Barbie Mania Collectors are happy she's never played hard to get

August 22, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Compiled from Mattel statistics by Linell Smith Quick! Name Barbie's ranch horses! STAFF WRITER

Ah, Barbie: The 20th century's signature doll. Just under 12 inches tall, equipped withthe mythic porportions of 36-19-35, Barbie will celebrate her 35th birthday next March. En Route, she has perhaps attracted more attention and more analysis than any other toy in recent memory.

This week, 600 Barbie collectors from Europe, Japan, Australia and the Unied States will gather at the Hyatt Hotel in Baltimore to enjoy Barbie's annual convention. Titled "You've Come A Long Way, Barbie," The four-day event will offer fashion competitions, lectures by Mattel designers, a parade of collectors modeling human-sized Barbie fashions and a slew of dealers selling vintage Barbies for as high as several thousand dollars each.

Barbie has proven to be one of the most successful toys of all time: More than 700 million Barbie dolls and her family members have been sold since 1959. The typical American girl now oens an average of eight Barbie dolls, according to Mattel Toys. It's a statistic that rankles feminists, who say that Barbie has created impossible physical standards for women, and moralists, who think the doll represents the untimate Material Girl.

But wherever you stand on the subject of Barbie, one thing is certain: A lot of people take this doll seriously. Sometimes too seriously, says 41-year-old convention chairman and collector Mark Ouellette.

"Barbie started out as an innocent play-toy for kids. The media and other public watchdogs have put controversy on her from the beginning, whether it be for her physique or for her supposed lack of being a good role model. I don't think a doll should be a role model," he says.

That's essentially what he and his Barbie-collecting colleague Linda Mason told a group of Barbie-phobes recently when they appeared on the "Phil Donahue Show" to discuss their collecting hobby.

"Barbie is a miniature mannequin," Ms. Mason says. "When she was made, the concept was a paper doll in 3-D. If you look at the earlier paper dolls, like Rita Hayworth, they had adult figures, too

. . . Barbie is all about fashion."

A good investment

She's all about money, too. For some collectors, investing in Mondo Barbie has become more reliable than many money market funds.

Ms. Mason, 39, who recently pared down her Barbie collection to pay for graduate school, says a vintage Barbie she bought 12 years ago for $40 now sells for $500.

A pristine early set of Barbie paper dolls, originally 29 cents, now brings $100.

A No. 1 1959 Barbie, still in its box, brings more than $4,000. It originally sold for $3.

It's not unusual for serious Barbie collectors -- those with dolls and fashions dating back to 1959 -- to have insured collections worth $100,000 says Mr. Ouellette.

"I think people are most amazed about Barbie collectors when they start to realize that we're not a group of adults sitting around and playing with our dolls," says Mr. Ouellette. "I look at it first as a pleasurable hobby, but I'm also being very cognizant of the fact that I have a major investment here."

A commercial and interior designer for Urban Country in Bethesda, Mr. Ouellette is president of the Baltimore Barbie Doll Collector Club of Maryland, the 15-member group sponsoring the convention. BBC members meet every month to share collecting tips, make clothes and accessories and to fashion doll hair. Sometimes a session will focus on such "sub-collectible" fields as Barbie paper dolls or Barbie Viewmasters.

A recent program, for instance, acquainted collectors with those accessories most likely to have disappeared into the vacuum cleaners of the '60s.

"One of the rarest is the tiny brass compact with the powder puff that came with the 1959 Roman Holiday outfit," Mr. Ouellette says. "That set also came with tiny sunglasses and a tiny pink sunglasses case. But if someone was cleaning the house at the time and came across these, they'd probably just vacuum them up or say, 'What's this?' and throw them away."

Most things about Barbie, after all, have been replaceable: This doll has had more than her share of cars, boats, condos, dream houses, swimming pools, horses . . . weddings.

Becky Asher, BBC president-elect, sports a necklace with a stunning Barbie accessory: A solid gold high-heeled mule. A Barbie fanatic for almost 10 years, she remembers that her first grown-up Barbie buy was a senior prom dress, a blue and green '60s number; she bought the doll later. Mrs. Asher figures her Arnold home holds about 500 or 600 Barbies.

"It's a little embarrassing, so we don't count," says her husband Tom, who runs Eurotoys, a business for toy collectors.

Some collectors don't mind counting, however. Anna and Marie Cluster of Glen Burnie figure they own at least 1,000 dolls. Ruth Cronk, vice-president of the convention's national steering committee, owns about 5,000 Barbies; now she collects red-heads exclusively.

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