(This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of DOLLS magazine)
This bisque-head doll was made at the turn of the 20th century by the German doll factory of J.D. Kestner in Waltershausen. The Kestner firm was known as the “King of Dollmakers” and enjoyed a worldwide reputation for producing the finest quality products.
QUESTION: I was cleaning out my attic and came across what seems to be a very old doll. She is 28 inches tall with a porcelain face, leather body, and wooden arms, which are no longer attached. She has several old-fashioned dresses. I have several questions about her: Does she have any value? Would a collector like her? Where does one go to sell a doll like this?
ANSWER: You have found a very nice antique doll! Yes, some collector would be thrilled to acquire such a lovely example. She was made in Waltershausen, in the eastern part of Germany, by the doll factory of J.D. Kestner. Waltershausen was a town devoted to the craft of doll making. There were at least 25 doll factories in Waltershausen, but the Kestner firm was known as the “King of Dollmakers” and enjoyed a worldwide reputation for producing the finest quality products.
Your doll’s head is what collectors refer to as bisque—unglazed porcelain with a matte finish. Glazed, shiny porcelain is called china. It’s likely that she is marked either high on her back or under the kid along the back bottom of her shoulders. She is a beautiful example of mold 154, which was the classic Kestner model that was made from about 1897 into the 1920s.
Your doll dates to about 1900-1910. Though 154 is the most commonly found number, it is still very popular with collectors because of the appealing expression of the face. Her classic Kestner “dolly face” includes heavy, multi-stroked eyebrows, blue-blown glass eyes that open and close by means of a metal weight, painted eyelashes, an open mouth accented with shading strokes on the upper and lower lips, and four pearly white upper teeth, as well as a chin dimple.
Undressed, you can see the deluxe kid body and its hinged rivet joints at the hips and knees.
The unattached wooden arms. These can be restrung by an experienced doll repairer.
It’s wonderful that she has retained her original curly blond mohair wig with bangs in the Rembrandt style, as these were often destroyed over the years by insects, so an original wig in this lovely full condition is very desirable to collectors. Under her wig, you should find a plaster dome or pate that covers the opening in her head which allowed the glass eyes to be inserted. Kestner was most likely the only maker to use a plaster dome, as other factories used cardboard ones.
Her original white leather body is in excellent condition and is quite interesting because it is Kestner’s deluxe style of kid body—having hinged rivet joints at the hips and knees instead of sewn gussets—and because it also has the unusual variation of jointed composition and wood arms rather than kid upper arms and bisque lower arms. Though you say the arms are detached, all the parts are present and this is an easy job for an experienced doll person to restring them using round white elastic cord.
A 1903 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog shows a Kestner doll with the same body type as yours advertised with sewn wigs on cloth caps, sleep eyes, shoes and socks sold at $3.75 for a 23-inch size and $5.75 for a 28-inch doll. The white cotton dress appears to be original to her, as do the undergarments and the Christening-style dress. The original clothing and wig do increase her desirability to a collector. I would place her value at about $300 as a retail price a collector would pay if the bisque is perfect, with no cracks, chips or repairs.
As for selling her, you could try advertising in the local newspaper, checking with local antiques stores, listing her on an online site such as eBay, or consigning her to a doll auction house. Of course, my wish is that you would keep this heirloom in the family!
Jan Foulke is an authority on antique and vintage dolls, with nearly 40 years of experience in the field who writes for DOLLS magazine. She’s the author of “Jan Foulke’s Guide to Dolls,” a full-color reference book from Synapse Publishing. Send your antique doll questions to Janfoulke@aol.com or DOLLS/ Antique Q&A, P.O. Box 5000, Iola, WI 54945-5000.
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