Vintage View: Half-dolls

I won’t lie, and I have revealed myself before on this topic. I find dolls and overly cutesy human figurines deeply creepy. 

I expect them to blink behind that blinding glaze, skid by supernatural means across the shelf, and attack me by night in stiff-jointed gangs, their tiny balled little fists hammering me senseless.

I do however have a few legless, less threatening exceptions tucked into a drawer — one of my first buys in antique anything that was not furniture.

Half-dolls or demifigurines in bisque, porcelain, wood and wax turn up in display cases of jewellery and assorted luxurious smalls everywhere, and if you are on the wander in the coming weeks, trust me they are a common find at flea markets in France, Italy and Germany.

The half doll first appeared in the 18th century as an elegant accent for needlework, waisted into a stuffed skirt for pins and needles. In the 19th and the early 20th century (1920s-1930s) there was a huge revival in the market for the half doll, as they made ideal gifts from mothers to daughters, friend to friend, and could be finished as pin cushions, mere ornaments or used as covers, their skirts warming tea-pots say, or a powder box a on a lady’s table.

Most half-dolls have an hour-glass shape to the base, with holes to thread or wire her onto a costume. 

If she is marked, it will generally be impressed on the flare around her bustle area or just inside the torso. It may be a factory mark, it may simply be a registration mark. As your knowledge grows, the cut of the girl will indicate where and when she debuted to society.

Termed dolls, these are fragile objects, always intended for adults rather than children. The arms of the ladies are often extended at the elbow in an elegant gesture near the chest, or thrown fully out from the body holding a bloom. Damage, when it is there, is often to these extremities in chips or repairs.

You may find the doll completely and deliberately nude and bald (small wigs and clothes would sometimes have been made, modestly applied and even changed). There are rarer examples seated on an upholstered base, the skirts of the outfit spread around with ceramic matching lower legs arranged femininely. 

Some girls even turn up as lamps — uncomfortably close to the 70s loo roll ballgowns for my liking. Any surviving outfit is interesting to a collector, especially an original trousseau.

German makers such as Dressel & Kister, the firm of Kestner and (little surprise) F& W Goebel were especially skilled at delivering beautiful, delicate features to their half dolls in porcelain, and they compare well to similar full porcelain figures. Look out for racy flapper girls from the 20s, blousey Dutch hats and exquisitely formed French aristocrats foaming with lace at the bosom, with piled pompadour hairdos taken from famous paintings of celebrities and royalty of the 18th century.

Larger dolls in tinted bisque (rather than shiny glazes) with fully extended arms not held to the body at the elbow (termed-arms away) are generally the most expensive.

Their production was labour intensive, requiring parts to be put together before firing. Look out for a very pretty face with carefully painted feathery eyebrows, glowing cheeks, attention to detail in the finishing of the eyes, lips and any props such as flowers, hats ribbons and fans.

Expect the level of quality delivered by Dresden and Meissen. Really good eyes are ‘intaglio’— set back into the head for depth, attractive fashion and a lovely expression are key, and those ruby lips, perfectly pouted, should fascinate.

Flat faces with lumpy undistinguished features puddled in clear glaze, and little or no separation of the fingers is undesirable. Modern reproductions and outright fakes from the Far East are all over the market, but their lack of quality is easy to spot.

Insist on perfect condition and choose pieces with as few spots in the glaze and painting errors as possible. The most coveted half-doll is the ‘chocolate doll’ a range of figures by Goebel, depicting a waitress in a Vienna chocolate house holding a cup and saucer and chocolate pot on a tray. Ghastly.

American collectors love their half-dolls and millions found their way across the Atlantic. Some of the most gorgeous girls available from reputable US dealers are to be found at rubylane.com from around €80 for a smaller German period doll with closed arms. 

Shop carefully on Ebay which is crowded with lesser Japanese examples.


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