Collecting Antique Dolls ….How Do I Start?

Whenever someone visits my home I frequently hear “Oh you collect dolls” followed by “Where do you find them”. I have always loved antiques and have collected a variety of things beginning in my early 20’s, my love affair with dolls began with a visit to a local historical building that is a hotel and also features a wonderful restaurant. The building is entirely decorated with antiques and it was while browsing around that I spied the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. She was a large 27 inch 1870’s era Highbrow China Head doll dressed in her original black walking outfit. To say I was mesmerized is truly an understatement. By then end of the meal and one last visit with her I had been bitten by the doll bug and knew I must find one to display in our old home. We live in a house that was built in the 1850’s and I felt that the addition of just one doll would fit in well with my other antiques.

One obstacle I quickly found as I went from one antique store to another was there were no dolls. I ask one antique seller that I knew why was it so difficult to find dolls in my area. I learned that during the late 1960’s many dealers had traveled through the area and had purchased every antique doll that could be located. I was dismayed but determined to find a doll. I was on a quest, the thrill of the hunt as most doll collectors knows is something that you never loose once you have been bitten by the doll bug. Several months and many shopping trips later there she was, safely and patiently waiting behind a locked case. Trying to contain my excitement I ask the shop owner if I could please have a close look at her. I have since bought many dolls but the giddy thrill of purchasing my first antique doll has only been equaled with the acquisition of my first French Fashion doll. The doll at the right is a small version of the large 27 inch doll that I fell in love with. She is 17 inches tall but has the same face and was the first antique doll I purchased.

If you are interested in starting collecting antique dolls I would offer the following advice. Check with any antique stores in your area and see if they have any dolls. It is important to see and handle as many antique dolls as possible, there is a feel to them that is hard to describe. This also allows you to study and help familiarize you with the facial painting technique of antique dolls. I also would encourage you to purchase books on antique dolls and read them to familiarize yourself with the different makers and the information provided on their dolls. Subscribe to doll collecting magazines, my personal favorite is Antique Doll Collector. It features articles on antique dolls as well as many ads for antique doll dealers with photos of dolls they are currently offering for sale. Attend doll shows if you are lucky enough to live in an area where they are held. Check local auctions to see if they have any listings with old dolls that are being sold as a part of an estate sale or on consignment. Yard or garage sales are another place that you can occasionally find a treasure at a very reasonable price. Check any doll that you are considering purchasing for damage such as cracks, hairlines or obvious restoration work. Although there are exceptions, that I discuss a little farther down don’t purchase a damaged doll simply because it is antique. A doll with damage is worth about 25% of the value of the same doll undamaged.

There are many doll dealers that have web sites where they sell their dolls and many offer layaway plans that will allow you to purchase a more expensive doll and pay for it over a period of months. Many dealers will work with you on a customized layaway plan that will fit your needs. A cautionary word on buying dolls over the internet, check to see if they have a return policy and what it entails. When I buy from a doll dealer with a web based shop I always make sure the dealer is a member of the National Antique Doll Dealers Association (NADDA). Doll dealers who are members of NADDA must adhere to a strict code of ethics and must guarantee the physical condition (disclosure of any flaws or restoration), age, and attribution of dolls in writing upon purchase. For more information on the National Antique Doll Dealers Association visit their website at

I would also encourage you to check and see if there are any other doll collectors in your area, I have found that networking with other collectors provides both an outlet to discuss dolls and also many long time collectors are wonderful mentors to the novice collector. They will readily share information and can be of great assistance in selecting a doll. Consider joining a doll collecting club, I am a member of The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC). To locate a UFDC club in your area or learn more information on the UFDC visit their website at

As I mentioned earlier, there are certain instances that the purchase of a damaged doll is acceptable to me. Other doll collectors may disagree with me but I have purchased a couple of dolls that had been damaged and had restoration work done on them. If the doll is a rare example of a doll I can forgive some damage as a honest dealer will tell you of the damage and will price the doll accordingly. I recently purchased a wonderful very scarce example of a glass eyed China Head. This type of doll is seldom found and I have seen them sell for as much as $5,000.00 undamaged. The doll I bought was deeply discounted due to the damage to her shoulder plate but had excellent restoration work done to the damaged area. You can also purchase damaged doll as an aid to studying antique dolls. The doll at the right is the Glass Eyed China Head I purchased. She is a lovely example of this type of doll and due to their scarcity I was very happy to add her to my collection at a affordable price.

Many early dolls have no markings as to the maker. It is possible however due to the painting techniques used by different markers to identify a doll as to the maker as you become more knowledgeable in antique dolls due to distinctive characteristics that they employed in the painting of their dolls. As an example Kestner China Heads used a single stroke red and black eyelid line. They have a white highlight to the left of the iris and often several shades are used to paint the iris. Additionally the iris is often only partially outlined. The nostrils of Kestner dolls are indicated by red circles and they have small pursed mouths with an unpainted line that was used to separate the lips. The Covered Wagon China Head at the right is from my personal collection and due to her facial painting I believe she is a Kestner doll.

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