NEW YORK -- Larry Reed still remembers that trip to the flea market more than 15 years ago when their eyes locked. He knew that smiling face had seen better days, and he was the man who could bring the good times back. On that fateful day, Reed bought his first bobbing-head doll.
"Somebody had painted it with enamel paint," he remembers, describing the 8-inch-tall Cleveland Browns football player. "So I just started chipping it off with my fingernails."
He carefully filled in the fractured face with plaster and refreshed the original paint with a perfectly matched hue. And so began the career of the "Bobbin' Doctor."
Reed, 57, has been restoring the collectible ceramic and papier-mache dolls (also known as bobble heads or nodders) at his home in Etna Green, Ind., ever since, earning a reputation among collectors as a master of plaster.
"I try to tell people not to give my name out, because I'm already swamped," says Reed, who once had "BOB-N-DR" license plates on his Corvette. "But you know how word of mouth is."
Reed is not the only person up to his ears in bobbing heads these days. With professional sports teams giving away customized player versions of the novelty dolls at games, a new crop of bobbing-head collectors has been popping up across the country. The new dolls have brought a fresh face to a hobby that has attracted a handful of devoted collectors for more than four decades, but vintage dolls are still the most cherished artifacts on the market.
Bobbing-head dolls, first manufactured in Japan in the 1950s and '60s, get their wiggle from their spring-mounted heads. They became valuable collectibles in the '80s and '90s, after many of the original dolls were thrown away, lost or broken.
The bobbing-head revival has strengthened the hobby, making it easier for younger fans to afford their own dolls. The new dolls, with slightly oversized caricature heads and pudgy, child-like bodies, are a hit with sports fans.
"The best word to describe them is 'cute,' " says Malcolm Alexander, president of Alexander Global Promotions, a Bellevue, Wash., company that helped start the most recent bobbing-head trend by making a Willie Mays doll for a 1999 San Francisco Giants game. To meet increasing demand, the Chinese factory that produces the hand-painted dolls for Alexander has grown from 150 employees to 4,500 in the past three years.
In 2001, Seattle saw signs of bobble-mania when Mariners fans camped outside the stadium to get in line for a free doll of their star outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki. The promotion has become a staple at professional sporting events, spreading from baseball to basketball, NASCAR and even Australian-rules football.
The newer bobbers have not made much of a splash in the collectibles market, though. Recently manufactured dolls on the online auction site eBay start at less than $10 and often remain on the block for days without a single bid.
Some fans of the new bobbing-head dolls have started shopping for the more expensive vintage dolls to increase the value of their collections. Tim Hunter, the author of the price guide Bobbing Head Dolls, 1960-2000, said that novice buyers need to be careful. He complimented the craftsmanship of restoration specialists like Reed, but also said that reconditioned dolls can be problematic in the hands of an unscrupulous seller.
"Most people are honest, but 90 percent of the collectors cannot tell the difference between repaired and mint condition," Hunter says, noting that mint dolls are much more valuable than reconditioned ones. "It's the biggest criminal scandal in the market."
Still, Reed takes pride in turning the cracked, yellowed nodding heads into the bright, smiling faces that they were when they first left the factory.
"It's delicate work, but I put them back exactly the way they were 40 years ago," Reed says. The vintage dolls, he says, will always be a cut above the newer generations. "Nobody has been able to duplicate the way they made them," Reed says. "They are unique."