” that all serious collectors covet–a room of my own designated specifically for my dolls. My husband was more than happy to give this to me. In our former apartment, he slept in a bedroom festooned with dolls, including the 3-foot Himstedt that stood on his bed stand. He took the second bedroom as his “man cave” (which he would have to sacrifice three years later when our son came along, but everyone knows that doll rooms take precedence over man caves).

All lined up
All lined up

What my room lacked in square footage it more than made up in vertical space. I eyed those cathedral ceilings and envisioned tall display cabinets and shelving that would help me maximize what I had to work with. When I set up my doll room in my new house eight years ago, my collection had room to grow, and, over the years, I slowly filled up the space with creative display techniques that have enabled me to show off the majority of my collection at once. It’s an organized sort of chaos. Yes, it’s crowded, but it also feels like home. A futon in the middle of the room gives me comfortable space to stretch out and redress my girls while listening to the latest podcast of This American Life. (It’s a guest room too–for those who don’t mind 500 pairs of eyes staring at them while they sleep. On the plus side, it keeps down the number of overnight guests we get.)

I just about reached maximum doll capacity a few months ago. The one piece of real estate left was a bookshelf that contained a selection of my husband’s large military history book collection. (Doll collectors and military historians share a surprising amount of chemistry.) This was the last remnant of the “man cave” that predated my son’s entrance into this world, and I generally tried to keep my mouth shut about how cool it would be to have that space for the girls who had taken up residence in the garage due to the doll room’s worsening real estate crisis.

And then out of the blue the husband tells me he’s rearranging the house and is moving the bookcase elsewhere. It was like hearing that Christmas was coming twice this year.

I immediately began to make plans in my mind. I had my eye on a beautiful, tall, long-neglected walnut bookcase in our garage. Its deep shelves could accommodate 16-inch dolls, and I envisioned creating mini dioramas in them. All of the rest of my shelf space was filled to capacity with dolls lined up like toy soldiers. This space would be different–it would be my creative space, my in-progress space, where I would frequently rotate displays.

I’ve enjoyed playing with this new space during the past month, and I’m happy with the mini dioramas and small scenes that I’ve created thus far. I recently ventured into the resin fashion ball-jointed doll (FBJD) world, and I now have space to better access and display them.

I am so grateful for this little escape in my little townhouse in my little central Florida town. In this doll space of my own, I escape the sometimes difficult realities of a full-time job in corporate American and an obstinate four-year-old boy who is certain that my function on this earth is to please only him. After I close my computer for the night and tuck the little one into bed, I am able to get creative with my dolls for an hour or two before it’s time to head to bed and face it all again.

And that’s why we’re in this hobby, right?

The lovely DeeAnna Denton

Each week, the Prego doll discussion board posts a specific theme, and readers are invited to share photos that fit that theme. This week the theme is “Favorite Tonner Sculpt,” and it struck me just how difficult it can be to choose one Tonner face above the rest. I’ve been collecting Tonner dolls since 2003, and, during that time, I’ve seen what I believe to be the best doll artistry in the world. Robert Tonner’s exquisite facial sculpts breathe life into his vinyl creations, and many fashion doll collectors agree that his sculpts are the the industry’s most realistic.

Like many collectors, Tyler Wentworth’s lovely face was the one that first pulled me into the world of 16-inch collectible dolls. She was soon joined on my display shelves by Sydney Chase and the talent of the Chase Modeling Agency: Esme, Ashleigh, Stella, Kit, Jac, and Angelina. Others would follow. Cinderella, Euphemia, Mera, Carrie, Layne, Brenda Starr, and Daphne all took their places in my collection and my heart. I loved each one and truly had no favorite.

Until DeeAnna.

Tonner introduced DeeAnna Denton in 2008 and imagined her as a 1950s heiress to a chewing gum empire founded by her father. Her 17-inch, curvy body was quite unlike what had become known as the “Tyler body,” with its generous bust and small waist. Her face was simultaneously youthful and sophisticated. I thought she had the loveliest expression I had ever seen on a fashion doll. I found her markedly different from the Tonner fashion doll sculpts that had come before her. Upon adding her to my collection, I knew that I could finally declare that I had a “favorite” among Tonner’s many lovely faces.

The many faces of DeeAnna Denton. All photos are courtesy of the talented Angela Nielsen.

DeeAnna in Kitty DeeAnna nightie DeeAnna basic DeeAnna BW DeeAnna sepia Spot on

And I must add one more…

When my son was born four years ago, I was going out of my mind with boredom during my maternity leave. So I started taking photos of my infant son with my dolls. Unbeknownst to me, my husband then took those photos and made comic strips out of them–which he later shared with the world on Facebook. This one–my favorite–stars DeeAnna. (Click on image to enlarge.)

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