The market for toys, bears, and dolls, like most markets, is first and foremost driven by demand and popularity. While some items are more consistently popular than others, timing, general desire, the economic climate, and the media all play a part in determining the price of an antique toy, bear, or doll.
“Doll and toy collecting seemed to reach a high in the 1990s and yet today we see the dollar volume of dolls, bears, and toys on a level path,” says Mark Harris of McMasters Harris Apple Tree Doll Auctions. “What has changed dramatically is the amount of dolls, toys, and bears being sold.”
In 2014, mechanical banks, transportation-related toys like trains and cars, and tin windup toys were highly sought after, while vintage board games made a comeback in 2015, especially when they are tied to a popular movie or TV show.
While these antiques are appealing as investments to some, it’s generally the case that the market is more saturated with collectors motivated by nostalgia and personal interest. There is an opportunity to see a great return, but it takes an experienced collector and expert timing.
“Dolls, toys, and bears are a category of collecting that seems to have more of an emotional tug than some other categories. We see people making more emotional decisions in these categories, and either buying what they love, or buying what they wished for as a child,” says Harris.
Types of Antique Dolls, Bears, and Toys
While most antique dolls were originally meant to function as regular toys, some dolls have always been considered collector’s items, as their makers meant for them to only be put on display. Collectors gravitate to dolls that originate from around the world, including Europe, America, and Asia, where doll making has a rich history.
“Fine French dolls and German character dolls continue to be the shining stars of the collecting world,” notes Harris.
Dolls have existed since the 21st century BC, but production has increased exponentially in the past few centuries. Some of the earliest dolls of the 19th century Industrial era were made out of cloth and glazed or unglazed porcelain, which soon evolved to include celluloid and plastic in the 1940s.
The early 20th century marked a boom in doll manufacturers and their prized products, including Ideal’s Shirley Temple dolls, Vogue’s Ginny dolls, and Mattel’s Barbie dolls. These dolls were pushed as symbols of hope and happiness during the dark years of the Great Depression. Shirley Temple dolls were sold for a then-steep price of $3 each.
Popular doll types and materials include:
- Bisque dolls: One category of porcelain dolls, these dolls are made of unglazed porcelain to which color is added before firing.
- China dolls: Unlike bisque dolls, china dolls are made from glazed white porcelain and were made popular in 18th century Europe.
- Cloth dolls: These dolls, often referred to as “rag dolls” because they are made from scraps of fabric, have probably been around for as long as cloth has been woven into clothing. They were mass-produced for the first time in the mid-19th century in America and England.
- Composition dolls: Created from a material made of mixed glue and sawdust, German doll makers invented the so-called “composition” doll in the 1850s.
- Paper dolls: Paper dolls are flat drawings or printings of human or animal figures, which can then be cut out and ornamented.
- Wooden dolls: Early wooden dolls are also known as Queen Anne dolls, despite the fact that most of them were made before and after her reign, between 1680 and the early 1800s.
Teddy bears are relatively new in terms of toys and are aptly named after their origin. In November of 1902, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt did not make a kill on a hunting trip, so his colleagues caught and tied up a bear cub for him to shoot. However, the President protested: “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.”
This story was then turned into a newspaper cartoon, and soon after, Brooklyn store owners Morris and Rose Michtom created a stuffed bear doll and named it “Teddy’s Bear,” displayed in the shop window along with the cartoon. It was a hit and allowed the store owners to found Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.
Vintage teddy bears were commonly made with wool mohair while silk plush bears appeared in the 1930s. Cotton plush and other synthetic materials were used after World War II.
Popular teddies and manufacturers include:
- Steiff: This teddy bear company was created in 1903 by German designer Richard Steiff. These bears have a trademark button in their ear.
- Chad Valley: This British company began making their teddies before WWI and was sold to Pallitoy in 1978.
- Chiltern: One of the first companies to bring teddy bears to the U.K. from Germany. They called their product “Master Teddy,” and their Hugmee line was their most successful.
- Hermann, Schreyer & Co (Schuco): Founded in 1912, Schuco was a German manufacturer that specialized in mechanical teddy bears. Their most famous product was their Yes/No bear, whose head could shake “yes” or “no.”
- Farnell: Farnell is thought to be the first company to make a British teddy bear. Winnie the Pooh was modeled after a Farnell bear, which belonged to the real-life Christopher Robin.
- Merrythought: Founded in 1930, Merrythought continues to manufacture their distinct wide-ear teddy bears to this day.
- Pedigree: Pedigree was once the largest teddy bear factory in the world after they began manufacturing them in 1931. They were known for their quality given that they were hand-finished and checked before hitting the market.
Toys aren’t just for children, especially when it comes to collecting. The toys category encompasses an extensive list of objects and equally detailed history. Like dolls and bears, evidence of their use as toys doesn’t always negatively impact their value. Popular types and categories include:
The earliest efforts to make toys more interactive resulted in pull toys, which are powered by the user and are usually on wheels. Innovators continued to propel the industry forward with advances in mechanics and electronics, resulting in the types of automata we have today. Types of moving toys include battery operated, friction, pull, and wind-up.
Tinplate was used in toy manufacturing during the 20th century as a less expensive and more durable alternative to wood until WWII, when resources were needed for the war effort. Popular types of tin toys include vehicles and robots.
- G.I. Joe: In 1963, Hasbro introduced these military-themed, accessory-clad action figures for boys, recognizing its competitor Mattel’s success with Barbie dolls for girls. The WWII term G.I. Joe was used to describe a typical serviceman, the “Government-Issue Joe.”
- Star Wars: Since the film’s first release in 1977, the Star Wars franchise has sold billions of dollars of merchandise including toys, books, video games and more. In 1978 the Kenner toy company signed a license to produce the first Star Wars action figures and launched the original class of characters, making Star Wars memorabilia from the first three films highly valuable.
- Lincoln Logs: Lincoln Logs were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright. Their architecture was based on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, as Wright was working in Japan with his father, Frank Lloyd Wright, at the time. Interlocking beams made the building “earthquake-proof.”
- LEGOs: The LEGO Group’s history of making toys dates back as early as 1932. Its most famous and widely known product was first called “Automatic Binding Bricks,” modeled after the UK’s Kiddicraft Self-Locking bricks.
- Model train sets: The earliest toy and model train sets are traced back as early as the 19th century, which saw versions made of cast iron.
- Matchbox cars: Brought on the toy scene in 1853 by Lesney Products, this product was named after packaging, which resembled that of boxes of matches (designed for the maker’s daughter, whose school only allowed toys that could fit inside a matchbox). The company introduced its car line to compete with Hot Wheels.
Fast Food Toys
- Burger King Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: As a way to capitalize on the trend of fast food toys, BK tapped into the popularity of the TMNT franchise in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s.
Games and Gaming Systems
- Board Games: Games resembling the board games we know and love today have been played throughout history and throughout the world, including some of the earliest civilizations. A game known as Senet is one of the oldest known board games, popularized in ancient Egypt.
- Atari Video Games: The 2600 console was released by the company in 1977 by Atari, Inc., and was credited as being the next generation of video games at the time thanks to its innovative engineering.
- Nintendo: Originally a card company, they broke into the electronics industry with video games in 1974. Success didn’t come until 1979 when they began to produce a handheld video game.
“Mid-century toys are hotter than ever, with more and more people trying to buy back their childhood memories,” says Sam Schnaidt, President and Founder of Apple Tree Auction Center. Some of the hot brands, he said, include Smith-Miller and Structo, and the Japanese friction or wind-up toys are a hot category. “These toys have such vibrant graphics and can often be found with original boxes, which increases their value.”
What Makes Antique Dolls, Bears, and Toys Worth Buying
Like almost every other kind of vintage or antique item, mint condition — original intact finish, repair-free, with all accessories and original packaging — often yields the highest price. However, it’s very difficult to find toys in mint condition, and that isn’t always the most important factor to some collectors, depending on their motivations.
The same is true with dolls and teddy bears. Antique dolls are rarely discovered with their original clothing and often have minor imperfections.
“Doll collectors have their sights set on quality as opposed to quantity,” says Harris.
Teddy bear owners have often had to repair their bears throughout the years. It’s not unusual to find a teddy bear with replaced paw pads or eyes, for example. This doesn’t detract from the value much depending on the degree of damage, except in the cases of improper restorations, which can reduce a toy’s value by half.
For dolls, bears, and toys that show signs of normal or even extensive wear, rarity can often tip the scales back in favor of a higher price point. In fact, experts often say that the scarcer the toy, bear, or doll, the more tolerant collectors may be of factors like damage and restorations. Toys linked to their time, but not heavily promoted, are some of the most sought after.
Contrary to what many may believe, the more an item was mass produced, the less likely it is to be in as high demand as lesser known toys, bears, and dolls.
While some seek the earliest editions of toys, teddy bears, and dolls, age is often less important than the specific maker or manufacturer. For example, Steiff teddy bears are some of the most sought after while toy and board game makers like Ideal, Marvel, Johnny Quest, and Fisher Price often demand top dollar.
Building Your Toys, Dolls or Bears Collection
In general, this area of collecting is highly driven by less measurable or predictable factors due to nostalgia of collectors and media influence. Rather than making an investment, many collectors in this area are driven by a love for a specific kind of toy, teddy bear, or doll.
To help you focus your collection, here are a few things to consider:
Many experienced collectors focus on a specialized area such as particular materials such as wood, tinplate, or cast iron; themes such as banks, trains, cars, or pull toys; or type of operation such as friction, spring, clockwork, or battery. For beginner collectors, some kind of direction like this is a great start. Think about your personal preferences first. What did you love as a child? What do you love as an adult?
Space and Lifestyle
Planning space for collection goes hand in hand with how you will plan to use or enjoy your new collection. Do you have an appropriate area to put a collection of teddy bears or dolls on display? What about a safe room to set up model trains? The last thing you want to do is to pack your items away never to be seen or enjoyed.
In addition, ask yourself if you are prepared to take care of them properly. Do your research into the kinds of restorations that your toys, bears, or dolls may require and make sure you are ready for the commitment so that your money doesn’t go to waste. If you don’t have a lot of space, small items including bell toys, soldiers, or tops can be very rewarding. Or, maybe you’re simply interested in only collecting a handful of rare dolls or teddy bears that would only require one shelf.
In terms of expense, very few collectors have the money to spend on highly competitive collection areas, like mechanical banks and automata. Some newer, more affordable categories include small metal toys, educational toys, and some board games.
Budget-friendly dolls include those that have been visibly worn or are without their original clothes. If you can sew, this can be even more enjoyable of a project or endeavor, but it’s important to note that replacement parts can be expensive.
Tips for Buying Collectible Toys on a Budget:
- Exhibit self-control: Make sure you are aware of all your purchasing options, but allow yourself to choose only one doll, bear, or toy – the best one.
- Shop in the past: Consider investing in a manufacturer’s previous year’s model or edition, given that the latest version will likely be the most expensive and difficult to find.
- Invest in the best: When it comes to tangible goods, your best bet – even if more pricey at first – is to go with the highest quality you can find and afford. This way, you know your item will be up to the task of lasting for a lifetime both in condition and value.
- Go online: While traditional sellers and shops can be a great way to comparison shop, online venues are very useful in finding good deals you wouldn’t encounter otherwise.
Fakes are an issue to be aware of for toys, bears, and dolls. While some reproductions may be respected and valuable in their own right, deliberate mocks are not.
Fake teddy bears try to mimic the elements of true vintage teddy bears, such as long arms, back humps, and straw stuffing, but there are clear mistakes that a knowledgeable expert can identify. The same is true with toys and dolls. Therefore, it’s important to do both your own research and enlist the help of an expert before making a purchase so you can buy with confidence. When making a substantial investment, it’s a good idea to get a written statement from the seller that guarantees the toy, bear, or doll is as they have claimed.
Buying Dolls, Bears & Toys Online
Buying dolls, bears, and toys from an online auction or dealer is a very different experience than in a retail store. The following are some tips to help you safely and confidently navigate an auction.
- Research the reputation: Is the auction house or dealer trustworthy and positively reviewed? What about individual sellers? Do not buy from a seller with a history of unsatisfied customers.
- Set a limit: If participating in an online auction, before you bid, make sure you have set a budget for yourself to avoid getting caught up in the auction’s exciting energy.
- Know the retail price: Survey the market and compare prices of similar pieces to help prevent overbidding.
- Verify: Check to see if there is a certificate of authenticity offered by the seller, or ask for additional photos.
- Know the terms and conditions: Make sure you understand the auction house or dealer’s terms and conditions of sale. Is there a possibility of recourse if you learn that your purchase is in some way inauthentic?
“If you’re bidding in an auction, select 10 items to bid on so the pressure is off to win your favorite. If the first four go uncomfortably high, let them go. There will be six more opportunities right around the corner!” says Harris.