Since collecting antique and vintage dolls in 2005, I have learned to ask many, detailed questions of the seller, whether he or she is selling on eBay, in an antiques shop, at a flea market, or at a stoop, yard or garage sale. Recently I lost the chance to own an antique French doll, the one that I am calling "Nanette," and I hope that this story/guide serves as a helpful lesson for both buyers and sellers of collectibles of various kinds.
As December 25 approaches, the little girl inside of me reminisces about those toy-filled mornings of Christmases past. On those long-ago magical mornings, I would run into our compact living room nearly tripping over my older brother's race track (which surrounded the coffeetable), which hummed with miniature cars speeding around it because my brother had beaten me to the Christmas scene probably by an hour. My still-sleepy eyes would then block out my Grand Prix-bound brother and fixate on my dolls under the Christmas tree. Just as every week leading up to Christmas I was sure to receive a letter from Santa while he toiled away with his elves in a different faraway country (courtesy the U.S. Postal Service), I was certain that I would receive every doll on my wish list. I wasn't a greedy child; I was limited to requesting two dolls. However, I admit that I was fortunate to have working-class parents who could afford any dolls at all, not to mention accessories.
These days, I still keep my wish list for dolls short, especially since most of the ones that I still desire are antique dolls by certain manufacturers. When I lose an on-line doll auction to a faster-fingered or well-heeled buyer, I do not act like a sore loser, but the little girl inside me wants to cry. As Christmas approaches again, I have become wistful about an antique doll that recently got away ... right here on eBay. I am hoping that by sharing my story with you, not to mention by eating my pre-Christmas chocolates, I will feel a little better about losing Nanette.
About a month ago, I spotted an antique doll marked "S.F.B.J.," meaning that she was manufactured by a doll conglomeration called the Societes Francaise de Fabrication de Bebes et Jouets ("French Society for the Fabrication of Dolls and Toys"). The S.F.B.J. doll was listed by a kind seller I will refer to in this guide as "Silvie," and she had caught my eye because her brown glass eyes were almond-shaped and expressive. Her pursed lips seemed to call out "Maman" to me. What can I say -- she was adorable! Right away, I named her "Nanette" because at the time it seemed so Fwwwennnch.
My first question to seller Silvie about her 11-inch S.F.B.J. doll involved her authenticity because she referred to her as a "Jumeau" in her auction title. You see, I was concerned that Silvie inadvertently might mislead other novice collectors into thinking that the doll was a pure Jumeau and that those collectors might bid accordingly. Before receiving her response, I placed a bid on the doll based on my surface interest. However, I kept my initial maximum low, at US$60+. I could not afford a pure Jumeau, but for an S.F.B.J. of this dolly's size, I knew I would go as high as US$150 based upon previous realized prices for antique S.F.B.J.s that this sweetie resembled.
The following day, Silvie published my question and her answer. In her long, polite response, she apologized in great detail. Her apology revealed her humility and her honesty. That attracted me to the auction even more, and I now can admit that I became addicted to the doll, turning to the auction in the days following the published Q&A the first thing in the morning and soon after reaching home.
The next day after Silvie published the Q&A, someone outbid me on the doll. Of course, I had no idea what the new maximum bid was and who my new rival was. Although on eBay, only the seller knows the bidders' identities, I still can identify my main rivals because the scrambled, asterisked usernames look the same wherever they appear in eBay doll auctions. I cannot prove whether I was outbid simply because there was now a Q&A in Silvie's auction listing or because her response showed how humble a seller she was. By the way, Silvie's response also revealed that she had acquired this doll, and others in her concurrent auctions on eBay, from estate sales, so it was likely that such a revelation -- i.e., acquisition from an estate sale -- motivated someone else to bid on Nanette. That the doll was acquired from an estate meant she could have belonged to the doll's first or second American owner. The fewer times an antique doll has passed hands, especially here in the United States, the better.
Midway through the seven-day auction, Nanette was close to US$100 in the bidding. I had a few more questions for the seller. When I asked Silvie about the S.F.B.J. doll's hair -- whether it was a human-hair wig or a mohair wig -- that prompted her to ask me how to determine the difference. I did not want to mislead her, so first I performed some research via several eBay guides (because that was the quickest method, and I wanted to get back to Silvie that night). Silvie thanked me, and to show further gratitude, she offered me a bonus should I win her doll: a pair of antique doll shoes. In other words, the photos of the doll in the listing showed that she was wearing only one shoe, and like any good seller, Silvie wanted to motivate me to continue bidding. I used to sell on eBay, and I appreciated Silvie's entrepreneurial flair.
The evening of the day after Silvie thanked me for helping her identify her doll's wig (which, by the way, was made of human hair and was probably a replacement wig), I checked on the auction again. I pulled at my own hair because I could not believe my eyes. I am surprised that I have no bald spots now because that doll -- my doll, as I already had grown more attached to her than to the wig on her head -- was up to US$300+ in bids! Searching Silvie's listing for an explanation of this, I pored over the auction photos (of which there were many because Silvie is an intelligent seller) to see if she had added any more images. She had not. Next, I scrolled down her listing description to see if she had added any further details.
In larger type than the original description's text -- and in a tone that seemed giddy -- Silvie had added a description in which she had discovered more information about the S.F.B.J. doll after examining her wig the previous night. By scrutinizing the wig, she had noticed it was loose enough (which is nothing unusual with antique dolls whose wigs have been replaced and/or whose eyes have been reset from sleeping to set). Beneath the pate was crumpled, fragile newspaper inside the doll's bisque head, which she had unraveled delicately and learned was printed all in French and was dated just after World War I. I cannot recall the actual year of publication, but it was either 1919 or 1920.
That evening, I sent Silvie a message, via eBay, that said "Congratulations!" I also let her know that the doll at this point was priced beyond what I could afford, but deep inside, I wanted to go for broke and set a new maximum bid at $400+. If I had done so, that simply would have meant I would not be able to afford any other new acquisitions of antique dolls and vintage dolls in the niches that I favored.
Silvie is not fluent in French, and neither am I (though collecting antique French dolls has increased my French vocabulary), but she probably did exactly what I would have done had I discovered that French newspaper inside my doll's head. Silvie probably turned to the Internet and performed research based on words and names in the articles. By inspecting the newspaper and doing this research, Silvie was able to show prospective buyers of her S.F.B.J. doll that she would be accompanied with a provenance. Even casual viewers of the PBS program "Antiques Roadshow" know that a provenance means everything when it comes to appraisals of antiques and vintage items -- not only of old dolls.
On Day 7 of Silvie's auction for Nanette -- the name that I would have given "my" antique doll if I had won her -- the doll's realized price was US$740! Again, I congratulated Silvie. I also bid Nanette "Adieu" through my computer monitor and deleted the auction from my "Watch" queue.
Before you turn the page ... My doll collecting story ends on a positive note. Last week, while reminiscing about the antique doll that got away, I stared through the glass of my cherry wood doll curio at one of my favorite antique dolls. (She is the doll at right in my eBay profile photo. Thankfully, I have removed my pearl choker from her neck and changed her clothes since I shot that photo. Oh, and her doll friend is an authentic Roddy that I acquired from a vintage toy shop in Montreal, in the antiques district, which is located a few blocks from the Atwater market.)
About three years ago, I acquired my 11-inch S.F.B.J. for US$50+, which I knew at the time was a bargain even before having her appraised. I was her only bidder. It had thrilled me that the doll had S.F.B.J. markings on the back of her head and on her side, and that she was "wearing" her original mohair wig. Several months after I acquired the doll, I took her to the New York Doll Hospital and had her appraised by the "doll surgeon" himself, Mr. Irving Chais. (Sadly, Mr. Chais passed away nearly two years ago, but it was a pleasure to have met him and to have received priceless advice on dolls antique and vintage.)
Getting back to the evening, a week ago, that I was staring at my S.F.B.J. through the glass of the doll curio ... I gingerly removed her from the glass shelf and decided to let down her two braids. (After I had received the doll in the mail several years ago, I pinned up her braids so that it appeared as if she had an updo circa 1915, and I placed on her head the little straw hat adorned with artificial flowers, which had been pictured with her in the auction listing.) Now I wanted to restore her " 'do " to the hairstyle that she had worn when I first spotted her in the eBay auction. This is not to say that it was her original hairstyle created by the French conglomeration of dollmakers (i.e., S.F.B.J.) itself. While gently pressing down the stray mohair, I became slightly annoyed by the loose wig. The late doll surgeon and doll dealer Irving Chais had told me that her mohair wig was original to the doll and that her sleep eyes definitely had been reset to set eyes. At least I did not have to worry about her eyes falling out of her head.
Before retying the pink ribbons around the ends of her thick braids, I became curious about the loose wig. I delicately removed it and saw the fading color of a ball of foam (the kind of foam that once was used as insulation and as packing material.
[An aside: On the first day of the wonderful two-day doll auction presented by Theriault's at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City -- November 20 and 21 -- I mingled with a few experienced antique-doll collectors. One of these connoisseurs, probably exhausted from bidding tens of thousands of dollars on French and German antique dolls, was gracious with his time in speaking with me, a mere novice seated at the back and without a paddle. For those of you who are new to doll collecting but have never attended a live auction, I urge you to go to one when it visits your town. It costs nothing to attend, and if you are ever fortunate to attend a Theriault's auction, remember this one important fact: Theriault's always features free ice cream sundaes! I had two, and each one was served in a beautiful crystal glass. Well, it was the Waldorf-Astoria! (We had a choice of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry ice cream -- or all three flavors -- and a wide range of toppings, including hot fudge, caramel, rainbow sprinkles and walnuts. Yumm!) Getting back to that gentleman doll collector, he shared with me that the material found inside of many antique dolls' heads (i.e., under the wig pate) was placed there as stuffing to secure the eyes and, overall, to protect the bisque head before the doll is shipped to its new destination. Of course, the outside of an antique doll's head also should be cushioned with appropriate material that will not rub off its color on the doll's face.]
When I finished gently removing the foam ball from inside my S.F.B.J.'s head, I carefully pulled out the crumpled newspaper beneath it. Just seeing the newspaper excited me because I thought back to Silvie's auction for Nanette. To my surprise, after gently unraveling the yellowed newspaper, I saw that it contained articles, all in the French language, about Vietnam and the political journeys by then-French President Georges Pompidou and his wife, Mme. Pompidou, as well as by controversial General Thieu. I sat there on my couch, saying to myself: "Wow! Dateline: SAIGON." Bedazzled, I sat there for another half-hour marveling at -- albeit squinting, because I know little French -- other articles, about a high-profile theft and about sensational murders committed by juvenile delinquents in a Paris suburb. The ads fascinated me, too: one for a fancy wine and another for an academy for horseback riding. There was a section that, like the articles, was clipped off, but I was able to see the weather forecast for that week in the Pyrenees.
The hours-long Internet research that followed my discovery of the balled-up French newspaper yieldled great results: I was able to pin down the French newspaper's publication year to 1973. Unfortunately, nowhere on the soft yet brittle newspaper was its name. Therefore, I have no proof that the newspaper is Parisian, but some of the articles seem to point to it originating in or near the commune of St-Cloud, France.)
While I am happy that I can place my antique doll in the France of 1973, I am dismayed that I might never discover whether her owner at that time was a French resident. If that is the case, I still would not be able to discern whether that resident was the first or second owner of the doll. My questions vary: Was the owner a doll dealer and, if so, of French or American origin? Or, was the owner, back in 1973, a middle-aged woman or an elderly woman who had been gifted the doll when she was a young girl by a relative who had traveled to the French Caribbean prior to 1920? I asked (and still ask) myself the latter question because my 11-inch bisque-head and compo-body S.F.B.J. is Black. She no longer has her factory-original costume, which probably was a colorful number with matching headdress (with lace-hemmed white muslin petticoat), accessorized with glass-beaded earrings and a necklace from which the typical gold-colored cross pendant dangled.
These Black antique S.F.B.J. dolls -- whether possessing obsidian, caramel or cafe au lait complexions -- often were sold on ships as souvenirs from French Caribbean islands. In addition to my antique doll having an adorable facial expression, she won me over the day I bid on her because my maternal grandparents used to bring back souvenir dolls from cruiseships to the Caribbean in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, to me and my female cousins. Those dolls had hard-plastic faces with sleep eyes (and thick, dark eyelashes) and had hard-plastic torsos and arms. Some of the late-1960s and early-1970s dolls had hard-plastic legs and feet, while others had straw dresses without legs and feet under them. Still others were entirely made of straw; those were not my favorites.
No, I loved the HP souvenir beauties wearing pretty scarves wrapped around their heads and, over the scarves, flamboyant straw headdresses topped with plastic fruit such as bananas, grapes and strawberries. I also adored the large faux-gold hoop earrings. As a young gril, I used to call them my "Carmen Miranda dolls," for despite the fact that they were not from islands where Spanish was the main language, I imagined that they would break out into rumba dance routines across the wooden shelves of my hutch.
My sweet bisque-head S.F.B.J., however, the one who now sports her long, thick, black mohair braids with their tiny pink ribbons and is "working" an antique-style, peach-colored dress, is the ancestor -- la bonne-maman -- of those vintage HP dolls that I received as a child. I have named my ebony-eyed doll "Marie-Ange," for she is, after all, an authentically French girl with the face of an angel.