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When Mattel launched Barbie in 1959, few could have predicted she would go on to become a household name, synonymous with fashion, success and… controversy. For creator Ruth Handler it was about designing a doll who could “make her own choices”, break glass ceilings (her careers include astronaut, president and CEO) and inspire girls everywhere. But by the 1970s her unrealistic body proportions and lack of diversity were attracting fierce criticism. Mattel responded, first with Hispanic and black Barbie in 1980, and most recently with curvy Barbie, vitiligo Barbie and Barbie in a wheelchair. Today the 11½in-high style icon is as popular as ever, with sales worth $1.35bn over the pandemic.
For serious Barbie collectors it’s the early versions that are most coveted. Paul Lawson, a London entrepreneur with, by his guess, “probably the best Barbie collection in the UK”, boasts the holy grail: a first-edition Barbie known among collectors as “ponytail number one”. Porcelain white (the early coloured vinyl faded in the sun) with heavy kohl liner and a red cupid’s bow pout, she came wearing a zebra-print swimsuit, high heels, gold hoop earrings and sunglasses. Lawson paid £8,500 for her in 2010 (she originally retailed for $3) – a bargain when you consider that in 2006 a similar NRFB (collector-speak for “never removed from box”) example sold for $27,450 through Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic in California.
“The 1950s and ’60s were a very exciting period for fashion in America, and these dolls reflect that,’ says Lawson. “I’m a purist, so I’m mainly interested in the pre-1972 Barbies, made in Japan. Their outfits were inspired by Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor.” Also coveted are the super-rare 1966 Barbie American Girl Doll Side Part (ie whose hair was styled in a side parting; at the time of writing one is listed on eBay for $4,999), early Bubble Cut dolls with bobbed hair (a 1961 blonde version in excellent condition is available for $649 on Etsy), and anything that was a Japanese exclusive (JE). US dealers Marl & B are selling a JE kimono outfit for $1,595.
“Barbie was very beautifully and intricately dressed compared to the other dolls of the time,” says Kathy Taylor, a doll valuer at UK-based Vectis Auctions. “It was haute couture in miniature, and that was exciting.” One such outfit, a blue taffeta bubble dress with rabbit-fur stole, entitled Gay Parisienne, is available through US dealer Joe Blitman. “People always want the stuff that’s hard to find, and things that are glamorous and or sophisticated tend to do better in the long run,” says Blitman, who also has a rare 1966 Color Magic gift set in “Christmas morning new” condition (ie still in its original cellophane). Both are priced at $6,500.
“When I first started I was a completist, but I soon realised I should just buy what I love,” says Julian Kalinowski, a Dover-based doll-maker and owner of a 200-strong collection. Blitman concurs: “Don’t let other people tell you what you want. You don’t get a bonus for having every doll in a series.” Lawson also warns against dolls with signs of green ear, a discolouration caused by brass earrings that can prove “disastrous”.
Californian teacher Laura Maar, who has been collecting Barbie since she was three, lists her “number threes” among her favourites, which have a “softer look” than the number one, and Barbie’s “best friend” Midge, a Japanese version which she acquired for $4,500 at the annual 2017 Barbie convention in Houston. Maar’s Instagram, like many Barbie fan accounts, plays out daily dioramas. “What’s not to love about Barbie?” she laughs. “She’s got it all: the dreamhouse, the cars, 200-plus careers and, true to her feminist streak, she never actually married Ken.”
Rooms dedicated to collections are common among superfans, but while many preserve their dolls in boxes, Blitman, like Maar, prefers to handle his, creating centrepieces for dinner parties and displaying them: “They are as emblematic of the ’60s as any Eames chair.”
Not all collectors are vintage enthusiasts, though. Marc Bentzen of Bentzen’s Emporium mainly imports new, specialist Barbies from the US, although he will track down a vintage doll on request. “I have clients who spend £1,000 a month on Barbie,” he says. Some of these newer dolls are already proving their worth, such as the heavily decorated 2019 Dia de Muertos doll that first retailed for $75 but after a rapturous response can now command up to $1,000, or the limited-edition 2003 Marie Antoinette likeness, originally around $350, but now asking almost £2,000 on eBay.
Clare Rawling, a vintage-film-poster dealer, rediscovered her love of Barbie during lockdown and has spent £3,500 to date: “I began re-buying the ones I had as a child in the 1990s, but soon a whole new world opened up and I’m now collecting all decades for fun as well as investment.” Top of her wishlist? The iconic 1992 Totally Hair Barbie – Mattel’s bestselling doll, and €189 on eBay. “I’m just waiting for one to show up in the UK,” she says. NRFB? “Of course!”