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The American Girl Naysayer: A Disagreement with an Academic on Doll’s Value

by Harry Rinker (04/13/10).

Harry finds pontifical pronouncements—based on their study of an extremely narrow segment of the antiques and collectibles market and supported by little to no field experience—more entertaining than any movie he saw in the past year. A case in point was the presentation “I’m Not Just Like You: The Serious Business of American Girl Doll Collecting” by Rebecca J. West from Loyola University in Chicago. Despite his attempts to pose opposing opinion, Ms. West was having none of it. We’ll check back in 20 years to see who’s right.

Harry finds pontifical pronouncements—based on their study of an extremely narrow segment of the antiques and collectibles market and supported by little to no field experience—more entertaining than any movie he saw in the past year. A case in point was the presentation “I’m Not Just Like You: The Serious Business of American Girl Doll Collecting” by Rebecca J. West from Loyola University in Chicago. Despite his attempts to pose opposing opinion, Ms. West was having none of it. We’ll check back in 20 years to see who’s right.

“This is like déjà vu all over again”

– Yogi Berra

Never become complacent is a continuous lesson taught by the antiques and collectibles field. As it relates to the general public and collectors, the answer to Peter, Paul and Mary’s question “when will they ever learn?” is never.

Antiques and collectibles and speculation are symbiotic. Speculation runs rampant, especially at the high end of the market. The current record prices paid for comic books, firearms, illustrator art and movie posters are speculative. Market manipulators are plying their craft. The critical issue is not how much higher prices can go but when will the bubbles burst, as they most surely will.

The bursting of the Beanie Baby bubble as the new century dawned sent a clear message that speculating in contemporary material was fraught with danger. At long last, the general public accepted the message. The age of reason and sanity lasted less than a decade. Collectors of modern material have identified a new speculative collecting category—the American Girl doll. Let the good times roll.

On March 31, I delivered a 15-minute paper entitled “Endangered Collecting Categories” as part of a Collecting & Collectibles: Collectible Objects panel at the Popular Cultural Association’s annual meeting held in St. Louis. Instead of flying back on April 1, I stayed an extra day to hear the papers presented at two additional Collecting & Collectibles panels.

It was fun, and to some degree frightening, to listen to these academic pundits, many of whose tradecraft knowledge is derived from books, articles and the Internet. Their pontifical pronouncements—based on their study of an extremely narrow segment of the antiques and collectibles market and supported by little to no field experience—were more entertaining than any movie I saw in the past year. Lacking a grasp of the history of the evolution, rise and fall of collecting, collecting categories and the complex workings of the marketplace, coupled with a desire to link their conclusions to academically acceptable philosophical, psychological and sociological theories, their suppositions caused my head to involuntarily shake continuously from left to right. Because of my heated involvement in the question and answer portion, I felt the panelists and most of the audience were thinking of the Kingston Trio’s famous line, “will he ever return?” and hoping the answer was no.

[Author’s Aside: An explanation is necessary for those readers who do not understand the nature of academic conferences. Most are designed as resume enhancers; an opportunity for a doctoral candidate or faculty member seeking tenure to pad his or her resume in the creativity/scholarship category. Most presented papers never see the light of day in a juried scholarly journal. Many doctoral dissertations linger unpublished on the library shelves of the granting institution. Attendance at presenting sessions rarely exceeds 25; this count includes the four or five members on the panel.]

The Thursday panel on Collecting & Collectibles: Collecting in an Online World included a paper entitled “I’m Not Just Like You: The Serious Business of American Girl Doll Collecting” by Rebecca J. West from Loyola University in Chicago. Ms. West’s presentation compared three “adult” Web sites discussing collecting issues relating to the American Girl.

During her presentation, Ms. West noted Mattel’s lack of support for the adult collector. She noted that Mattel was concentrating all its marketing and support efforts on the young girls who it hoped actually played with the doll. Since it was a secondary point, Ms. West quickly glossed over it without offering any explanation for Mattel’s action. Her tone of voice suggested that Mattel’s action met with her disapproval. She identified the American Girl as the future Barbie.

I have followed the primary and secondary market for American Girl since its creation by Pleasant Rowland in 1986 and Mattel’s acquisition of the Pleasant Company in 1998. The high cost of the American Girl doll and accessories and its exclusive distribution via the Internet, American Girl Place stores, mail-order catalog and high-end toy outlets, has limited its sales to a wealthier clientele than either Barbie or Bratz. Simply put, American Girl is a doll for the children of the rich and those aspiring to be viewed as such.

Rather than propose that Ms. West re-examine some of her research during the question and answer session (I can be thoughtful and considerate on occasion), I waited until the session ended to share my thoughts. After the customary back-patting by a gushing mutual admiration collegial society complimenting her on her scholarly insights concluded, my turn arose.

I introduced myself. She had no idea who I was. Scholars pay little to no attention to work done by outsiders, who, in their minds, lack the academic rigor and the scholarly insights and linkages required to participate in the elitist world in which they work.

I began by suggesting Ms. West examine the issues that arose in the late 1980s and 1990s when Mattel produced a score of Barbie products designed primarily for adult collectors. While positive at first, Mattel’s experiences quickly soured. Holiday Barbie speculation caused a disastrous speculative bubble. Collectors who hoarded pink-boxed Barbies quickly discovered that because so many examples were hoarded, the speculative market they desired had never developed. The look on Ms. West’s face indicated she had no interest in my suggestion.

Never one to give up, I advised her that the American Girl doll secondary market was in its infancy. It would take another 20 years or longer to determine the long-term collectability of the doll. Now I had her attention. “I disagree,” she said. “I recently helped a collector sell her collection. She received over $3,000, far more than she paid. Further, there are new collectors entering the market every day. They want the examples they missed, and they are ready to pay for them.” What a wonderful example of the here-and-now (immediate) point of view.

Taking a different tack, I suggested that these prices were speculative. If they continued, individuals would buy large blocks of material, hoard it briefly, and then flood it back into the market. “Impossible,” Ms. West replied. “Mattel tracks the sale of American Girl dolls and accessories. There is a limit to the number any one individual can buy. It is impossible to hoard.” I doubt if Ms. West saw the astonished look of disbelief on my face. She lives in a dream world. The conversation was frustrating us. I ended it and walked away.

When I returned to Brookfield, I did a “completed auction” search on eBay. More than 35,000 items were listed for sale in the past 30 days. My analysis of the items offered for sale and the sell-through rate confirmed that a speculative secondary market bubble for American Girl is in its early stages. It is going to get worse before the market correction occurs.

I was known as “The Beanie Meanie” during the height of the Beanie Baby craze because I was the primary this-too-shall-pass advocate. Pass it did, far quicker than anyone, including myself, thought.

It is now time for me to be the “American Girl Naysayer.” The American Girl is not Patti Playpal or Toni. Nor is she the rich kid’s Barbie. A contemporary girl’s playtime with the doll is limited. Today’s children have short attention spans. They are ready for something new within weeks, not years. Further, if the child’s interest is to be retained in American Girl product, she must receive a constant flow of new dolls and accessories. As the pile gets bigger, interest in its specific components lessens is the applicable rule. American Girl is an expensive collection to maintain.

My granddaughter Sofia has an American Girl doll and several accessory pieces. I keep telling grandma to save her money, but to no avail. Gwen Verdon sang “Whatever Lola Wants” in the 1955 musical “Damn Yankees.” When I sing it, I switch the names.

Where is Ms. Sofia’s American Girl doll and its accessories? They are housed in the same pile as all her other dolls and their accessories. Ms. Sofia does not differentiate between dolls. Dolls are dolls. The American Girl doll is nothing special, just one more look-what-I-got item. Ms. Sofia is typical. Young girls who approach this doll otherwise are atypical.

The American Girl will join the doll collecting lexicon. The question is: In what role? Ms. West and I disagree. Would you expect less from the “American Girl Naysayer?”

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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3 Responses to “The American Girl Naysayer: A Disagreement with an Academic on Doll’s Value”

  1. Mike Wilcox Mike Wilcox says:

    Hi Harry, I have to agree whole heartedly. I’ve watched many of these bubbles come and go since the 1960′s. Ready made “collectibles” and limited edition dolls, plates, chess sets, decanters, hockey cards etc…… They all implode over time, there is money to be made there, but like the stock market you have to buy at the bottom and sell out before the pop ;~)

  2. Nick Ryan says:

    Excellent article Harry, Ms West’s “Mattel tracks the sale of American Girl dolls and accessories.There is a limit to the number any one individual can buy.It is impossible to hoard.” Does she not realise any member of the public can buy or sell as much as they want. Once Mattel sells they are on the open market allowing hoarding for speculators.

    To my mind, Limited Editions are just manufacturers ways of creating markets in tough times.

    Regards, Nick

  3. Rebecca West says:

    It was so interesting to come across this response to my presentation! I appreciate the feedback. I do think that there is an issue with different approaches here: my research has focused on the idea of collectibles as something that people share with each other in a community, rather than being focused on the price points and relative value. I am certainly not an expert on prices or even buying trends; what I have looked at is the meaning people attach to the objects they collect. If you’d be interested, I’d be happy to share to my work with you – I can be reached at rwest1@luc.edu.

    I do also have to say that I certainly did not mean to say that it would be “impossible” for people to buy and hoard American Girl products. It is certainly difficult; the company maintains a tight rein on purchases and maintains records of buyers back to their first release of products. But even within the communities I have studied, I have encountered a few individuals with frankly astounding collections. However, none of these collectors seem to be buying for speculative purchases. Again, we are approaching this topic from a different angle.

    (I did try to post a comment here earlier, but it did not appear. My apologies if I submitted it incorrectly!)

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