Collecting: Bobbleheads

 

buddha nodder

A Buddha “nodder” from the 19th century. Nodders, or bobbleheads, have been around since the 17th century when Buddha and other “temple nodders” were produced in Asia.

Pope Francis is one, but then so was the Buddha.  Elvis was one, too, along with the Beatles.  Today every baseball and sports player has to be one.  And you can be one anytime.  What they are, are bobbleheads.  

Right now you’re thinking of the waggly-headed dog whose head bobbles in the back window of someone’s car.  That’s a bobblehead, too, but what you probably didn’t know is that the bobblehead (or nodder or wobbler to some) isn’t a new thing.  They’ve been around since the 17th century when Buddha and other “temple nodders” were produced in Asia.   

Not much later, in the 19th century, the Thanjavur Thalayatti Bommai or the Thanjavur Dancing Doll was introduced in the region of Thanjavur, India by Maratha King Saraboji, according to an account written for the Deccan Herald of India.  These bobblehead dolls are intricately hand painted of wood, paper-mache, wax, clay or plaster of paris and are considered part of the heritage of the Tamil Nadu region of southern India.  Recent auction values for authentic Thanjavur bobbleheads have been from $25 to $65 and are a much more elegant dancing doll than the hula girl on your dashboard.

tanjora dancing doll

The Thanjavur dancing doll, introduced by King Sarajobi. These bobblehead dolls are intricately hand painted of wood, paper-mache, wax, clay or plaster of paris and are considered part of the heritage of the Tamil Nadu region of southern India.

There is a story that says the moving head, tongue and hands of early nodders were an early warning system that alerted everyone to a tremor or earthquake.  When the nodder moved, you were to “duck and cover.” Not sure if that’s true or not, but Los Angeles might want to take notice.

What is certain is that other early 19th century colorful nodders made of bisque porcelain by Meissen have sold at auction in 2007 from $18,000 and $20,000, if they are intact.  The heyday for German bisque porcelain nodders was in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Jean McClelland in the article “Bobblehead figurines a fun beginning for collectors” in the WV Herald Dispatch.  You can find quite a few examples of these nodders auctioned from $50 and up to $350 in working order for much earlier versions.  A rather curious type of nodder made in Occupied Japan after World War II featured a monkey dressed in a Buddhist robe that sold in 2017 for $22.  

By the 1960s, oddly enough, the major league baseball franchises in the United States started producing papier-mache bobbleheads for each of the major leagues, but they all had the same face, just wearing different uniforms. The bobblehead give-away at the 1960 World Series game featured Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, but again they all had the same faces.  Still, each have auctioned from $50 to $250 depending on condition.  WorthPoint contributor Rob Bertrand, a sports collector, emphasizes sports “action figures” along with bobbleheads as timely collectibles here.

willie mays bobblehead

Willie Mays was one of the bobble heads featured in the 1960s World Series giveaway.

During this same time a bobblehead set for the Beatles also became available.  They were naturally sold as a set of four, instruments and all, in 8” bisque porcelain.  However, there was also a set that stood about 15” tall.  These were in-store promotional standees and only about 50 sets were supposedly produced.  Together, the promotional series brought $15,000 at auction in 2010; the smaller versions packaged in boxes have been auctioned from $500 to $1,500, depending on condition.

beatles bobble heads

The 8” and 15” sets of the Beatles bobbleheads. They even included instruments!

But the bobblehead pretty much died out as a collectible or give-away after this period.  Production costs were high because most were made overseas in Japan out of delicate porcelain and then had to be imported.  

It was the Willie Mays bobblehead given away by the San Francisco Giants at a game in May of 1999 that helped reinvigorate the interest in bobbleheads as a collectible.  The reason?  By 1999, plastics took over for bisque porcelain and ceramic production providing a much cheaper way to create bobbleheads in every form and fashion and in larger quantities.  You can still find the 1999 Willie Mays bobblehead being auctioned from $60 to $125 depending on condition.  Post cereal was able to produce 22 million mini-bobbleheads of baseball players two years later as part of their cereal box prizes and they are still available for about $30 to $75 or so for sets.    

This resurgence is what made it possible for Pope Francis to get his own bobblehead that still sells well even after his visit to the United States in 2015 for about $30 to $50.   Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett each have their own bobbleheads, too, from $30 or so to $250 for a Funko Elvis in gold lame suit still in its original box.  Now, just about any type of celebrity, cartoon character, politician, or president has become a bobblehead.  And, of course, it means you can be a bobblehead, too.

pope francis bobble head

Even the pope gets his own bobble head!

Yes, you can join the bobblehead revolution by commissioning your own likeness on a bobblehead through any number of bobblehead companies like Dolls2U.com, bobbleheads.com or mbobble.com.  For weddings, reunions, family, graduation or whatever kind of special occasion, a bobblehead might just be the most unique gift.  President Lyndon Johnson once gave a plastic bust of himself as a gift to Pope Paul VI on an official visit. I’m sure, if he had thought of it, he would have preferred a bobblehead instead.

And if it works out right, you just might become a permanent exhibit at the upcoming National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum set to open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sometime in 2017.  It just might be the place to show off the world’s largest bobblehead ever made, a nearly 16 foot St. Bernard made in 2016.  Now that is one waggly-headed doggie in the window.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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