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THE GOODS : No Mere Playthings : Doll collecting is big business. If you want more than a pretty face, think quality

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From handcrafted, one-of-a-kind art dolls to mass-market factory imports, an estimated 3 million Americans collect contemporary dolls. The market is estimated at $1.4 billion a year and growing.

But while magazine ads and home shopping channels have made collecting dolls as easy as paying for them in monthly installments, experts caution that doll collecting isn’t child’s play.

One pitfall is the belief that any doll is an investment that will grow in value. Despite marketing claims, there are no guarantees. “People have been ripped off with the promise that what they are buying will appreciate,” says Barbara Campbell, editor of Contemporary Doll Collector magazine.

“There is not a strong secondary market for direct-mail dolls,” says Carolyn Cook, publisher of Doll Reader magazine.

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“It’s a mixed bag,” she says. “In reality, some of the dolls are very popular and others you can’t give away.”

As in any art or craft, a doll artist’s longevity and reputation affect value. “There are a handful of artists, like Wendy Lawton, who have a loyal following of customers who want whatever the next edition is, creating a market that is continually rising,” Campbell says.

A number of artists have authorized mass-produced reproductions of their work to be sold through outlets such as the Franklin Mint and MBI/Danbury Mint, Bradford Exchange, Hamilton Collection and Lenox Collections.

While their investment value is unclear, direct-mail dolls have made established artists more accessible. “Each company has a star line of artists, like Linda Mason, Pamela Phillips or Maryse Nicole,” Cook says. “With those dolls, collectors are getting a doll designed by a well-regarded artist at an affordable price. They are readily identifiable and most are good value for the money.”

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Mail and telephone orders represent the fastest-growing segment of the doll market, but 70% of collectible doll sales still come from retail outlets. Traditional shops have a new competitor in the Franklin Mint, which recently opened a series of shopping mall stores.

Between the mass-market variety and handmade art dolls is a relatively new category--artist-manufactured dolls. In editions generally ranging from 500 to 1,000, American artists such as Lee Middleton, Susan Wakeen and Yolanda Bello are producing their own high-quality dolls.

But whatever the price range, doll buyers need to do their homework, experts say. Shows, books, magazines and clubs are all good resources for learning about the hundreds of doll artists.

Like any collectible, dolls follow the basic laws of supply and demand. The smaller the edition, the more value a doll will have in the future.

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“Even mass-produced dolls should be part of limited editions that are numbered and signed. The smaller the edition, the more value the doll will have in the future,” Campbell says.

“For some collectors, it’s important to have the lower number of an edition--for example, number five of 50--which is normally (found) on the doll’s neck or head,” says Bob Arndt, owner of the 4 Dolls Co. in Newbury Park.

“And, generally, a doll comes with a certificate including the artist’s signature on either the wrist tag or in the box. Dolls without certificates will not go for as much,” he says.

Doll enthusiasts should find out if a particular doll is an original artist’s doll or an approved reproduction, cast from a mold that was sold by the original artist. While there are many talented reproduction artists, some extremely popular dolls, such as Diana Effner’s “Hilary” and Boots Tyner’s “Sugar Britches,” have been reproduced for the mass market without the artists’ approval.

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The quality as well as the pedigree of dolls should be considered. To cut costs, some manufacturers use the same face and just change the wigs and costumes to create “different” characters. Others issue dolls with painted eyes, sporting hats on wigless heads and costumes sewn from inferior fabric.

“Attention to details such as wigs, eyes, hands, feet and shoes is very important to collectors who will spend over $200 for a high-quality doll,” says Pam Danziger, a Pennsylvania-based market researcher who specializes in collectibles.

A number of factors should be considered before purchasing a doll. How fine is the workmanship? Is the doll marked with the artist’s or manufacturer’s name and edition number? Do the elbows, wrists, knees, hips and waist bend? Does it have set-in rather than painted on eyes? Is the doll in pristine condition in its original box?

Material is another important consideration, especially for collectors who want to keep a doll for 20 years or more.

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“We know from antique dolls that porcelain has a relatively long life span and retains its beauty,” Cook says.

“But vinyl as a material is less predictable. Some of the early plastic dolls are getting sticky and some $500 and up artist dolls that aren’t that old are starting to disintegrate.”


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