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A Doll of An Investment

Barbie Brio Auction
Source: Sandi Holder's Doll Attic
Barbie Brio Auction

In most cases, turning a profit in the world of doll collecting requires a great deal of research and patience. But a very recent example shows that trend spotting can be an exception to the rule.

In October of 2011, Mattel released tokidoki Barbie, complete with a pink bob hairdo, tattoos and cactus friend, Bastardino. The dolls retailed for $50 and are, as of this writing, listed on Amazon.comstarting at $400 and going for as much as $1,590. That kind of escalation in value is rare in a market where vintage or antique is typically the way to go.

“There was a limited amount made,” said Sandi Holder, author of Barbie, A Rare Beauty and owner of the Doll Attic in Union City, Calif. “It was in the news and it became controversial because mothers disapproved. More media attention drove up the demand.”

Typically, though, the money to be made collecting Barbie dolls revolves around acquiring vintage dolls that are, optimally, still in the box with all their accessories, including the stand. Barbie was launched in 1959 and that original version, where she’s wearing a black-and-white striped bathing suit, can fetch between $7,000 and $27,000 depending upon the condition.

The latter price tag is a Guinness record set in May 2006 for “highest price paid for a Barbie doll in an auction” and is held by Holder’s store. During her last auction, in November 2011, a doll sold for a whopping $19,000.

“The Barbie market and values are strong,” Holder said.

There are two camps in the collecting world: Never Removed From Box (NRFB) and De-Boxed. For investment purposes, NRFB is ideal, but many collectors prefer to enjoy the dolls by displaying them out of the box.

Barbie Japanese Auction
Source: Sandi Holder's Doll Attic
Barbie Japanese Auction

“I do it for fun and love of the hobby,” Holder said. “I play Santa Claus 365 days a year. It lets people recreate childhood memories, especially in the dismal days we have right now.”

For the purposes of investing, Holder recommends researching and consulting with someone who knows the business before making a significant purchase. In Barbie collecting, for example, dolls from the 1970s — a.k.a. “the Malibu era” — can sell for around $200. It is also important to keep up with what special editions catch hold and which ones don’t. For instance, the artist series — in which dolls are dressed in clothes resembling the art of masters like Van Gogh and Renoir — is not as coveted as, say, Holiday Barbie, a tradition that began in 1988; only a limited number of each are sold annually.

“It’s all about demand and what people will want to pay,” Holder said.

That’s one universal truth in doll collecting. Another is that whether it’s Barbie, Madame Alexander, Russian or papier mache, words like “pristine” or “perfect” will drive up the value. At Patricia Vaillancourt’s eBay store called Antique Dolls, the starting bid on a Jumeau — 19th century French doll made of bisque — in “perfect” condition is $6,200. A rare glass-eyed China doll, also described as “perfect,” begins at $3,500.

Denise Van Patten, a long-time doll collector and dealer of modern, vintage and antique dolls whose online home base is About.com, recommends that an aspiring collector explore the answers to these questions to get started: Are you interested in antique, vintage or modern? Are you interested in a narrow time period or one particular material? Do you want to collect based on a theme or variations of one doll?

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“Whether you are new to doll collecting or have been doll collecting for years, you need to have a good grasp of doll collecting basics,” Van Patten writes. “The basics you’ll need range from how to value and identify your dolls, to how to protect and preserve your dolls, to how to photograph your dolls and get the best prices for them on eBay.”

Van Patten is the author of The Official Price Guide To Dolls, but the resource material out there, in print and on the web, is vast and constantly updated.

Whether trying to assess the value of a doll found in an old attic or if it’s worth buying the latest model of Barbie, Holder said it’s worth consulting an expert. She felt it particularly gratifying to be able to give a retired couple $27,000 for a doll they brought to have appraised. They were astounded.

“They set out to buy a motor home and see the world,” Holder said. “It was a very beautiful story.”

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