First Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2000

David Langsam interviews Mirka Mora.
A review of Mirka Mora'a autobiogrpahy "Wicked but Virtuous" is here.

Antique dolls can fetch six-figure sums and, interested men can be reassured, John Wayne was a keen collector.

Said to be the second most popular collectible after stamps, dolls do not appear in lists of appreciating asset prices, which is surprising given the massive demand and very finite supply of collectible antique, veteran and vintage dolls.

The enduring passion for miniatures of life has been with us since Tut Ankhamun was entombed and Abraham downsized his father's shop in downtown Ur on the outskirts of Baghdad. Voodoo practitioners have also had a thing for little people.

In the 1960s, Mattel's Barbie and Ken underlined the love affair with dolls and last month (May), Eaglemoss Publications sold out the first edition of its 60-part series "Dolls of the World". The fortnightly part-work includes a porcelain doll in a different national costume each edition and will cost just over $700 for the set. The Australian agent is cagey about the numbers sold, agreeing that 10,000 to 100,000 copies of the first edition is the right ballpark. That's a lot of potential doll collectors and the reason he is cagey is that part-works publishers are highly competitive and that means dolls are not to be toyed with.

Artist Mirka Mora has been collecting dolls since her childhood. She is passionate about her "real" dolls - the 19th Century and early 20th Century porcelain and wax European dolls that she says allow her to recapture not her childhood - a state she is still experiencing - but the lost days of motherhood.

"A real doll must capture the poignancy of childhood," says Melbourne's naughty girl of art. "In my case it is to recapture motherhood."

Her oldest doll is an English wax doll she bought in Tasmania. Made in the 1830s it came to Hobart with the Butler family. The three sisters who owned the doll were painted by the convict artist Thomas Wainwright. Mirka has visited the Butler house in Hobart and wonders whether the doll had been in the room painted in Wainwright's portrait, now hanging in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.

Her 1890 German baby boy doll is very different from the wax doll with a porcelain head, glass eyes and composition (glue and sawdust) body.

The first dolls were made of wood or carved in stone and by the 17th Century clay and plaster had taken over to be replaced by bisque and porcelain.

By the 1920s, French doll makers were using celluloid with moving eyes, Mirka says, demonstrating a doll with "flirting eyes" darting left and right.

"There is an enormous school of reproduction dolls because antique dolls are getting very hard to get. I never believed I would buy a reproduction, but they are very good."

But she says some modern dolls are too realisitic.

"I don't like realistic dolls," says Mirka. "I like magical dolls. I like dolls that cost a fortune."

She owns a new Petit Colin made by the Petitcollin company of Etain in the Lorraine region of France. The 30cm doll cost $260 which she says is "too expensive" even from a company which has been making dolls since 1860. Her first Petit Colin is 60 years old and she also has a tiny 10cm version.

She says anyone buying an antique doll should read "The Collectors Encyclopaedia of Dolls" by Dorothy Elizabeth and Evelyn Coleman, but Mirka says "I buy first and read later".

"I'll stop at nothing for a doll. I'd sell my house for a doll," she says, perhaps lucky that professional collectors know her and when she bids - not with a quiet nod to the auctioneer but a great flamboyant shout - they let her have what she wants.

"Anything old is hard to find. In Paris dolls sell for $40,000. I still want one doll, a French doll, a Steiner, and it is called The Shark because of its teeth."

Mirka Mora finds the reference in her encyclopaedia: a Jules Steiner's 37 cm bisque head doll with a wig, stationary blue eyes and open mouth. It is worth about $6,000 at auction in Australia, according to June Hay of Abbingdon Auctions in Seymour.

"At a Paris auction a man paid $43,000 for an Albert Marque designed doll but the doll did nothing for me," says Mirka.

Ms Hay says that a very rare Marque doll sold last year in the United States for about US$150,000 ($A263,160).

Leanne Vassallo is a doll collector, teaches doll-making and publishes "Antique and Reproduction Doll News Magazine". She says doll collectors range from children to 90 year olds as well as investors, particularly Japanese businessmen. She says actor John Wayne was a well-know collector and since his death no one has seen his dolls which apparently have not come to auction.

She says one of the best investments - if you can find one - is the soulful 1880s French Bru doll with porcelain head, shoulder-plate and arms on a kid leather body. In 1978 they were worth $6,000 to $8,000 but now reach $43,000 at US auctions if they are in mint condition. Made for the elite, Bru dolls would have cost at least an average working man's weekly wage.

In 1996 a "very rare" Kammer and Reinhardt painted-eye doll was auctioned at Sotheby's in England and sold for (Sterling 108,200) about $270,000. Collectors came from the US, Japan, Australia and Europe.

Ms Vassallo says that until the 1860s, European dolls were miniature adults. Jules Steiner was one of the first French doll makers to copy the Japanese principle of making dolls modelled on children.

In the 1890s German manufacturers revolutionized production, making dolls available to the general public and forcing the French out of the market.

Today, there's a panoply of collectible dolls. Collector Michelle Keyt says the original 1978 Star Wars merchandise like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) cost $25 but in mint condition in its box will fetch $400. The rare IG88 robot is more expensive.

Similar price appreciation has occurred with Barbie and other "celebrity" dolls like Shirley Temple, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Ms Vassallo says the first Barbies were made in 1959 when the dolls cost $3 or $4. The costumes were often more expensive than the doll. A mint condition early Barbie can sell for $600 and Ms Vassallo has sold an outfit for that price. The 1959 Barbie sells for $6,000 to $8,000. A very rare 1959 Barbie sold last year for $US12,000 (about $A21,052).

A local doll phenomenon is Feral Cheryl. Started as a spoof on Barbie, former ABC broadcaster Lee Duncan made a "hippie Barbie" for her sister's birthday.

"Unlike other fashion dolls, the 34cm vinyl Feral Cheryl doll is not blonde, and not ridiculously thin, and there are no accessories to buy. She goes barefoot, has tattoos, dreadlocks, simple clothes and a handmade rainbow bag. She lives simply and with a healthy body shape and pubic hair, Feral Cheryl is a natural young woman," says Ms Duncan's website.

Ms Duncan says most of her 800 sales in the past four years have been to the United States, and at $57 each, Feral Cheryl is sought after world-wide thanks to the internet. Afficionados should note that the 2000 series Feral Cheryl has blue eyes instead of the preferred brown eyes.

Leanne Vassallo says that there may be vagaries on the prices of fashion and reproduction dolls, but old porcelain dolls are likely to hold their value.

"There are more collectors born every day than antique dolls waiting to be found," says Ms Vassallo.

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