She is slim, blonde and young, and she’s been that way since 1959. Sounds like a dream girl who has discovered the elixir of eternal youth. We’re talking, of course, about Barbie – an American ideal of beauty, made of plastic. The style icon among dolls isn’t just popular with girls, but also among avid collectors and a handful of investors seeking an alternative to securities.
In fact, Barbies can get pretty expensive, as was the case with a special doll named “Barbie by Stefano Canturi.” The doll, designed by Mr. Canturi, an Australian jeweler, was sold at a Christie’s auction for $302,500 (€228,000) in 2010, making it one of the most expensive dolls on the market. However, the designer also helped boost the price with a necklace of three-carat white diamonds and a one-carat pink diamond.
The Canturi Barbie is the most expensive Barbie ever sold, but there are other dolls that fetch good prices. Antique dolls produced until 1950 by German companies like Käthe Kruse, Schildkröte and Kämmer & Reinhardt have also sold for large amounts. A well-preserved Käthe Kruse doll can fetch up to €40,000 ($53,000). A few rare Barbies, even without diamond necklaces, have sold for sums in the four digits.
Dolls rank fourth among Germans’ most popular collector’s items – next to books, coins and stamps. They are a lucrative business for some collectors.
According to Thomas Schmidtkonz, 54, who runs the website www.sammler.com, dolls made before the 1920s are a particularly good investment. “Many artists’ dolls are masterpieces. And people often pay a lot of money for masterpieces,” said Mr. Schmidtkonz.
Besides, pricing is a tricky business. There is no such thing as a doll index, so that value becomes a question of negotiation.
But not all dolls are equal. Horst Poestgens runs an auction house that has been auctioning historic toys and antiques since 1986. “The body, head and clothing have to be original,” he said. It’s also very important that the doll was never used, Mr. Poestgens added.
Collectors shudder at the thought of precious dolls falling into the unruly hands of children. Even a minor cosmetic operation – especially on the head – can severely affect a doll’s value. Only dolls in their original condition – and packaging – capture the highest prices, said Mr. Poestgens. In the case of plastic dolls, collectors also look for evidence of “vaccinations” – small puncture marks from needles children use when playing doctor.
The smaller the number produced and the older the doll, the higher the value. “Character dolls” are also a good investment, said Mr. Poestgens. The collectors’ items can fetch €2,000 to €10,000, with very rare specimens occasionally selling for up to €30,000. However, two-thirds of the dolls sold in Mr. Poestgens’ auction house are so-called “mass-market dolls,” valued at less than €400.
Mr. Poestgens’ most successful sale to date was the Käthe Kruse Type I doll. It was one of the first toy dolls the famed German doll maker made and sold for just under €10,000 at the Poestgens Auction House.
Barbie is a spring chicken compared with her porcelain counterparts, and yet collectors are just as passionate about the American blonde. One of them is Bettina Dorfmann, a Barbie aficionado and head of the only Barbie clinic in Germany. She provides first aid when a Barbie loses her head or one of her legs falls off. Of course, Ms. Dorfmann is also a dealer in the plastic dolls, selling to international collectors, of which there are quite a few.
Ms. Dorfmann owns about 17,000 Barbie dolls. She began collecting 20 years ago, and her collection is even featured in the Guinness Book of World Records. For insurance reasons, she is not at liberty to state the total value of her collection. And why should she? She has no intention of selling it because it means more to her for its sentimental than its monetary value.
“I would never see my collection as an investment,” she said.
The first Barbies were sold for $3 apiece in 1959, but they are worth much more today. Ms. Dorfmann is the proud owner of one of the original Barbies. Her name is Barbie Ponytail. Now 55, Barbie Ponytail was originally available as a blonde or a brunette and with a black-and-white striped swimsuit. She is worth $8,000 today.
Nevertheless, many collectors, including Ms. Dorfmann, advise against treating a doll as an investment. “Prices aren’t reliable,” she warned. In fact, they dropped sharply after a boom in the 1980s.
Besides, pricing is a tricky business. There is no such thing as a doll index, so that value becomes a question of negotiation. “People who collect dolls do it because they enjoy it,” said the auctioneer Mr. Poestgens. For most fans, the notion that Barbie might be worth a few euros more some day is irrelevant.
Expert Mr. Schmidtkonz also advises caution when collecting dolls today. “The market for dolls is difficult,” said the expert. It is possible to rake in large profits, but that requires finding a buyer who happens to need a particular doll in his or her collection. “It doesn’t matter if something is rare if there’s no demand for it,” he said.
Doll collecting is also beginning to go out of style, as Barbie suffers the same fate as stamps and model railroads. There are too few young collectors, which is likely to adversely affect prices.
And what about Ken? After his separation from Barbie, which lasted only seven years, the dream couple is back together again. But the plastic pretty boy isn’t exactly a hot item among collectors.
Maybe it’s because he can’t wear a diamond necklace.
Translated by Christopher Sultan