Treasures: A Barbie doll that ages well
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Barbie is a doll with a past. She began life as a German cartoon strip designed for gentlemen. Her character, Bild Lilli, was created by the cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien for the newspaper Bild-Zeitung in 1952. Bild Lilli, was a sexy, sassy blonde. In one cartoon, when a policeman nabs her for illegally wearing a bikini on the street, Lilli responds, "Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?" She was extremely popular and, in 1955, was manufactured as a doll.
The Bild Lilli doll was most definitely not for children. She had big boobs, a red pouty mouth, and eyebrows that made her look like Marlene Dietrich. She came in two sizes, 30 cm and 19 cm, and was marketed to adult men. What they actually did with her is unclear, but she was probably a kind of party joke. The smaller Bild Lilli could be suspended from the rear view mirror of a car, on a little swing. Bild Lilli was a fashion doll. She came dressed, but you could also buy outfits separately. Her clothes reflected 1950s fashions and are now coveted collectors' items. In 2013, a Bild Lilli doll sold for £3,480 (€3,976) at the UK toy auction, Vectis. She came with her stand, and the original miniature copy of the Bild-Zeitung newspaper with which the dolls were sold. Both the doll and her clothes were much copied and one of the ways of identifying original outfits is by the snap fastening, which carry the PRMY brand.
Then, in 1956, the American businesswoman Ruth Handler came to Europe. Married to one of the co-founders of the toy company, Mattel, Handler immediately saw the potential of marketing sexy dolls to little girls. She bought three Bild Lilli dolls: one for her pre-teen daughter Barbara, and two for the designers at Mattel. Using Bild Lilli as a model, Barbie was launched in 1959.
Although mass produced today, Barbie dolls were once precious items, their clothes skilfully made of fine fabrics to reflect the fashions of the time. They're also highly collectible. Barbie dolls dating from the 1960s and early 1970s can sell for anything between €50 and €5,000.
The very first Barbie had a hand-painted or stencilled face with a sultry expression and come-hither eyes. She wore a zebra-striped swimsuit, white sunglasses, gold hoop earrings, and open toe sandals. Like Bild Lilli, she came with a stand and was secured on prongs that went through the holes in her feet. This is one of the ways of identifying the first Barbie doll: she is the only version to have copper tubes in her legs and holes in her feet to fit her stand.
"The No 1 Barbie doesn't come up at auction very often," says Kathy Taylor of Vectis auctioneers. "People don't want to part with them." Depending on condition, and the number of surviving accessories, a No 1 Barbie could sell for up to €5,000.
"The early dolls were finished by hand, their expressions were different, and their clothes were fantastic!" Taylor says. While 196os technology didn't allow for much detail as can be achieved in contemporary plastics, their clothes were made with an extraordinary level of detail. "They were real clothes made in miniature, using superior quality fabrics. Sometimes the clothing can be more valuable than the doll." That said, this is an area of collecting that attracts people who are in it for the love rather than the money, which is never huge. In 2008, a set of Mattel Vintage Barbie Clothing, 1600 Series, rare Poodle Parade, 1965, sold at Vectis for £132 (€151).
Marketed as a "teenage fashion doll", Barbie's clothing changed several times a year. It mirrored what was happening in the real world and, in terms of fashion, the 1960s were exciting times. "Until then, girls just wore what their mothers wore," Taylor explains. The mini skirt, the maxi skirt, jumpsuits, tunics, and neon vinyl coats were big news in the fashion world and Barbie wore them all.
Like most vintage toys, Barbie dolls are more valuable in their original packaging. But, while many toy collectors never remove the toys from their boxes, a substantial number of Barbie collectors like to play with their dolls.
"A lot of collectors desire the clothing and they want to dress the dolls in the clothing."
As the 1960s wore on, Barbie acquired family and friends. Her boyfriend Ken was first produced in 1961 and named after Handler's son. While early Ken dolls are collectible, and have their own wardrobes, they were never as exciting as Barbie. Much more interesting - from a fashion point of view - was Twiggy (produced between 1967 and 1968), the first Mattel doll modelled on a real person.
Real-life Twiggy was, and is, a British cultural icon and she personified the Swinging Sixties. Twiggy-the-doll wore a mini dress with wide vertical stripes in yellow, blue and green, nylon knickers, and yellow boots. Mattel also released four other outfits for her, including a sleeveless metallic mini dress and a knit-topped jumpsuit. Unsurprisingly, she's a popular collectible with fashion designers.
Now, the most collectible Barbies are those issued before 1972. Recently, Barbie dolls have come under fire for their unfeasible anatomy, but Taylor feels that Barbie collectors accept that she has a stylised form.
"Gay men like her, and to me that's a sign of a strong woman."
See vectis.co.uk and dollreference.com
In the Salerooms
Nobody could paint horses like Jack B Yeats. There's a fine example in de Vere's Irish Art Auction, which takes place at the Royal College of Physicians, No 6 Kildare Street, on April 17 at 6pm. The watercolour, Downpatrick Head, Ballycastle, Co Mayo, (above) was first exhibited in 1910. It shows a rider in a broad-brimmed hat passing under an archway with the windswept landscape behind him. The painting is estimated to sell for between €15,000 and €20,000. Other remarkable paintings in the sale include Daniel O'Neill's The Black Rocks of Tyrella (c 1955), a powerful, spooky beachscape with light breaking through the clouds over a lonely cottage (est €8,000 to €12,000). Of similar vintage, Gerard Dillon's Cloak and Cupboard (c 1957) shows the interior of the artist's flat in Abbey Road, London (est €4,000 to €6,000). The paintings will be on view at 35 Kildare Street, April 14 to 17. See deveres.ie.
Diamonds came up trumps at Sheppard's Classic Convergences auction, which took place in Durrow, Co Laois, on March 13 and 14. The top lots in the sale were: a white gold and diamond (27.69 carat) necklace, which sold for €38,000; a pair of white gold diamond (6.12 carat) stud earrings fetched €36,000; a platinum and diamond (3.87 carat) solitaire ring (€34,000); and a yellow gold three- stone diamond (3.53 carat) ring (€16,000). Among the furniture in the sale, a 19th-century mahogany and marquetry Carlton House desk (c1890) sold for €10,000. It was of a type supposedly designed in the 18th century by the cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite for the Prince of Wales (later George IV of England) and is named after his London home. See sheppards.ie.
A hexaptych (that's a painting in six parts) by Louis le Brocquy doubled its lower estimate to sell for €80,000 at Whyte's sale of Irish and International Art on February 26. The painting, Reaching. Homage to John Montague (1968) was one of a series of portraits that Montague, who was a poet, described in a catalogue essay as "manscapes". Image of Samuel Beckett (1994), also by le Brocquy, sold for €27,000, exceeding its estimate of €15,000 to €20,000. The painting is part of le Brocquy's Heads series, initially inspired by Polynesian objects. Paul Henry's Landscape, West of Ireland (c 1915-1918) fetched €80,000, while Old Men Bathing (1922) by Jack B Yeats sold for €50,000 (see whytes.ie).
Antiques & Vintage Fairs
The next AVA Antique & Collectors Fair takes place on Easter Monday in Hugh McCann's, Newcastle, Co Down. No furniture but expect plenty of smaller items: jewellery, porcelain, silver, vintage lamps, clocks, glass, books, curios, coins and banknotes. The fair runs from 11am to 6pm and entry is £2.