Queen of Barbies: Meet Melissa Musselman

When the Durham National Heritage Museum hosted a successful exhibition of Barbie collectibles in 2001, Melissa Musselman decided to take it to the next level. She tried to organize a national touring exhibition of the collectibles, which included the best items from 30 top Barbie experts.

To do it, she set out to read every book, go to a Barbie convention, network with collectors and study up on the doll, its history, and its market. If there was a Barbie collectible or a potential collectible, Musselman had to know about it.

“It became a passion,” Musselman said, “I wanted to learn everything.”

The idea for the larger exhibit fell by wayside. But Musselman continued her research. Then she started collecting herself. Today, she has close to 600 dolls and other Barbie items and she closely follows the Barbie market as a Worthologist.

It keeps her busy. That’s because after 49 years on toy store shelves, the Barbie doll commands a unique place in American society and the world of collectibles. In 2006, a 1965 Barbie dressed in a red cape with a faux fur collar sold at a London auction for nearly $17,000. There’s even a software program to help collectors organize and analyze their dolls and accessories in a database.

It all began in 1959 when Ruth Handler, one of the founders of the toymaker Mattel Inc. created a fashion doll aimed at the imaginations of older girls. It was inspired by a voluptuous German gag-gift doll sold in cigar stories. Handler named the doll after her daughter Barbara

“Barbie was about being popular, about being glamorous,” Musselman said. “Girls pretended to be that doll with all the fun clothes, the cars, friends, boyfriend and roles to play.”

Barbie’s extraordinary success – along with her astonishing wardrobe and impossible figure – made her a target of cultural critics.

In “Barbie Culture,” sociologist Mary Rogers described the doll as “fantastic femininity,” while Kristen Noelle Weissman called the doll a “symbol of the feminine ideal, which has caused women to perceive and recognize this figure in a personal light.”

Musselman dismisses such remarks and concerns about Barbie’s negative effects on children. “Did little boys become riffle-shooting maniacs just because they played with GI Joe? “ she asks. “So why should some mother worry that her daughters are going to grow up with an eating disorder because of the doll?”

What attracts grown-ups to the doll as a collectible? Musselman thinks it’s a way to relive childhood memories. But that doesn’t mean collecting Barbies is child’s play.

Part of the challenge is that Mattel still is churning out Barbie dolls, so the market is ever-growing. There has been Grease Barbie, Harley-Davidson Barbie and Indian DiWali Barbie. Mattel now is promoting a new line depicting Cher through the decades.

There are some market constants, according to Musselman:

• The original vintage dolls manufactured in Japan will command top dollar when in good condition.
• The #1 Barbie Doll in a mint box is valued at $6,500 for a blonde and $7,000 for a brunette. (Fewer brunettes were made.)
• Accessories fetch good prices. That’s because the first things kids lose are the tiny pieces. A mint, circa-1959 “Roman Holiday” outfit echoing Audrey Hepburn is valued at $4,500.
• Online listings like eBay make collecting easier, but can flood the market and depress prices.
• The vintage, designer, silkstone and special edition dolls are likely to hold value. The dolls made for children are mass-produced and probably won’t hold value.

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