Valley of the dolls doctor
By Charles Culbertson
James Madison University Media Relations
Susan Mathias with DollAnyone who’s even nominally familiar with the cutthroat world of auction-going can attest to the mania that sometimes surrounds the selling of dolls. That’s right, dolls – those blinky-eyed, sometimes wailing and wetting toys most girls played with in their formative years.
Well, depending on type, style, age and condition, these former playthings can sell into the tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“That’s why, if you have a collectible or historic doll, it’s important to maintain a certain level of repair on it,” said Susan Mathias, capital outlay procurement manager in Facilities Planning and Construction. “This doesn’t mean a complete restoration, because that may not be the best thing in terms of value. But, over time, it will need to have certain repairs performed to keep it viable as a collectible.”
Mathias should know. Operating out of her home in Fulks Run, she has helped preserve dozens of stressed, broken, dirty, dismembered and disheveled dolls through her ShenValley Doll Hospital. Here, the patients range from antique German bisque heads and classic Madame Alexanders to dolls made of cloth, papier-mâché – even wooden pegs.
Mathias said her interest in the field was piqued three years ago when she took a class offered by her husband’s cousin, Joann Mathias, a 20-year veteran of doll repair, curator of the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C., and owner of G&M Doll Restoration. Through G&M, Mathias not only received standard and advanced certification as a “dollologist,” but a lasting passion for both repair and collecting.
Restoration, before and after”Doll doctors should be called doll restoration artists, as it takes a certain artistic ability to restore a doll to its former beauty but still maintain the integrity of the doll,” Mathias said. “My philosophy is to do as few repairs as necessary, but ensure that the doll will survive many more generations.”
She said she can, with attention to detail, perform a small repair such as replacing a missing finger while leaving the majority of the original paint on the hand intact. She can also effect larger repairs, but even with these, she strives for the minimalist approach.
“Most of the techniques and materials I use can be undone,” Mathias said. “For a purist collector, and there are many, only the most basic of repairs are acceptable. Often scuffs and small chips are left untouched. These imperfections can actually add to the value of the doll – showing its original state, wear and tear included.”
Other flaws, however, do not, and in these cases Mathias is skilled at reinforcing hairline cracks, rebuilding broken shoulder plates, repairing “crazed” or chipped composition dolls, resculpturing missing fingers and toes, making and setting sleep eyes, stringing, repairing leather and replacing or fixing wigs.
Mathias said one of the most rewarding jobs she performed was on a bisque (unglazed ceramic) doll with a large, moon-shaped chunk missing from its head. She re-formed the entire head, sanded, smoothed, texturized, painted and restored the doll so seamlessly that the repair was invisible except when viewed from the inside.
The most difficult task, she said, was that of recently restoring a missing hand on a 1950s Howdy Doody doll. Using the existing hand as a guide, she mixed up a fast-hardening polyester goop – not unlike that used to repair automobile bodies – and then began the laborious, weeks-long process of shaping, sanding, painting and attaching the hand to the doll.
“When I was finished, you couldn’t tell the original hand from the replaced one,” Mathias said. “It’s that kind of result that makes this type of work worthwhile.”
And then there’s the collecting aspect of it.
Susan and Collection”As is the case with many people, my tastes run far ahead of my pocketbook,” Mathias said with a laugh. “I always seem to run out of money before I run out of the things I want.”
But she pursues them, anyway, through auctions, shows and personal contacts, and said she has been able to amass a fairly sizable representation of dolls through the ages – with the exception of antique French dolls. Those, she noted, can sell for many thousands of dollars.
“Personally, I like papier-mâché dolls, and I have several that date to the 1860s and 1870s,” she noted. “I even have a doll made out of a wooden peg that I can date to the 1830s.
“These folk dolls have become very collectible and, I should add, expensive.”
Mathias said she is always seeking to increase her knowledge of dolls and doll repair, which is one reason she will embark next September on a 17-day tour of Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland with a group of aficionados.
The tour will take the group to doll factories old and new, museums, private collections and – the most exciting of all for Mathias – the dumping ground of an ancient doll factory in the former East Germany where the group will be allowed to perform some excavations.
“Plus,” she said, a gleam forming in her eye, “there’s going to be some shopping. I can predict right now that I’ll probably have a much heavier suitcase coming back than I will going over.”
Mathias noted that the doll industry is no longer the exclusive domain of women. One of her teachers at G&M Restoration was a man, and Mathias said she sees more and more men at doll shows and sales all over the East Coast.
“They’re increasingly into buying, selling, collecting and restoring them,” said Mathias. “This probably isn’t due as much to a natural love for dolls as it is for the profit margins that can be realized. But for whatever reason, it adds to the number of people who are helping preserve these treasures that were once just toys.”
Published in the December 2002 issue of “JMUniverse,” the faculty/staff publication of James Madison University.