How to identify antique dolls
Knowing how to identify antique dolls could mean the difference between trash and a treasure
For some people, the ideal feminine look boasts sparkling eyes, pink cheeks, a rosebud mouth, and softly curling hair.
For others, it’s a glassy stare, crackling skin, fading lips, and a slightly ratty mohair wig.
And if you know how to identify antique dolls, you’re probably a fan of the latter.
After all, if you were the one who found the Albert Marque doll that sold for $200,000 at a United Federation of Doll Collectors convention, you’d be a pretty big fan of that aged look, wouldn’t you?
Antique dolls are widely prized, as anyone who’s ever watched The Antiques Roadshow knows. And many people have grandma’s old doll collection lurking in the attic, gathering dust and gaining ever more crazing in their porcelain cheeks.
And yes, crazing – those fine lines you see in old china – is actually valuable because it’s an excellent indicator of age. The glaze on porcelain expands and contracts from temperature changes differently than does the porcelain itself, which is what leads to those “cracks.”
The older a porcelain doll is, the more likely it’s lived through decades before efficient modern air conditioning and heating, leading to extreme temperature changes and ever more crazing. Thus: A perfect indicator of age.
But aging porcelain isn’t the only thing to look for in examining Granny’s baby doll. Antique dolls are made from porcelain, bisque (unglazed porcelain), wood, leather, metal, ceramic, cloth, papier maché, and composition (a material composed of sawdust, glue, and other materials such as cornstarch, resin and wood flour).
And hair can be a mohair wig, genuine human hair, fur, or painted on. Eyes are made of glass or painted on, and they can be either fixed or “sleepy,” meaning they open and shut when the doll is moved, or even sleepy eyes that have been “plastered,” or glued in place.
How to identify antique dolls of all kinds
It’s all of those characteristics and more that go into identifying dolls – and once you identify the doll, it’s not hard to get a value for it, either by researching recent sales online or by paying someone to appraise it for you.
The problem with the things we value as antiques, of course, is that many manufacturers didn’t give thought to the idea that their wares would one day become prized as antiques, and didn’t bother marking their products.
But for those dolls that are marked, that’s the first thing to look for: It will be found on the back of the head, on the torso or on the bottom of the doll’s foot. Any letters, numbers, or symbols could be part of the doll manufacturer mark or even a mold number.
There are many doll resources against which you can check the mark. One of the best is dollreference.com, where the information is organized by mark, country of origin, type of body, type of doll (baby doll or advertising doll, for example), and alphabetically by manufacturer. Don't forget to look for paper labels or labels on the doll’s clothing, too.
Once you’ve exhausted the search for a mark, you’re left with the doll itself. You want to look for the following:Style
Porcelain dolls were first created in France and Germany around 1800. At first, dolls were designed to look like women. It was only later that dolls became children.
Very early dolls in the 19th century have lifelike faces, as it was the trend at the time for designers to model dolls after their own children. In the 1930s-1950s the Shirley Temple doll was wildly popular and made by many companies, and a doll with a Shirley Temple face is instantly recognizable to a devoted collector.
As mentioned above, crazing on a porcelain doll is a good sign. Other signs of age are faded and dull colors, as well as loss of hair. The condition of the body actually contributes to the value of the doll. Look for an original body in good condition that still has its original patina. Restored dolls, or dolls with replaced parts, are worth less than original-condition dolls.
Early antique dolls are made either in whole or part of porcelain. In later styles, mainly the head would be made of porcelain, and remaining body parts would be made of other materials listed above.
In an antique porcelain doll, the head, neck, and shoulders were made in one mold. You can identify genuine porcelain by touching it to your teeth where you will feel that the porcelain is hard and cold. You should also see holes near the shoulders, which were used to sew the head to the body.
You will also see different materials used for the hands and feet. Finally, if you remove the doll’s hair, you’ll often find a hole cut into the doll’s head, which again indicates an early doll.
Other dolls have bisque heads. Because it’s unglazed, bisque has a matte finish that was often lightly tinted on the cheeks. A doll with even a hairline crack in the bisque head is worth significantly less than an undamaged head.
Remove the wig, if any, and shine a light through the head to look for cracks. Also check glass eyes for chips or cracks. Also note also the condition of the eye wax and the lashes if any. Examine the mouth, teeth, and lips, and look for any signs of deterioration or restoration.
Type of eyes
A porcelain doll with painted eyes – usually light blue, but occasionally black or brown – generally indicates it was made before 1870. After that time, porcelain dolls were given inset glass eyes that are fixed.
Another clue is big round eyes with a sideways glance, which was popular in the early 20th century.
Identifying antique dolls using their accessories
Condition and the other factors already discussed will have a heavy impact on the value of a doll. But there is more to consider, like your doll’s hairstyle and attire:
Types of hair
Most antique dolls have painted hair in shades of black, brown, or blonde. It was believed that red was an unlucky color! If you find a doll with a wig made from mohair or human hair, it’s probably an antique German doll.
Because few antique dolls still have their original clothing, the value of the ones that do is much greater. The clothes on an antique doll should have signs of dust and occasional signs of fading, and if they’re replacements, they should at least be style- and size-appropriate for the doll. Modern fasteners such as Velcro® are the kiss of death.
Skilled doll appraisers can identify a manufacturer by the size and shape of snaps or buttons, tags, dress length and waist size.
All of these details can be clues to even an unmarked doll. Of course, there are literally thousands of antique dolls in the world today that remain unidentified. Luckily, a skilled appraiser can help, often relying on unique characteristics of bisque molding, for instance, or the paint style used on the face.
If you don’t know how to identify antique dolls yourself, of course, the professional appraisers at JustAnswer are always available to help you find that doll worth six figures! All you need are some good photos and an Internet connection!