My chance meeting of a black doll collector
I met Diane for the first time a couple years ago at my first doll auction. My auction buddy Janet and I had driven to an auction house not far from Philadelphia that was having one of its special sales of vintage dolls, clothing, body parts, books and a lot of everything else.
Besides Janet and me, Diane was the only other African American in the room, and she was buying black dolls. She wasn’t having an easy time of it, though. There were several other people in the room who were outbidding her on many of the black dolls that she wanted.
I was curious, and wanted to know more about both her and her collection. At the time, she willingly obliged to tell me the history behind her 20 years of collecting.
Since that time, I’ve encountered Diane at several other sales at this auction house, where she has consigned some of her dolls. At one of those auctions, a friend bought a pair of cloth dolls that had been a part of her collection. Click on the photo above for a full view of the Saralee doll.
Today, I’m re-posting her story in its original Q&A format. It is part of a series of blog posts on black dolls and their collectors. If you collect black dolls or know someone who does, please let me know. I’d love to write about them and their collection. If you have any doll memories, please share those, too.
Did you grow up with a lot of dolls?
Yes, I did grow up with dolls. My mother was an excellent seamstress so she made clothes for my dolls. Unfortunately, very few were black.
You’ve been collecting for 20 years, tell me how you got started?
Actually, in my late 30s an employer who I was not having a good relationship with told another acquaintance that I looked like a “Black China Doll” and because I had no idea what she meant by that, I set out to find one and she was my first doll I purchased for myself as an adult.
How did you acquire it?
The first Black China Doll was a Schmid 1984. I purchased her at a gift shop. She does not have a name on her hang tag, but she is a musical “Black China Doll.”
How many dolls do you have in your collection and how do you store them?
I have approximately 350-400 dolls. I have four large curios with dolls, also, some on shelving in my office and in the family room, a few in each room of the house and the rest stored in the attic and closets.
What’s the oldest doll that you have? When was it made?
I have a bisque head, five piece composition doll made in Germany in the very early 1900s. Perkins values her at over $500. (Myla Perkins wrote the definitive guide on black-doll values and collecting.)
You only collect older black dolls? Why?
I prefer older black dolls, but, no, I have many modern dolls. For example, I have all of the Byron Lars series of high fashion Barbies.
Do you have a certain criteria for collecting dolls?
I went through a period where every black doll I saw I purchased, at thrift stores, flea markets and auctions. I call it my “Rescue them period.” Ebay has been a source for finding dolls. However, I do try now to buy dolls with markings, copyright dates, etc. While I have some historic handmade dolls as they represent a rich part of the history of doll making and collecting, I do favor dolls in their original clothing and well painted dolls. I have many books on black dolls but my favorites and most helpful are “Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991″ and “Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide Book II,” both by Myla Perkins.
If I see a doll that I am interested in purchasing, I check these and other reference books before purchasing.
You were interested in a Terri Lee doll. Why the interest in that doll?
Jackie Ormes, the first African American female cartoonist, drew a character called Patty-Jo. For a few years in the late 1940s, she had a contract with the Terri Lee Doll Co. to create Patty-Jo dolls. It took me two years to find an authentic Patty-Jo painted by Jackie Ormes and now she is a highly valued member of my collection.
Were there other dolls at the auction that you bought?
Yes, I had three successful bids. I considered their uniqueness, condition and price.
Where do you usually buy your dolls from?
I collect Shindana dolls (black-owned doll company in late 1960) and I found one for $4 at a thrift store. Also, three highly prized Phillip Heath dolls each having an original price of $5,000 or more I purchased a few years ago at auction for a really great price. Also, Saralee Negro doll (endorsed) by Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amosandra, the baby from the Amos and Andy Show I found on eBay at reasonable prices. (A Saralee doll is in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY.)
Is there one doll you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to find?
I am interested in purchasing the following black dolls:
Have you had your collection appraised?
No, I have not had my collection officially appraised.
What drives you to collect dolls?
My collecting black dolls mirrors my extant and continually emerging interest in the portrayal of black women in the media. Early dolls cast black females in the roles of mammy, servant – frequently with grotesque, unflattering images. Or black dolls were made from the same mold as white dolls, only painted brown or black. I am very interested in the early dolls with ethnic features that show the true beauty of black females.
You said that you’re ready to weed out your collection. Why?
I’m concerned that so many of my dolls are in closets and the attic. So I would like to limit my collection to the top 100 or so. However, I do not want to commission them and watch them sold for pennies on a dollar, so I’ll probably hold on to them. However, I am interested in participating in a networking cohort of black doll collectors. I am working on a database that lists all of the dolls I currently own.
Read the other blog posts in this series: