Charmers : Dolls From Museum Collection Draw Bids Up to $20,000 at Newport Auction

Times Staff Writer

When a doll named Flora McFlimsey sold for $18,000 at Newport Beach's Hotel Meridien on Sunday, collectors Steve and Debbie Bower of Quartz Hill said it was a bargain.

"It's a unique doll," Steve Bower explained. "A doll like that, without clothes, is worth about $14,000. Altogether, with all the clothes, it's probably worth about $24,000."

Flora McFlimsey had seduced bidders and onlookers with her large gray glass eyes, her brush-stroked multifeathered brows, her heart-shaped upper lip, her accented derriere and molded bosom--all accompanied by a wardrobe that would make a fashion model envious. Made of bisque, wood and composition about 100 years ago by the French master Emile Jumeau, Flora is 19 inches tall with dimples, pierced ears and an original finish.

About 150 people came to the hotel near John Wayne Airport from all over Southern California and from as far away as Denver for the auction, which consisted entirely of the collection from the Museum of Old Dolls and Toys in Winter Haven, near Orlando, Fla. The museum closed its doors for good on Dec. 31, and doll auctioneers George and Florence Theriault were commissioned to sell the 500- to 600-piece collection.

Despite Flora McFlimsey's charms, she didn't bring the auction's top price. That distinction goes to Lady Banks, a hand-carved English wooden doll five years shy of her 300th birthday. Lady Banks fetched $20,000.

The Theriaults, of Annapolis, Md., had expected the top price at the auction to be about $15,000 for Bebe Parisienne, made by another French master, A. Thuillier, in about 1875. But Bebe Parisienne sold for a mere $9,000.

Many of those in attendance Sunday, like the Bowers, sat quietly through the early hours of the sale, waiting for one or two particular items to go on the block.

"Doll collecting for us is both a hobby and an investment. Once you get the bug, you can't stop," Steve Bower said. His wife, he said, bought their first doll "a little over a year ago and since then she's gone crazy." A questioning look from Debbie Bower prompted him to add, "like most people do."

Shirley Augustine would agree. The owner of a Pomona business that reproduces and teaches the reproduction of antique porcelain dolls, she called doll collecting "a fabulous hobby." Augustine said she has been interested in dolls all her life, but did nothing about it until 10 years ago when she met a woman with a small collection.

"Once you get started, you just can't stop," she said. One thing led to another, and now Augustine not only has her own collection and owns her own business, she also conducts seminars on doll reproduction, attends five or six auctions a year--she is flying to Delaware later this month for a sale--and collects doll accessories like buggies and horses.

"You buy things tied directly to the dolls," she said. Doll houses, for Augustine, are out. "You're not buying for a kid to play with," she said.

Besides being fun to collect, dolls are a good investment, she said. "Dolls that 10 or 12 years ago went for $200, now bring $1,500 to $1,800--and they are not going to go down."

New collectors tend to be overly cautious, Augustine said, adding that she was no exception. "When I was green, I saw a doll at $695. I really wanted to buy it, but I thought, 'Gee, that's a lot of money.' A few years later I paid $2,500 for that same doll," she said.

Moreover, Augustine said, "there seems to be no end" to the appreciation. "If I would have known then what I know now, I would've borrowed from the bank," she said.

Not all the dolls at the auction were antiques. Several, by the American master Madame Alexander, were made in the 1950s and 1960s. New, they sold for about $5.99, but Sunday they brought prices of $250 and more. Made of plastic and all in excellent, never-been-played-with condition, many sold for $400 to $600. One, a 10-inch, 1960 Gibson Girl with rosy cheeks, sold for $950.

Auctioneer George Theriault called the collection "priceless nostalgia." Beside dolls, it included rocking horses, doll houses, musical toys, a toy goat (price: $1,200), miniature furniture and several gilded, Victorian trinket boxes.

The collection also featured a 21-inch hand-carved Abraham Lincoln, a

similar-sized Frederick Douglass (the scholar and abolitionist), a 20-inch wooden Pullman porter and two Humpty Dumpty circuses--made by the Philadelphia toy maker Schoenhut in 1910 and 1918--complete with big tops, animals, clowns and trapeze artists.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, produced around 1940 in conjunction with the Walt Disney film, also went on the auction block. Doc, Happy, Bashful, Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Dopey and their lady together sold for $1,700.

All in all, the auction was "a good way to kill Sunday," said Mike Russell of Van Nuys, who accompanied his wife, Maxine, and their 15-year-old son, Darren. The family started collecting about three years ago, and, like many others, found it infectious.

Collection Grew

"We bought one doll," Maxine Russell recalled. "Then we started doing research, reading books and studying the dolls." Today, the Russells own about 25 dolls.

Mike Russell had to go home to get ready for work, but Maxine planned to spend the night so she could be around today for Discovery Day, when the lower-priced dolls go on sale.

Even Darren collects dolls. The teen-ager recently sold one for $175 that he had bought not long ago for $100.

Mike Russell, however, was quick to note that "the money stays in dolls. You might sell something at a good profit, but, before long, you've reinvested that money in a more expensive doll."

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