Dolls have a sentimental connotation, conjuring images of childhood treasures cherished for a lifetime. But for Theriault's the Dollmasters, selling dolls is a serious business.
Nearly 1,000 rare dolls, accessories and toys are being offered for sale this weekend by the family-run auction house at Newport Beach's Sutton Place Hotel.
Several dolls are expected to fetch tens of thousands of dollars, while others will be priced more modestly.
"The dolls that are featured by the Theriaults' [auctions] are like fine paintings," said Phil May, a New Jersey resident and 20-year collector who flew in for the auction. "These dolls are like fine pieces of art."
George and Florence Theriault, a husband-and-wife team, have been dealing in dolls since 1970, handling as many as 10,000 a year. Their Annapolis, Md., auction house holds specialty sales in many U.S. cities, the largest in Newport Beach.
By Sunday, rare china-heads, Shirley Temple dolls, automatons, teddy bears and French and German fashion dolls will have changed hands.
"Within doll history, there are certain items that fall into art," said Florence Theriault, who has written many books on the subject. "We like to bring that to the public."
A highlight of the auction, the Theriaults said, is a late 19th-century French "Provenance" doll. The doll's body is proportioned like that of a child, and it has a plump face, lifelike eyes and a pensive expression.
It represented a human being, Theriault said of the bisque figure, made in Paris and expected to sell for about $60,000.
The United States is the world's biggest market for doll collecting, said Stuart Holbrook, president of Theriault's. And Southern California is the largest market in the United States.
Though the majority of doll collectors are women, about a third are men, Holbrook said.
Barbie is this region's claim to fame in the doll world, Holbrook said: "Los Angeles is too young a city to have antique dolls." Nevertheless, 1958 Barbies bring as much as $5,000.
Dolls of all sorts have appreciated greatly in value in the past decade. In 1993, Holbrook said, one rare doll brought a record $230,000.
But the Theriaults don't advocate buying a doll as an investment, and they are not collectors themselves.
"Buy something you love," Holbrook said, and if it appreciates in value, that will be an added benefit.
"Most collectors doing this have some sentimental tie to their youth," he said. "Adults want to go back to that. Dolls are a vehicle to do this."
Dolls and accessories will be on display from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday. Auctions are at 11 a.m. today at the hotel, 4500 MacArthur Blvd., and at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon Sunday. Admission is free.