How to Start Doll Collecting

Many people have a special doll from their childhood and want to find out more about that doll. Many others have always loved dolls and want to know more about them. Here are a few easy tips to follow when beginning to collect these little treasures.

Collect what you like. When you start collecting you may find yourself looking at any doll as a doll to purchase, and this will be fine to a point, but you want to know that you are going to like your collection once you have put the effort into obtaining your dolls. Many people collect dolls not because they are going to be worth a lot of money, but because they think they are beautiful and they look like their children or simply because the dolls make them smile. Whatever the reason, learn as much as you can about the antique or collectable dolls that are available so your collection will be wonderful to see and share with others.

The first step in collecting anything, especially dolls is to get educated. This is easier than it sounds. Sowatzka's Dolls carries a full line of books designed to educate both the novice and the serious doll collector. See Doll Books for more information.

Do you have questions that you would like to discuss with someone knowledgeable? Contact Gary Sowatzka or check out Gary's Tips for Successful Doll Collecting.

Gary also buys, sells and repairs dolls. He can give information, appraisals and advice on antique dolls. See Doll Restoration , Antique Dolls For Sale , or Items Wanted for more information in these areas.

Basic Doll Types


Doll Description

Composition Dolls

This term is collective term used to describe a variety of pulped-wood or paper-based mixtures from which doll heads and bodies are made. Composition was originally produced because it was a less expensive alternative to wooden dolls. It also allowed for more creativity because it was much easier to work with than wood. It was discovered in the 1800 that the paper-based mixtures could be pressed into molds. This allowed for mass production by machine, and greatly changed the doll making industry. Many different formulas for composition were used, although not many were successful. Some of the formulas included edible ingredients such as eggshells and bread. Dolls made from these types of composition were often gnawed on by rodents and insects. Other types of composition were susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. The composition would shrink or swell, depending on conditions, and this would result in the cracking or crazing of the paint. Another problem with composition dolls is the coat of varnish used to seal the final product. This varnish often became discolored, giving the dolls a yellow tint. Therefore, it is very difficult to find a composition doll in mint condition, without cracking or peeling of the heavy paint.

Storage conditions of composition dolls have to be controlled. Dolls stored in closets on lived in levels fair much better than dolls stored in basements or upstairs closets that are closed off from the rest of the house.

Bisque Doll

Bisque refers to a type of doll that has been fired twice, with color added before the second firing. This color includes the overall tint as well as the facial features. Bisque heads were expensive to produce, but if done on a large scale, they could be made cost-effective. These dolls were also produced from molds like the poured wax dolls and later composition dolls. The porcelain was either poured or pressed into the molds and then the greenware (unfired porcelain) was removed from the mold after the form was set. Casting lines were cleaned off and the piece was fired. Then the tint and details were added and the piece was fired again. Earlier bisque heads had molded hair and eyes. Later heads possessed glass inset, sleep eyes, or flirty eyes. Some bisque dolls had inset tongues and teeth. More bisque dolls were produced in Germany near Thurgingia than anywhere else due to large nearby deposits of the clay needed to make the porcelain.

Bisque dolls had various types of bodies. Some of the types included leather, cloth, wooden, paper mache, composition, and bisque. Because bisque doll bodies are heavier than other types of bodies, they are less common, usually only seen on smaller dolls.

French Bisque Doll

The French started creating dolls in the 1840's and produced them until the 1950's. There are a few characteristics that are for the most part unique to French dolls. They normally have large almond shaped eyes, long painted lashes, and large brows with numerous strokes. They also have paperweight eyes, mohair wigs and either jointed composition bodies or kid leather bodies. Their clothing was more detailed and fancier than their German counterparts.

Some of the best known French manufacturers are Jumeau, Bru, Steiner and SFBJ.SFBJ is a society of French doll makers that was formed in 1899 and lasted until 1958. This society of French doll makers was formed when the Jumeau, Bru and eight other doll companies joined together to better compete with the growing German doll industry.

Identification of French bisque dolls is aided by the markings on both the heads and bodies. Although many markings are still unidentified, there are a number of markings that are distinctive of to either Jumeau, Bru, Steiner or other French doll makers. These markings also help distinguish French dolls from German dolls. For more information on identifying markings, see the books listed in Doll Books.

Adding a good French doll to your collection is a major accomplishment. French dolls are, as a rule, more valuable and harder to find than their German counterparts.

German Bisque Doll

German dolls have a number of distinguishing characteristics. They were created to look like the artist's children and to emulate the fashions of the time. This resulted is full cheeks, giving the dolls a pouty almost stern look. As a rule, they were also dressed simply, although there are acceptions to every rule. Their bodies were usually ball jointed composition or leather.

Some of the most well known German doll makers are Kestner, Simon and Halbig, Kammer and Rienhart, Armand Marseille, Heubach. Some of the companies made only heads, some made only bodies.

JD Kestner is considered King of the German Doll Makers. The company produced dolls from 1820 to 1938. The early Kestners are marked with X, XI or with a mold or size number. Later dolls are marked with "Made in Germany." Kestner's dolls were put on leather, composition or wooden bodies. They produced a wide range of dolls including shoulder heads, turned heads, socket heads. Kestner eyes varied as much as the head styles. The eyes were either painted, set glass, glass sleep eyes, or googly eyes. Mouths were either open, open closed, or closed. Kestner is well known for his Hilda, character babies and Googlies.

Armand Marseille is another well known German doll-maker, but this company made only doll heads and then sent them to other companies for completion. The Armand Marseille company did not make any bodies. This adds to the confusion of trying to date and identify AMs because their bodies were produced by a number of different companies.

Heubach was known for their character babies, which were introduced in 1908. Because the Heubach company made character babies, they have a wide variety of dolls including dolls having tantrums, smiling dolls, crying dolls and screaming dolls. Many of their dolls have intaglio eyes and molded hair.

These are just a very few of the German doll makers that produced fine bisque dolls in the late 1800's and early 1900's. For more information on these wonderful creations, see Doll Books

Glazed China Head Doll

Glazed China Heads are one of three types of porcelain dolls. The other two are untinted bisque, and tinted bisque. The Glazed China Heads were produced from 1830 to 1880. They are called glazed china heads because the painted featured and coloring of the cheeks were painted using china paints which were fired to fix them to the surface. Heavy coats of glaze were then fired onto the surface of the head, over the painted features. This gave the heads their glossy appearance, and allowed the white porcelain underneath to show. The glazed china heads are rarely seen with all over tinting. Because of the fine texture of porcelain, it could be used to produce detailed doll heads. The hairstyles were molded in the styles of the period with intricate bows, curls and jewels. The dolls were also dressed to duplicate the fine dresses worn by fashionable ladies of the period.

It is very difficult to identify the makers and periods of the glazed china heads. Many dolls were not marked, while others have their markings inside the heads. Markings inside of the heads poses a problem because in order to see the marking, the head must be removed from the body, which alters the original condition, thus decreasing the value of the doll.

The majority of the glazed china heads are shoulder heads, although a few ball and socket type heads were created. Not all glazed china heads were ornate and representative of the high fashions of the time. Many dolls were produced with simple hairstyles and clothing and usually portrayed boys, children, or babies.

Untinted Bisque

In 1860, untinted bisque began to replace the glazed china heads. Another name for these unglazed heads is "parian". These untinted bisque heads resemble the glazed china heads in most respects, other than the fact that the untinted bisque lacks the coat of glaze. The distinguishing characteristics of the pairan heads are that they possess a matte finish and a marlbelike whiteness. The painted facial features are still the only coloring on the head. The dolls were made to represent men, women, and children, depending on their hairstyle. Hairstyles ranged from the very ornate styles of the fashion ladies to the rather plain styles of the men and children. Their clothing was also styled after the fashions of the period. Bodies were made from calico, and stuffed with animal hair and other woolen type fibers. Molded hand and feet were common, with most feet molded to have painted fasionable boots.

Paper Mache

Paper Mache dolls are some of the earliest dolls made. They can be dated as far back as 1540. They are composed of many different things, but mainly consist of sheets of paper pressed together with wood or rag fibers added to give strength. The earliest form of Paper Mache dolls were produced by laying sheets of paper over the form to be duplicated and binding them with paste and firm pressure. The process of making Paper Mache dolls evolved into the composition doll industry. Composition is one type of Paper Mache. It was in 1807 that the process of mass producing paper mache dolls using molds and a pressure process to form a paper pulp into the doll part desired. The new pressure process is given credit for laying the foundation for the German Doll industry. The types of paper mache dolls produced covers a wide range. This type of doll had either glass inset eyes or painted, and some had molded hair and some had wigs.

Wax dolls

Wax dolls come in two main types. Wax over composition dolls were made by applying a thin coat of wax over composition heads and limbs. They were easier and less expensive to produce than the poured wax dolls. The wax over composition dolls had a more natural appearance than the ones made of only composition. They were made from the 1830's to the 1900's, mostly by German doll makers. In the 1870's, the English started producing some wax over composition dolls. These dolls by the English are usually well marked with body stamps, therefore, wax over composition dolls with no marking are assumed to be German.

Unfortunately, these dolls were subject to the changes in climate, much like their all composition counterparts. Changes in temperature and humidity caused the composition bases to shrink and expand, resulting in cracking and crazing of the wax covering.

Poured wax dolls originated from the widespread Roman Catholic practice of creating religious effigies and votive offerings from wax. The craftsmen expanded their art into wax doll-making. This was developed in London and between 1850 and 1930, most of the fine wax dolls were created. Wax dolls were much more realistic looking than any other type of doll. The wax was translucent, luminous and warm to the touch. The properties of wax allowed the artists to create portrait dolls which accurately depicted the facial features and expressions of their subjects.

Poured wax doll modelers all used basically the same process to create their dolls. First, a doll was sculpted from either wax or clay, which was then used to create a plaster mold. The molds were then used to cast the doll pieces. The techniques used to finish the dolls are what made them unique. Some wax dolls have inset hair where strands of clumps of hair were inserted into the scalp. This made for a more realistic head of hair than wigs produced. Blown glass or molded eyes were set into the cut-out eye sockets, and eyelashes were also inserted with a technique similar to that used to insert hair in the scalp. Most of the poured wax dolls have bodies made out of calico stuffed with animal hair or other wooly fibers. The arms and legs were cast at the same time as the head to ensure color match.

Modern Doll

Modern Dolls come in as many different shapes and sizes as antique dolls do. Many are sculpted to depict a particular child, and others are modeled after the antique dolls. With the large variety of materials available to dollmakers today, modern dolls have become very easy to mass produce. Many modern dolls were made to look like famous people such as the Dionne Quintuplets, Princess Diana and the many characters depicted by Madame Alexander. Modern dolls are made of many different types of materials including porcelain, compo, plastic, and rubber. Because of the number of dolls produced today, it takes great care to find a modern doll that will be worth collecting years from now. When selecting a modern doll to buy a number of things should be considered such as quality, number produced, and artist. If you are collecting modern dolls, the most valuable ones will be found at a reputable doll shop. By going to your local doll shop, you may have the chance to meet the artist, and any time you can get to know the person creating the doll, the piece becomes more meaningful and valuable. Dolls sold at department stores are not going to be ones that increase in value over the years. These dolls are fine if you are not buying for an investment, but when you want your collection to increase in value, buying limited editions and artist dolls are your best bets. Quality is a big factor in the value of a modern doll. The clothing should be made from quality fabrics, and should be sewn, not glued onto the doll. Painting should be soft and life like without harsh lines and colors. Look for dolls that are handmade by a single artist or dolls that are signed and numbered limited editions. An artist that is proud of his or her work will always sign it! Good luck with your collecting.

Grading and Appraising Dolls

Why collect dolls? You may have had people ask you this question, and it is difficult to put into words, but in your heart you know why. These little people look back at you with love and remind you of all that is good in people. This is the main reason most people collect, "A true love of dolls". Some people collect for monetary benefit alone. Collectors of this nature are rare, but you can spot them instantly. These people I've encountered over the years seem somewhat distant and unfriendly, their eyes don't light up with the joy of finding a unique doll. For the most part, doll collectors are the type of people who will treat their dolls as additions to the family. They truly love dolls. As a serious collector you must be as knowledgeable as you can. This not only enables you to find better dolls, but will also increase your love of collecting. This is where the knowledge of grading/value of dolls must be pursued. Both aspects work as one, whether it be a German or French reproduction, or a genuine antique, a number of things add to the value of the doll. Quality of work and materials is of the utmost importance, along with uniqueness of the original artist's portrayal. These things all work as one in determining the value of a doll.

Spotting a valuable doll is a learned attribute. How serious about doll collecting are you? Read some of the many resource materials available today in the area of antique dolls, and combine that knowledge with actively viewing antique dolls through private collections, museums and antique shops. Within a short period of time and a little effort, you will gain confidence in your doll collecting. Remember, as you are trying to find antique dolls, it is not how little you pay, but the quality of the doll. Quality comes with price. Don't cheat yourself out of the enjoyment of owning beautiful antique dolls, it will show in the end result of the collection. I've never seen a collector regret buying a beautiful doll to add to their collection.

I've had many people ask me over the years, how did you know that? To be good at grading and valuing dolls, start with doll blue books. There are many on the market to date, and some are better than others. To help you understand how these books can help you, you must read the prefaces of these books. The author explains their ideas on determining values. This is the most important aspect of using these publications. These books are meant to be "guides", by using common sense and good judgement and the information in blue books, you will be able to value the dolls. If you have an original antique doll in good condition with lots of charm, the doll will sell itself! Unfortunately, for a buyer, it will demand a higher price. For example, many doll blue books give values for "mint" dolls. This means that the doll is in its original condition, any damage to the doll reduces the value. Use the values in the books as starting points. Damage reduces the value, but exceptional qualities can add to the value. If restoration has occurred, ask yourself these questions before determining a value. Was it done correctly by using original techniques and materials? If clothing was reproduced, were old fabrics and laces used? Were the correct fashions of the day incorporated into the clothing? Was the restoration appropriate? Was the integrity of the doll maintained? Many questions must be asked in order to grade/value these wonderful little treasures from the past.

Good luck in your doll collecting, remember to have fun and share your enjoyment and love of dolls with others.

Gary Sowatzka,
Master Doll Doctor and Artist

Gary's Tips for Successful Doll Collecting

  1. Collect what you like. Don't spend your time, money and effort to fill your house with something you don't like or for the sake of profit. If you like antique dolls try and stay in this area. Stick with what you like, and both your interest and collection will grow.
  2. Educate yourself. Learn to tell the difference between real antique dolls, good reproductions, and bad reproductions. The books listed in the Doll Books are a good place to start. Once you learn how to identify dolls, it will become much easier to make decisions on which dolls to buy and which ones to pass on.
  3. Set your goals. Do you want a small collection of rare exceptional dolls? Do you want a collection that is simply pleasing to look at? Are you going for quantity to fill a show room or parlor? Is this an investment or a hobby? Depending on your goals, your tactics for finding and collecting dolls will be as different as the types of dolls you can collect.
  4. Garage sales and estate sales. Spend weekends visiting area sales. Even if you don't see dolls, ask. Many people would never think anybody would be interested in buying their dolls. It is also a good way to make connections. They many not have any dolls, but they may know someone who does.
  5. Beware of overpricing. This goes along with being educated. Because doll collecting is becoming popular, some dealers think that if it is an old doll, it is worth a lot. A lot of bisque dolls look beautiful and valuable, but they were over produced, which makes them less valuable. Know what you are buying and it's value. Being aware of the tendency of some dealers to overprice. This will save you time, money and heartache.
  6. Look at what you are buying. Look for rub marks, where some of the paint has been rubbed off, hairline cracks, chips, torn clothing, cracked leather bodies, or any other damage. Any of these things decrease the value of a doll. Many people believe a cracked bisque head is worthless, but if you are buying for pure aesthetics, this may be an inexpensive way to add to your collection. See Grading Dolls for more information.
  7. Look for "diamonds in the rough." Many fine dolls are found in pieces. A knowledgeable doll doctor can repair minor problems for a reasonable fee. Your local doll shop can also assist you with appropriate clothing, eyes, wigs and bodies. So, if you find a beautiful head, you can salvage the majority of its value. Remember, 60% of the value is in the head on an antique doll.
  8. Visit Good Will and other thrift shops. Many people donate valuable dolls and without realizing what they are giving away.
  9. Doll shows. Going to shows is a good way to find dolls. You may not find many great deals, dealers at shows usually know what they have and what it is worth. Fortunately though, shows are a great place to learn. You can gain valuable information by seeing dolls in person. You can only learn so much from pictures in a book. In addition to learning what particular dolls look like, you will get a feeling for the market value of some of your favorite dolls.
  10. Ask questions. Go to your local doll shop and ask questions, get appraisals done, and inquire about dolls that you have and want. Many doll collectors and dealers love talking dolls. You never know what you'll learn unless you ask.
  11. Collect a variety. Try to avoid buying all one size or style of doll. A good doll collection has a variety of sizes, styles, ethnicity's and values. Buy small dolls to fill in gaps in showcases, baby dolls for that special child's cradle, and large dolls for a prominent showpiece. Dolls of different origins can also represent family heritage, and add special meaning to a collection.
  12. Good reproductions. Many people love the style of antique dolls, but can't afford them. Buying good reproductions is an alternative that you may want to consider. Remember, dolls made today are the antiques of the future.

Items of Special interest offered by Sowatzka's Dolls