My Life in Collections: Travel Dolls, Age 7

Practicing adulthood through the things I collected during my childhood.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

GUEST: The lady who had it at the antique shop said that a 90-year-old woman had had it in her closet forever. She just kept it for display purposes and she was getting older and she didn’t want it anymore so she put it out on consignment.

APPRAISER: Okay, did you think it was old? Did you have an idea that it might be?

GUEST: Well, I took the lady for her word that she had it forever, she bought it original, and I just said, “Well, I like the doll.” I just fell in love with her. I thought she was cute.

APPRAISER: Well that’s good, because that’s the main focus of collecting: you should always collect what you like regardless of what it’s worth. That said, I just want to point out a few things…

— From “Antiques Roadshow,” episode 202; Timothy Luke appraises a Shirley Temple doll bought for $90 but worth $5.

When I was a kid, my dad was an internal auditor for a petroleum company. I had no idea what that meant. In fairness, not many adults know either. It’s a job title that evokes the image of a tax accountant, but a job that’s more like George Smiley’s molehunt in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He tracked down embezzlers, insider trading, and information security holes; before most people had personal computers, he talked about encryption strength at dinner…sometimes. If you could draw him out. More often, his answer to “how was work” was, “it was work.”

I don’t think he worried disclosing to me would be a security risk; more that his day-to-day tasks involved calculations that wouldn’t make much sense to a 7-year-old. For instance, I didn’t fully grasp what he meant when he said some numbers were suspiciously non-random until I was 19 and studying the kind of calculus that underlies electrical engineering. And it took maybe another decade of reading about geopolitics to understand that some of his business trips — say, to Sierra Leone in the late ‘80s — were probably not polite office visits, and may have involved flying around in armed helicopters to verify that assets and employees were safe (or definitely gone) after, for instance, a raid by diamond smugglers.

As a kid, I figured his job was grading other people’s math worksheets. I mean, he double-checked my math worksheets. It was not out of the question for him to wear a tweed jacket. Maybe (definitely) when there was some downtime, he and his team played vector-graphic games on the office LAN. (I loved his office, which despite its ominous black-and-wood ‘80s surfaces had a hot chocolate machine and whiteboards with many shades of dry-erase marker.)

The life of an auditor involves a lot of travel (to check that things are where you’ve been told they are, and that security procedures everyone swears are in common use are in fact in common use). From the time I was 7 until I was nearly 10, most of Dad’s travel was international — and I got to tag along for some of it, or for vacations partly financed with frequent flier miles. In short order, I transformed from a girl who played with dolls to a girl who played with dolls but also had a hands-off international doll collection.

Collection Two: International Dolls

Most active: Ages 7–9. Last accession: Age 16.

My mom’s family is a doll family. Not in any sort of professional doll-factory-owning capacity, or even a cat-fancy level of obsession. But if there’s a museum exhibit that involves dolls or dollhouses, everyone’s going to go, and maybe keep the brochure to browse at home. In situations where another family might discuss catwalk trends or what movies are out, my mom’s family is more apt to debate the best way to make any good thing smaller and more ornate. Other people browse real estate listings and imagine buying a house. We imagine fitting one in a matchbox.

Anyway, I’ve always had dolls that mirrored my age at the time, something on which my mom insisted. She thought they’d help me roleplay scenarios in which I might find myself, and not incidentally let me practice sewing and patternmaking without using too much fabric. (My mom and grandma both had side gigs as costumers.) My mom had a lot of ideas about child development which seem thoroughly reasonable to me, but I’m not the best judge.

Although my memory is spotty, I’m pretty sure the impulse toward international doll collection originated with my mom. By that I don’t mean “runs in the family” — I mean I suspect mom said, “you should have an international doll collection,” and then I did — a diverse arrangement of dolls brought home from Portugal, Holland, Mexico, Egypt, usually made by local craftspeople and wearing traditional costume. When I was a member of the expedition, I chose the doll (which my parents bankrolled). If my mom was on the trip but I wasn’t, she chose. When Dad flew solo, the decision fell to him. Describing this process — especially since the dolls were displayed in the parlor, not my bedroom — it sure sounds like a family collection; all I can say is it’s mine in the same way a birthday present is yours once it’s given to you.

In theory, the collection is still open to new additions, but I think the last doll I acquired was a delicate porcelain woman in red Hanfu, playing a hand drum. Dad brought her back from China when I was 16. (I was a percussionist.) Not long after that, Dad switched to a job that kept him closer to home and I left for college. The dolls stayed in their glass cabinet in the sitting room. Buying more on my own has never seemed as fun.

Theory of Adulthood:

I liked my dolls because they helped me imagine my dad in far-off lands, talking with smart people from around the world to solve problems. When I started my collection, Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t on the air yet, but Super Friends and She-Ra were, and they were consistent in their representation of ideal adulthood: group of humans in ornate distinctive clothing combine powers to rescue the city, then relax by chatting about their surprising backgrounds.

My dolls represented the real-world equivalent. Here was a Hawaiian woman dancing in a comfortably baggy muumuu instead of ballerina spandex. Here was a bearded Greek man in a pleated mini-dress and pom-pom shoes, which meant he was an elite soldier, not a clown. Here was a soft Egyptian rag doll with an embroidered shawl to cover her hair; she looked nothing like an angular bob-cut hieroglyphic. (If you’re curious, the U.S. was represented by the Hawaiian, a katsina figure, a brown rabbit dressed as a colonial Virginian, and a Princess Leia shampoo bottle.)

In other words, my dolls were a hero team who provided silent testimony that media stereotypes didn’t do the best job of conveying global cultural signifiers. I figured we were on a non-stop trajectory toward greater international openness and free movement of people between countries. After all, my two best friends at the time were Israeli and Japanese, I was American, and we all lived in England. Flights kept getting cheaper. The Soviet Union was in the middle of glasnost. There was this thing called the Internet, and it seemed promising.

I reckoned cultural traditions and aesthetics would stay resilient — they had for centuries — but national borders would not, except as they pertained to customs agents. I don’t know why I found the free movement of labor more likely than the free movement of goods, but I did. At a guess, it’s because I knew people were adaptable in a way inanimate objects are not.

Economic Theses Explored:

Because I was known to be a doll collector and an above-grade reader, I was sometimes given catalogs and trade magazines for adult hobbyists. These tended to be investment-focused; I remember lists of what various (to my eyes ugly) antique dolls had recently sold for, and tips for identifying “diamonds in the rough” at yard sales.

The idea that my dolls might someday be sold for a profit was ludicrous to me. They were dolls. They came from shops full of hundreds of dolls. Most of them were handmade, but I couldn’t tell you by whom. They had no historical importance outside their role as biographical mementos. Sure, I was fastidious about keeping them in pristine condition, but not with an eye to resale value. I was a fastidious kid in general, with the slightly animist compulsions of a conservator.

I had stumbled into the paradox of value. Outside a collection, a doll is good or bad based on whether it’s fun to play with. Can you brush its hair? Bend the elbows? Does the leg fall off? However, once it’s part of a collection, the new meaning (or lack of meaning) unmoors the doll from its previous (sometimes nonexistent) value. It’s good or bad based either on the eye of the collector, or else the market-determined resale value to other collectors — the latter best indexed by what the last person who bought one paid, the last person being possibly you.

Previously, I had thought about value mostly in terms of prices, which I assumed were mostly rational. Here’s what the raw materials cost; add on money for the manufacturer, cost of shipping, and the need to keep the lights on at the store. Alternately, here’s this one-of-a-kind priceless thing that sold for millions of dollars because more than one person wanted it and they fought a money battle until one of them ran out.

Speculating on a doll’s future sentimental value to a stranger did not seem like an area where I was likely to excel. Sure, I could goose my odds by learning to like the things that auction prices implied other people looked for — say, French bisques from the 1800s — but that’s another way to say I could learn to devalue the things I already enjoyed.

I noticed that Franklin Mint ads in the backs of magazines tried to convince me I could have it both ways: buy this very pretty “heirloom” mass-produced princess doll, but pay four times as much as you would if you were buying it for yourself, because you’ll be able to sell it in ten years for profit…assuming someone in ten years wants to buy it. Which of course they will, because it’s pretty! And expensive!

Since dolls weren’t regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, they didn’t have to follow public disclosure rules like real investments. They didn’t have to mention that their high-value limited edition dolls were more like new cars that would drop in value the second they left the lot. I just checked to see if I could find an example. Here’s a 1985 ad for a Franklin Heirloom “Goldilocks” doll, complete with signed certificate of authenticity you can wave in the face of anyone who doubts its impeccable provenance. In case you missed the part where this is hand-painted, imported, and special, the order slip calls itself an application, just like banks use to decide whether you can be trusted with a loan. The doll is $60, payable in installments. Inflation-adjusted to 2016 dollars, that’s $134.77. Resale value in 2016, mint in box? $33.99.

Information asymmetry might not seem like the kind of thing a 10-year-old would rant about, but remember how this whole thing started: My dad was an auditor. One of my favorite non-doll toys was a scaled-down parodic Wall Street Journal that made a lot of sheep puns. I was starting to intuit my way around the field of information economics, and the ways unequal information shifts risk onto the less powerful.

One of my aunts was also a doll collector, and she was very much the target of these deceptive ads. Chronically ill, she’d been stretching a limited income for more years than I’d been alive, to the extent that we knew not to ask for snacks if we were at her condo; toward the end of some months, she might have to make a can of green beans last a few days. Yet she purchased Franklin Mint dolls a few times a year.

My aunt genuinely loved dolls. However, she also genuinely loved gospel music, and guitars, and her shelves did not proliferate with new albums or instruments. By using the language of investment, doll ads gave her permission to buy what she couldn’t afford. Even better, they promised she could take an asset about which she was constantly anxious (money) and store it in the form of something she found comforting (dolls). She sometimes had to resell them to buy medication. She never, to my knowledge, made back what she’d spent.

Accuracy of Beliefs About Adulthood:

In my kid-forecast version of the present:

  • Syria’s displaced professionals were welcomed wherever they chanced to flee, and Barack Obama was president of the United States.
  • Sectarian violence had all but disappeared thanks to international cooperation, and the E.U. existed.
  • The Internet put an end to disinformation, and countries like China, India, and Nigeria had a booming middle class.

If I want to be charitable to myself, I can claim that I’m right about the ultimate direction of history, but my international middle-class super team is battling a chorus of cynics who grow louder and more dissonant, and also climate change, and also global wealth which exploits asymmetries not dissimilar to what I discovered in doll ads. If I want to be really charitable to myself, I can congratulate me for the wise decision to go into science fiction, where I can be half wrong about the future but pretend it was meant to be a provocative allegory.

Things I didn’t predict as a kid, but was able to grasp very quickly:

  • moral hazard in the healthcare marketplace
  • the need for a consumer protection bureau
  • the collapse of Lehman Brothers

On a personal level, I continue to run with a pretty hyphenated crowd, people with some degree of two-ness, whether because they’ve spent a lot of time away from their countries of origin or because they belong to non-hegemonic subcultures. I gravitate toward insider-outsiders who move around a lot. Depending on who’s at the Antarctic research station, I sometimes have pals on every continent. It makes it hard to plan parties. There is next to no chance I will ever be in a room with all my closest friends simultaneously.

I hate “buy gold” commercials like Superman hates kryptonite. I have a bone-deep suspicion of any “investment” that relies on an unchanging physical object increasing in value over time. This has kept me out of the property market. Robert Shiller agrees with me.

What about you, Billfolders? Have you bought anything for love that resold for a lot of money?

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. She has a bachelor of science in Economics.

Previously:

My Life in Collections: Mussel Shells, Age 3

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