|By Kathy McKimmie
When Barbie was unveiled at the annual New York Toy Fair in 1959, she was looked upon with both curiosity and skepticism.
After all, she was a far cry from cuddly baby dolls that were hot commodities at the time. Nevertheless, the buyers bought and some 351,000 were sold the first year, helped along by some savvy television ads aired during the Mickey Mouse Club. Some mothers were aghast at the doll’s shapeliness and her, um … breasts, and perhaps by her too-arched eyebrows. The shapeliness stayed and became her trademark. But the eyebrows were brought down a notch the next year, making the first two issues all that much more recognizable today – along with the holes in the feet of the first Barbie only.
Barbie’s legendary success made Mattel a household name overnight. She was the brainchild of Mattel’s co-founder Ruth Handler and named for her daughter. The staying power of Barbie around the world was due to Mattel’s ability to change with the times, and times were about to get tumultuous in the ’60s. Barbie’s always-stylish clothes along with her hairdos and careers continued to evolve. Forty-eight years later, she’s still a child’s plaything, but also a collector’s nostalgic favorite.
"I have always loved Barbies from the first moment I saw a TV commercial back in 1959," said Faye Smith, avid collector and president of Central Wisconsin Fashion Doll Collectors. She wanted one desperately, but was told they were too expensive at $1.98. "So I never had a real Barbie. A school classmate of mine gave me a clone doll, a Barbie wanna-be called Annette for my seventh birthday in 1961." Eventually, she got a Ken, Midge, Skipper and a bend-leg Francie, which she stored away in their original boxes. Then, during a 1983 trip to Toys R Us with her husband Dennis, she bemoaned the fact that she never had a Barbie. He encouraged her to buy one. Is he sorry for those words, considering the cardiac nurse from Fond du Lac, Wis., now has more than 2,000 Barbies, friends and clones? "Oh no," she said. "He is just awesome; he’s so supportive." He even attends Barbie conventions with her.
Smith’s most valuable Barbie is a no. 1 blonde from 1959, which she values at about $8,000. Her favorite though, is a no. 3 brunette Barbie with bright red lips valued at about $800 to $1,000. The numbering system for the first half-dozen ponytailed Barbies was an attempt by early collectors to distinguish the similar-looking dolls. To Mattel, they were all model 850s.
In order to fetch the highest prices for the first Barbies, dolls must have the original box, stand, swimsuit, wrist tag, black open-toed shoes and white sunglasses. "Without these extras you drop the value by more than half," said Smith. Few wristbands survive, though. "Little girls took them off right away."
If you haven’t discovered youtube.com, you’ll want to visit and search for Barbie TV commercials, uploaded by Barbie fans. One, purported to be the first from 1959, shows Barbie "dressed for sun and fun." It says she’s priced $3 (although from the price tags on vintage boxes, many were discounted), with "lovely fashions" priced from $1 to $5. Other commercials include her first meeting with Ken in 1961, Malibu Barbie in Barbie’s Country Camper in 1971, and Superstar Barbie in 1976.
A collection of 4,000 Barbie dolls, dating between 1959 and 2002, thought to be the world’s largest, sold in September 2006 at Christie’s London, described generally as "untouched and in perfect condition." A total of 422 lots sold, bringing in $211,000, 11 percent above estimates. Several pieces soared beyond expectation, more for the rare outfits than the dolls it seems. The top seller, wearing a rare Japanese market "Midnight Red" outfit, 1965, sold for $17,091, including premium, 15 times its high estimate. Christie’s said it was a world auction record for a Barbie doll. Some average Joe Barbies though, sold cheaply. A lot of 40, for instance, sold for less than a dollar each.
Sandi Holder, of Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic, Union City, Calif., offers vintage Barbie items online and at shows and conducts two Barbie auctions a year via a printed catalog. She also claims the world’s highest priced Barbie doll sold at auction, a no. 1 "Blonde dressed box ponytail in pristine condition, never removed from the box," for $25,700 in May 2005. She does not charge a premium. At her latest auction in May 2007, she sold 350 lots including a no. 1 brunette ponytail for $9,250; a Sears mink stole for $4,631, a German swirl ponytail for $4,500; an ash blonde side-part American Girl for $2,413; a blonde out-of-box no. 1 ponytail for $5,159; a dressed box store display TNT Barbie for $7,706; and a platinum swirl in box for $2,940.
You could spend a lifetime learning the nuances of Barbie collecting, and aficionados have a lot of lingo. There are the body styles – like solid, hollow, bendable legs; the hairstyles including ponytails (of course), bubble cuts (bouffant) – with and without parts, beehives, and Dutch boys on the American Girl, and more; and of course thousands and thousands of outfits. The first three editions of Barbie had a solid body and the skin tone can fade to almost white, says Smith. "The no. 4 Barbie had a solid body, but doesn’t seem to fade with age as the previous three did. She was known as a transition doll."
The no. 5 in 1961 started the hollow body and may have a "greasy face." "This can sometimes mean that the vinyl is deteriorating," said Smith. "I clean these faces with a mild dish soap and then put baby powder on to help preserve them." A more dreaded vintage Barbie malady significantly impacting value is "green ear," occurring when the brass of the earrings reacts with the vinyl. "This can be corrected, but it is a long drawn-out process, which can take up to six months to clear up."
Smith says collectors should be aware that starting with the Twist ’N Turn (TNT) Barbies from 1966, all Barbies are marked 1966 on the back, the copyright date of the body. "Often I see in antique malls and on eBay newer Barbies marked ’1966 Barbie’ on the seller’s tag with a very high price. Collectors must educate themselves." She recommends The Ultimate Barbie Doll Book by Marcie Melillo, Krause Publications, to study body markings and facial paint. This book mentions that the doll is usually a year later than the date on the box. She also suggests the three Barbie Fashion books by Sarah Sink Eames, Collector Books, on vintage clothing.
Joe Blitman, Los Angeles, caught the Barbie bug in 1987 when a comedienne friend gave him a Barbie coffee-table book as a joke. "The pictures struck a nerve," he said. "I’ve always like pop culture, miniatures and fashion. Barbie was a combo of all three, and I began to collect the next day." He has been selling since 1989 at shows and Barbie conventions, and more recently online. He has nearly 500 Barbies in his personal collection and thousands of Barbie and related items in his online inventory. His highest priced Barbie sale was $12,000 Barbie for a no. 1 blonde. He is the author of two books, Francie and Her Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World of Fashion, and Barbie and Her Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World of Fashion 1976-1972, both from Hobby Horse Press, 1996.