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Looking for a Heads-Up on Collectible Bobble Head Values

by Rebekah Kaufman (09/04/12).

A 1961 version of the Mickey Mantle “White Base” series of 7.25-inch bobble heads.

It’s time to give the nod to bobble heads, those seemingly ubiquitous kinetic dolls, as a growing category of collectibles here in North America—and around the world! Historically, they were mostly associated with sports teams and figures.

Today, collectors can find them in the likeness of just about every real life, fictional and cartoon celebrity. And we’re also talking big business here. According to Warren Royal, owner of Bobbleheads.com, which sells bobble heads online and to high profile museum shops including the Smithsonian and Library of Congress, his company’s 2012 sales are projected in the seven-figure range. Not bad, given the average retail price for one of his figures is around $20!

So, just what makes a bobble head doll, well, a bobble head? These dolls—which are also known as a bobbing head dolls, nodders and wobblers—are usually made from plastic and are mass-produced via an injection molding process. The head and body design templates are either sculpted by hand in clay, or more commonly by computer design software. Typical bobble heads feature over-sized, detailed heads and proportionally smaller, unjointed bodies. Heads are connected to the bodies via a spring or hook, so when the head is tapped, it shakes gently in any direction.

Although bobble head dolls have been on the scene since the middle of last century, the concept of a character as a “bobble head” goes almost 170 years! It is thought that the first reference to a long-necked character appears in Russian author Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s 1842 short story “The Overcoat.” In this somewhat haunting and esoteric tale, the main character—a poor government clerk named Akaky—had a neck described as “like the necks of plaster cats which wag their heads.”

It was the 1950s that really marked the launch of the bobble head as a popular collectible here in the United States. In 1960, Major League Baseball began producing team-specific bobble head dolls for fans; these were 6.5 inches tall, made from papier-mâché and shared the same basic body design template and cheery, generic face. This first series is referred to as the “Colored Base Series, as each team was featured on a different colored base. Overall, 15 teams were represented: 12 major leagues teams and 3 Pacific Coast league teams. These teams were: the Baltimore Orioles on a green diamond base; the Boston Red Sox on a green square base; the Chicago Cubs on a light blue square base; the Cincinnati Reds on a red square base; the Los Angeles Angels on a dark blue square base; the Los Angeles Dodgers on an orange square base; the Minnesota Twins on a dark blue base; the New York Mets on a light blue base; the New York Yankees on an orange square base; the Pittsburgh Pirates on a gold square base; the San Francisco Giants on an orange square base, and the Washington Senators on a dark blue square base. The PCL teams included in this series introduction included the Portland Beavers, the Seattle Rainers and the Tacoma Giants.

This first “Colored Base Series” of bobble heads were so popular that several additional series followed in quick succession. From 1961 through 1962, a “Mini Series” of 4.5-inch-tall bobble head dolls representing all the major league teams was produced. In addition to generic team dolls, the series included two key individual players of the time: Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. These mini dolls were designed with a small magnet embedded on their bases and were often displayed on the dashboard of cars. Around the same time—from 1961 through 1963—the “White Base” series of 7.25-inch dolls became available. This was the first comprehensive series of major league baseball bobbing heads and the dolls sold for $1 each. The series included examples from 20 different franchises, nine dolls featuring mascot heads, and four dolls of actual players: Mantle; Maris; Willie Mays; and Roberto Clemente. In late 2011, an original 1962 Roberto Clemente bobble head sold at auction for $900.

The “Clean-up Spot” Weirdo bobble head.

The “Four Strikes” Weirdo bobble head.

The 1960s also saw the high-quality “Green Round Base” series (1963 through 1965), the limited-edition “Black Face” series (1963 through 1965), and the inferior-quality “Gold Base” series (1966 through 1971.) Other baseball-related bobble head dolls created in this decade included umpires and more generic players designed to be sold as souvenirs at ballpark gift shops. Perhaps the most rare, interesting and er, unusual examples are those called “Weirdos.” These were 7-inches tall and cartoon looking, with comical heads on somewhat normal team specific uniform clad bodies. Each came with a label or tag with a funny saying, such as “No wonder I couldn’t hit it, He threw me a screw ball.” Original Weirdos today generally sell in the $500-plus range.

Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bobble head dolls began to be produced in ceramic materials, which greatly increased their flexibility in terms of design and variation. Of course, they remained extremely popular with baseball fans, but models began to appear from other sports—including hockey—as well as TV, movies and popular culture characters. Interesting examples include Frankenstein’s monster (one sold for $5,150 in 2008), Mr. Magoo (one sold for almost $3,000 in 2011) and a series of six Charles Shultz’s Peanut characters (one sold for $1,000 in 2010).

A Boston Bruins bobble head.

A JFK Bobble head.

Frankenstein’s monster.

Set of the 7-inch and 15-inch The Beatle bobble head dolls.

Perhaps the most sought after bobble head dolls of all just might be a set of the four Beatles. Made in 1964, this foursome featured John, Paul, George and Ringo on gold square bases, playing their respective instruments. Each is “signed” on the front with the performer’s facsimile autograph. These came in three sizes: a 4-inch cake topper size; a 7-inch car mascot size; and a very unusual 15-inch store display size. A set of the 15-inch Beatle bobble head dolls sold for $15,000 in 2010.

Despite their popularity through most of the 1970s, the bobble head craze came to an abrupt halt by the end of the decade. The public’s interest was shifting to other collectibles, including sports cards and Star Wars memorabilia, specifically action figures. It took two decades and a major shift in production (overseas, efficient manufacturing) and materials (heavy and expensive ceramic to light and inexpensive plastics) to get the public interested in these items again.

In the 1990s, Major League Baseball again started expand on its history and legacy with bobble heads. They also started limiting the number of bobble heads produced per series, in order to give them interest and possible future value as limited editions. The San Francisco Giants were the first team to sponsor a fan bobble head giveaway on May 9, 1999, when a Willie Mays bobber was passed out the first 35,000 fans to enter Candlestick Park that dat. Today, these usually sell in the $50 to $120 range, depending on the item’s condition and sales channel. Many bobble head collectors credit this Willie Mays doll for sparking the wave of interest in bobble heads happening right now.

Today, modern bobble heads appear almost everywhere and are truly part of our contemporary culture. They are permanent fixtures on TV sets, including “The Office” and “Meet the Press.” They have been part of the storylines of network programs including “The Bachelorette” and “Outsourced.” They are very popular party favors and even wedding cake-toppers. And many companies can manufacturer one-of-a-kind custom bobble head dolls—allowing for the ultimate in personalization and collectability.

So, how about a heads-up in terms of the current and future value of collectible bobble heads? It is clear that the early 1960s-era baseball bobble heads—especially the umpires, individual players and weirdoes—remain extremely interesting to collectors and will always have a market, based on their limited production and availability. Ditto with the “popular culture” examples of this period; a matched set of Lucy and Desi Arnez bobble heads sold for $612 in 2011.

A President Obama bobble head.

A Mitt Romney bobble head.

The jury is still out, however, on the second generation of bobble heads—those from the 1990s onward. Although many were produced in “limited editions,” in general they have not been around long enough to appreciate collector’s interests or wallets. Just about every Major League Baseball team hands out three or four different bobble heads each year as game-day promotions. Considering that two-thirds of these will never leave their boxes—the remaining one-third will be received by kids, who will want to take the thing out of the box and to play with—there could be some 25,000 versions of any particular bobble head in pristine condition.

As with anything, something is worth what someone will pay for it, and much of that calculus is based on condition, supply and demand. With that in mind, according to one online source for recent auction sales, in the first eight months of 2012, the following bobble heads have sold: 29 bobble heads have sold for less than $99 and six have sold in the $100-499 range. In 2011, 25 bobble heads sold for less than $99, eight sold in the $100-499 range and two sold in the $500-$4,999 range.

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.

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