Sunnyvale, Calif. — More than a quarter-million American adults play with dolls. But these dolls are antiques worth sometimes thousands of dollars. Dolls have been a part of almost every civilization, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece and among the Aztecs, but those dolls, considered antiquities, are found in only a few private collections. The dolls most often sought today are products of the post-Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, beginning in 1840.
Early in September $15,400 was paid here for a 110-year-old bisque doll made in 1870 by Casimir Bru of France, one of Europe's leading 19th-century dollmakers.
It should be no surprise that today -- when Americans and others are looking for a hedge against inflation -- dolls as collectibles with rising values are outpaced only by stamps and coins.
The French Bru doll, wearing original brown leather shoes signed "Bru Jne Paris," was the central attraction at an auction here of some 500 very old, unusual, and collectible dolls. The two-day auction, the first ever held in the San Francisco Bay Area, attracted more than 500 spectators and a world's record 170 bids on opening day. Usually, about 130 bids are entered.
Exact figures on the number of doll collectors in the United States are hard to come by. But Florence Theriault, a world authority on antique dolls, says that "anyone who buys a doll, except as a toy for a child, can be considered a collector. A collection can be one doll, or hundreds."
Mrs. Theriault and her husband, George, doing business as Auctions by Theriault, with headquarters in Waverley, Pa., say they own the world's only firm specializing solely in antique and collectible dolls. Since 1977, when they turned the focus of their antique business to dolls, the Theriaults have averaged some 10 public auctions a year. More than 95 percent of the dolls they auction were made in the years from 1840 to 1940.
"The phenomenon of doll collecting," Mr. Theriault says, "is that it has more than kept pace with inflation." But he has a word of caution for would-be collectors: "A wise collector learns about a doll's price history, sticks within a budget, and buys dolls that she or he would truly love to own."
He also notes that many old porcelain dolls fall into the category of art, "having been manufactured by top European artists and costumed by the leading couturiers of their time."
In each auction by the Theriaults there are usually about 500 dolls, and in their three years as leading doll auctioneers, around 5,000 a year have been auctioned. A really high price, though, is not the usual thing.
Generaly, bids range between $50 and $100 and the total inventory for each auction is between $150,000 and $200,000 in value.
The Theriaults note that the high prices are commanded "by certain dolls with prestigious pedigrees -- those, for instance, with identifying marks indicating they were made by such leading European dollmakers as Bru, Jumeau, and Schmitt in France, and in Germany by Kestner and the firm of Kammer & Reinhardt."
Not all bids at Theriault auctions are by voice. Sealed bids are numerous, sometimes 40 percent of all bids entered. Such is the reputation of the firm that dolls have been bought under sealed bids by collectors in Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Canada, and England.
"Collectors know that we have never bought or sold dolls for our own account, " Mr. Theriault said. "Every doll is on consignment from an owner. Our fee is 25 percent of the price paid for the doll."
In the auction held here, a collection of dolls owned by Mrs. Leah Parkhurst of Lyons Falls, N.Y., was a major attraction. The Parkhurst lot was a collection of dolls designed by members of the National Institute of American Doll Artists.
In advance of each auction, the Theriaults prepare a comprehensive catalog, giving minute details of each doll to be auctioned and a photograph. Descriptions are guaranteed for accuracy, so that absentee bidders have full confidence that what they bid on successfully is what they will receive. Also, mailers go to collectors giving them details of the outstanding dolls to be auctioned.
Florence Theriault hopes that people "will look into their closets, attics, and old trunks for forgotten dolls. They may turn out to be of special value. Antique dolls are part of our historic and artistic heritage and should be preserved."
For anyone who may have an old doll, one way to determine its maker and possible value is to check the back of the head, where markings are to be found. and never discard an old doll without checking.