What My Grandparents’ Collection of Cursed Antique Dolls Taught Me About Valuation

"The gang is all here." Here lurking in my basement, that is.
The gang is all here.... Here lurking in my basement, that is.

If you ever stroll by my family’s booth at the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market in New Milford, Connecticut, you’ll be greeted by an uncommon sight for this day and age: several folding tables packed with rows and rows of antique dolls.

Some are propped up individually on fragile wire stands, while others are set down and sprawled about in groups.

Some are in mint condition, while others are far from whole (missing original eye(s), arm(s), hair, etc.).

To most modern eyes, these once-treasured toys are nothing short of nightmare fuel.

I mean:

That said, the dolls also induce a strong sense of nostalgia for those who played with them in the past. And this means that there’s a fairly strong cohort of collectors who find them irresistible.

I’m not in this position by choice: my maternal grandparents were part of this passionate group, and when they left this world their amalgamation of oddities was bestowed upon my parents.

Now, we are faced with the daunting task of sorting through it all and finding new homes for each item. We’ve moved three times to this day, and the stuff has come with us each time — not in the back of a moving truck, but in piecemeal trips made by my father and I.

Though each doll does not need its own seatbelt, these trips have always been taken with preservation in mind.

To give you an idea of how much we actually have, the entire inventory takes up about 2,000 square feet in the form of doll districts that proliferate in the garages, sheds, barns, nooks, and crannies of our life.

What My Grandparents' Collection of Cursed Antique Dolls Taught Me About Valuation - Invest Vegan
“Oops.” – My face when I forget to upload monthly performance stats to our site.

We do occasionally indulge in “getting high on our own supply” – scooping up an antique for our own personal use if it so happens to charm us. These acquisitions — alongside some free history lessons — are my favorite features of this strange business.

My First Contact with Markets and Valuation

I was once a pre-teen tagalong while my parents who frequented these flea markets and doll shows. And back then, the pricing behind antiques was more or less a mystery.

I thought that old was equivalent to expensive, so to me this stuff was essentially gold.

I’d watch dolls, toys, and dollars exchange hands quicker than the cryptocoins were selling off when FTX collapsed.

Fast-forward to today: an environment in which making a sale is much more difficult, and as mentioned earlier, one where most folks will take a look at our wares, mumble something along the lines of “ha, creepy” and simply shuffle along to the next booth.

In the event that we do find ourselves in a position to sell a doll, there’s an obvious question: what’s it worth?

And it’s tricky, to say the least.

Because dolls are not securities. They have no future cash flows for us to discount. They’re just art, which means their value is strictly a function of what people are willing to pay.

The preface to Expectations Investing — which Sloane put on my desk as part of my training — discusses how investing differs from art collecting:

“Why is one painting worth millions of dollars and another worth a few hundred?” Bernstein asks. Even in a book as prescriptive as Expectations Investing, we learn that “No calculations can answer that question; the owner merely hopes that another art collector will step up to justify today’s selling price at some point in the future.” So is it all just up in the air?

Peter Bernstein, Preface to Expectations Investing, P. XII

At the time of writing, an antique Bebe Jumeau French doll sits up for bid on eBay at just $31. Simultaneously, an antique Tete Jumeau French doll in better-off shape is priced at a whopping $5,400.

That’s quite a difference between the two, and I wonder if anyone will ever pay that $5,400.

Though condition (i.e the extent to which a doll shows its age) is an important factor in valuation, and can often explain stark differences in price like the example above, there are several other considerations which should not be disregarded.

Specifically:

  • Scarcity,
  • Provenance,
  • Venue,
  • Insurance or “book” value,
  • And the collector profile.

Careful study of these won’t produce a formula for valuing dolls or any other antique for that matter.

Instead, they offer an x-ray of my brain activity and the item-specific idiosyncrasies that are effectively summarized into the price of each doll.

This shows how convoluted the valuation of anything can really be.

I’ve been in plenty of situations where a “top-tier” doll, according to historical pricing and the framework I used, should have sold for exponentially higher than it actually did. These same considerations apply to any antique, and often influence the price of other assets (including stocks).

Let’s examine each of them in more detail.

Condition of the Antique

Condition is a function of many factors: storage method, being played with or displayed throughout the years, original material, and of course, age.

Storage method and original material sometimes go hand in hand: for example, a bisque doll like the French ones described earlier are best stored facedown if they have glass eyes. Fluorescent lights also turn dolls green, which obviously damages and devalues them.

The original material can also create vast deviations in condition, value, and price.

For example, French and German dolls of the early 1800s were made of papier-mâché. Untinted Bisque, a delicate and more adult-oriented material came about later, and tends to increase value today. These untinted pieces were made with the intention of being objets d’art, and can possess extraordinary details.

Both materials are quite fragile and volatile, but unique in their own ways.

Any doll from the 1800s, unless preserved by a line of meticulous folks who never took it out for a tea party would likely be in worse condition today than a 20th century reproduction.

Generally speaking, collectors prefer their pieces to be as close to mint condition as possible. The newer it looks, the more you can typically try to ask.

However, there are always exceptions – one gentleman comes to our table looking for parts he can use in rehabbing disheveled dollies. We call him the “arm guy”.

What My Grandparents' Collection of Cursed Antique Dolls Taught Me About Valuation - Invest Vegan
This doll’s chipped eyes either speak of all the fun it once had or the neglect it suffered. But they also bring its financial value down quite a bit.

Scarcity of the Antique

Perhaps the second easiest concept to understand is that of scarcity.

There aren’t many antique dolls which were produced with the intention of being “rare” today. However, a variety of factors can surround a doll with an authentic (or synthetic) sense of scarcity.

The first step in establishing this is to identify the antique. There is usually a maker’s mark or other identifiers on the tags if clothing is present. Once proper identification is accomplished, the internet is your most valuable resource in determining whether or not an antique is scarce.

Some key questions you should ask yourself include:

  • When was the last time a comparable doll was sold online? What price did it realize?
  • Are there any other examples for sale today?
  • Have I browsed/engaged with various forums and/or contacted my network to see if this is a sought-after or scarce piece?

The list could go on and on, but hopefully these spark some ideas – at risk of seeming repetitive, this certainly isn’t a science.

Provenance of the Antique

The chronology of ownership, or provenance, of an item can offer great transparency into it’s origin, authenticity, and even its scarcity.

Isn’t it interesting how the different considerations keep overlapping?

A doll with a detailed, documented provenance will typically fetch a higher price than a doll without. However, like in any form of art, forgeries can and do exist. I’ve never come across a fake, but have heard stories of them existing (and fooling unsuspecting collectors).

A counterfeit or fake is not to be confused with a reproduction, which was created to resemble its older counterpart but not fool anyone into thinking it is truly older.

In my experience, reproductions have somewhat “flooded” the market and had a negative impact on the value of true antiques. Folks have also knowingly and unknowingly passed off reproductions as originals.

Venue of the Antique

There are an overwhelming amount of avenues where one can sell these, including flea markets, true “doll shows”, eBay, and word of mouth. The last two are not concrete physical venues, but interestingly enough account for a large share of sales volume.

The concept of venue and how it relates to valuation can be usefully simplified: one would likely have an easier time selling umbrellas at a sunny beach than on a ski slope.

The same can be said in this business. Doll shows tend to garner higher demand than a standard flea market – which subsequently allows asking prices to come in higher at the former. But they come with higher costs for dealers like us, and offer no guarantee of a great day of sales.

There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to venue, though, and we’ve been able to get rid of some high profile ($500+) dolls after meeting a dedicated collector through another client. High profile collectors will often show up at standard flea markets too.

Insurance/Book Value of the Antique

The 16th Blue Book of Dolls (we actually lost our copy) is a prime example of a source that provides uniform guidance from a market expert(s) on insurance or “book” value.

This metric can also be thought of as the “replacement cost” of a doll.

However, in 2020, one reviewer said the Book was “a little outdated for true values”. To further this point, another reviewer from 2013 said that “Due to ongoing fluctuations in realized online auction prices, the Blue Book values are no longer firm, but still serve as general guides for comparative pricing.”

What My Grandparents' Collection of Cursed Antique Dolls Taught Me About Valuation - Invest Vegan
This is a great example of very outdated pricing. I’d feel like a grifter if I got $325 for a doll missing all of their limbs and outfit, and I’d be shocked if a piece like this could be sold for $100 in today’s market.

It’s also important to emphasize again that the Blue Book (or any other similar source) can say one thing about price, but as art, value innately stems from what the next purchaser/collector is willing to pay.

The key phrase here is “realized price.” Blue Book can only indicate value, not determine it.

For what it’s worth, this is also true of prices in the stock market. When we have our monthly rebalance meetings, Sloane often says that we must respect market movements, but also resist allowing them to define our understanding of a security’s true value.

The Antique’s Collector Profile

The Collector Profile is my own concept that has had a profound impact on my valuation of dolls.

You might be wondering why I haven’t discussed the plain old concept of demand yet (which is super clever of you), and I’ll explain why.

I believe that in valuing dolls, demand is just one component that makes up the entire collector profile. It is an important consideration, but does not outweigh the concept as a whole.

Let us consider a “perfect storm” scenario: a collector plans to attend a show in advance, and they budget several thousand dollars for the show. They end up finding their “grail” doll, which also happens to be in mint condition – I’d have a tough time believing that the seller of this hypothetical antique wouldn’t be able to fetch a relatively high price.

But this collector profile would be a poor match if the same seller was looking to liquidate a box of spare arms and eyes. They’d be better off looking for a horror film prop director or creepy decoration aficionado. Or maybe even Arm Guy.

While the collector profile applies to individuals, it applies to the doll-market on a broader scale: if a unique collector profile doesn’t exist for the specific doll in question, that piece will NEVER attain its true maximum value.

Further, someone with a desire to purchase it may never come along. It could sit in the Ahmed doll depot indefinitely, effectively worthless even to our cats.

It’s a very real concern in today’s market, since nostalgic elders — the key drivers of past market activity — are starting to move on.

Will a new pool of buyers ever come in and take their place?

Some Final Thoughts

Assets come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the considerations that affect their value. And if no one actually comes along with a desire to own the asset, does it have any worth at all?

Over the coming years, I’m fairly certain that one of our clients will find themselves in possession of other obscure antiques. They might even be weird dolls, in which case this article will be particularly salient. If you find yourself in a position where you wish to sell them, I hope this series of considerations provides a starting point to do so.

If not, I hope the “x-ray of my brain when valuing a doll” goes to demonstrate just how intricate the difference between price and value really is.

As always, drop a line if you want to chat about dolls, stocks, or life! We love to hear from you.

What My Grandparents' Collection of Cursed Antique Dolls Taught Me About Valuation - Invest Vegan
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Author

  • Gabe Ahmed

    Gabe graduated from St. John's University in 2020 with a degree in economics (and a minor in ancient studies). Shortly after, he began his career at Amazon where he launched and managed a new sortation center. He then had a stint at a financial technology recruitment firm, consulting for buy-side shops in New York City. When he is not studying for the Series 65 exam, Gabe can probably be found becoming one with nature, or looking for the next cat to adopt. He also enjoys volunteering his time to Piece of Heaven Project and Fizzy Bean sanctuary.

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