The doctor in the dollhouse

An avid collector of half-dolls repairs them in her home `hospital'

November 19, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Susan Sullivan picked up a doll head from a desk in the basement of her Carroll County home and sanded an area on the face that she had filled with Apoxie Sculpt, a self-hardening repair compound.

"This doll had a crack above the eye," Sullivan said, dusting some of the debris from the sanding pad. "Once I've finished sanding it, I'll paint it with an airbrush."

The doll is one of many that Sullivan, a certified doll doctor since 2004, repairs in her home-based "doll hospital."

Her desire to repair dolls resulted from her fascination with dolls that were not in perfect condition, she said.

"I'm attracted to dolls that are not beautiful," said Sullivan, who is a special education teacher in the county schools. "I look for the ones with their arms hanging down or with messy hair. Then I bring them back to their original beauty."

In addition to repairing dolls, Sullivan collects them.

Over the past 20 years, she's amassed more than 600 dolls that she displays in curio cabinets in a bedroom, including about 375 porcelain half-dolls - part of a human or animal form that includes the head - and about 225 full-size dolls.

Sullivan received her first full-size doll at the age of 13 as a Christmas gift from her mother. The doll is a large porcelain one (about 2 feet tall), manufactured in 1900 in Germany by Heinrich Handwerck, and Simon & Halbig.

But Sullivan didn't care much for the doll or her size, she said.

"She was sitting beside the Christmas tree, and I was surprised at how big she was," Sullivan said. "I didn't like her very much at first."

Although her mother continued to buy her dolls, Sullivan didn't begin collecting them until 1986.

Initially, it was half-dolls that caught her attention. Some half-dolls are just the head of the doll, while others have the head and shoulders.

Sullivan bought her first one and was hooked. After that, she began frequently perusing antique shops, flea markets, antique malls, gift shops and shows for the half-dolls.

She became acquainted with Marc and Shona Lorrin, authors of several books about half-dolls. The Lorrins' books taught Sullivan about the dolls, including their evolution.

"The half-doll - pincushion doll, tea doll, et cetera - evolved from the earlier doll pincushion when full-figured bisque dolls either had their legs broken off or had them obscured by inserting them into a pincushion," said Marc Lorrin, of Jenks, Okla.

Although originally made in Germany, and later Japan, the dolls were imported to the United States.

It's easy to tell which was manufactured where, Sullivan said.

"The ones made in Germany have a lot more detail," she said.

The half-dolls are 1 inch to 8 inches tall and range in value from $2 to about $8,000. The dolls were made between 1900 and 1920 and are hand-painted.

"There are no two dolls that are exactly the same because each one is painted separately," said Sullivan, whose favorites are the dolls from the 1920s with the flapper attire. "That's what makes them so unique."

The paint isn't the only thing that distinguishes the porcelain figures. Unlike many dolls, they were never intended as toys. Rather, they were used on the end of brush handles, on top of pincushions, on tea cosies, on lingerie bags, as souvenirs and for party favors, although most of them weren't attached to anything, Sullivan said.

Reproductions are causing problems now, Marc Lorrin said.

"Since the reunification of Germany, old molds have come to light," he said. "These molds have fallen into the hands of people now making reproductions. Sometimes these new items are sold as reproductions and sometimes not. It can be a problem for new collectors, but an experienced eye can tell the difference."

The value of the originals continues to increase, he said.

Sullivan said she has found a way to overcome the cost - buying them in less than mint condition. And this led to her desire to learn how to fix them.

In 2004, Sullivan enrolled in the G&M Doll Restoration Seminars - presented by JoAnn Mathias, who founded the program in 1997.

The program runs for four days at a doll hospital in Virginia Beach, Va., and costs about $1,500. Sessions include doll restoration, color matching of paints, rebuilding toes and fingers, and stringing dolls.

Now Sullivan attends auctions where she purchases boxes of doll parts and keeps them in plastic bins in the basement until she needs them.

"People contact JoAnn at G&M, and she has people contact the doll doctor nearest to them," Sullivan said. "When I receive the doll, I repair it and send it back. It's as simple as that."

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