Babies are precious, especially on eBay

`Reborn' dolls have been popular on site

December 18, 2003|By Denise Flaim | Denise Flaim,NEWSDAY

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. - Snuggled in a Moses basket on Laura Henning's couch in Smithtown, Emily is an undeniably beautiful newborn. Wisps of dark hair frame the sleeping baby's face, her scrunched pout hinting of newly minted dreams.

She's just been sold on eBay for $575, and will soon leave the quilt-lined basket for a cardboard box, priority-mailed to her new "adoptive parents" in Indiana.

"Some people get very attached to them, like it's their own child," says Henning, a 31-year-old mother of three, adjusting Emily's magnetized pacifier. "I've had people say, `Give her a snuggle for me when you ship her.' "

Highly realistic dolls like Emily have a quasi-sci-fi, quasi-evangelical moniker - "reborns." Popularized on the sprawling eBay auction site, "reborning" has become a cyber cottage industry pioneered mostly by stay-at-home moms who see it as an avenue for artistic expression and extra income.

Most reborn dolls start life as cheap vinyl babies made by a German company named Berenguer, some of which sell in the Kmart toy aisle for as little as $20. But at the hands of self-taught artists such as Henning, they are disassembled and rebuilt in a transformation worthy of Michael Jackson: Hair and eyelashes are re-rooted with mohair or, sometimes, real human hair. Mouths and noses are spliced open, eyes replaced. Bodies are re-weighted with sand or kitty litter to replicate the heft of a real baby. Faces and limbs are tinted inside and out, then painted in countless layers to simulate the blush-suffused, vein-traced translucence of newborn skin. Then, the reassembled creation is given a name.

The end result is a doll so realistic that some newborn artists receive indignant e-mails, admonishing them for selling live children on eBay.

Nobody quite knows how "reborning" was born, says Dawn Marie Garma of Lupton, Mich., who has been creating these lifelike dolls for two years. "I think it started when someone took apart a Berenguer doll, colored it inside to give a lifelike tone," then sold her handiwork on eBay, she says. From there, it has snowballed into a tight-knit international online community. Reborners congregate on Web sites like Garma's www.angelicre, where they trade ideas and brainstorm.

In a corner of Henning's living room is a plastic storage container crammed with the tools of her trade: Pure acetone to strip off factory-issue paint. Tubes of oil-based paints. Marine glue to secure glass eyes. Stringable lettered beads for making ID bracelets.

Preemies are extremely popular, Henning explains, nodding in the direction of Autumn, a red-haired preemie who recently sold on eBay for $305. Details count, right down to the magnetic umbilical cord that attaches to Autumn's navel. Henning bought the plastic umbilical clamp that caps it from an online midwife-supply company.

"It's an evolving art - a year ago, we weren't sculpting faces or removing the molded hair," says Henning, whose purple living-room walls are covered with baby pictures of her three children. She has spent hours, she says, staring at her sleeping daughter, 2-year-old Izabella - for whom her Web site, www.bel lababies, is named - trying to capture the flush of a cheek, the curl of an eyelash.

"My husband never knows when he comes home if it's dinner or body parts in there," she continues, nodding in the direction of the convection oven. Once a doll's vinyl skin has been heated to the point where it is workable, Henning's oven-mitted hands manipulate the face into an expression she wants, then she plunges it into cold water to set.

For their part, reborning artists say their motivations are as individual and unique as the dolls themselves.

"Barbie and I share the same birthdate, but we don't look the same - her body is more proportionate than mine," jokes Monica Diggs, 44, of Conyers, Ga., a mother of two teen-age girls who co-owns a civil-rights consulting firm and teaches water aerobics in her spare time. "Growing up, there were not many African-American dolls that were attractive. I got into reborning with the purpose of offering very pretty babies of color."

Diggs sells her ethnic reborn dolls on her Web site, www.nap Her youngest daughter came up with a name for them: "She said, Why don't you call them Koffee Kids, because we come in so many colors?' "

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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