A c.1740 English wooden doll, £22,000 at Special Auction Services.

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Austin Smith and his late partner Margaret Harkins began collecting in 1949 after they rescued a broken doll from a house contents sale in the West Country.

The collection was displayed in several rooms in their large house and was rarely seen by anyone but themselves. Not only were the rooms full of dolls, but there was also one dedicated to their automata.

Daniel Agnew, doll and teddy bear specialist at SAS, was blown away when he first saw the collection.

He said: “Austin has been poorly, so I was shown around by a relative. I was staggered by the first room which was full of the best antique dolls you could imagine, then shown a corridor full of wall-mounted cabinets of small dolls, then another room of dolls’ houses, a room of automata, then a further two rooms of dolls.”

At that point it was yet to be counted, but Agnew added that there must be “over 1000 dolls, and many smaller items too. Truly a collector’s dream.”

The 385 lots offered on February 22 racked up an auction total of £254,375 (with 24 unsold on the day) - a strong response from buyers and again underlining the strength of the dolls market.

Headline maker


A c.1740 English wooden doll, £22,000 at Special Auction Services (petticoat newspaper detail shown).

Best-seller was a c.1740 English wooden doll (pictured top) in an ornate yellow gown which carried an estimate of £8000-12,000 but took £22,000.

Her petticoat was made from a broadsheet newspaper which featured the murder of a young maid by her mistress and daughter. Elizabeth Branch (1673-1740) and her daughter Mary (1716-40) from Taunton, Somerset, were convicted of the beating to death of a servant-girl, Jane Buttersworth.


Peggy, an English wooden doll (c.1765) sold at £9500 at Special Auction Services.

The top-estimated lot was Peggy, an English wooden doll (c. 1765) who was expected to fetch £10,000- 15,000 but dipped just under estimate at £9500. Although legless, she wore her original clothes and was being sold with family provenance.

The doll came with a note in an envelope which is addressed to Peggy (and in recent hand 1765), the note reading: This article belonged to Mrs Douch, 7 Hill Street, Walworth, according to parlise been in the family near hundred and twenty years - 1846.

SAS noted that this takes the provenance back to 1726 but it is more likely that her fashion dates her near the mid-18th century. Peggy was sold originally at Sotheby’s to Kay Desmonde, author of Dolls, 100 Colour Photographs (1984), for £1250.


Mid-19th century shadowbox with two dolls, £7500 at Special Auction Services.

Another impressive lot going well above estimate was a rare mid-19th century shadowbox of a garden scene, featuring a central cardboard house decorated with foiled paper and cut windows with two china shoulder dolls’ house dolls.

Against a guide of £800-1200 it soared to £7500 The back wall of the display box, which measured 16½in (42cm) wide x 10½in (27cm) deep x 11in (28cm) high, featured an applied business promotional card for Hampton & Sons Cabinet Maker and Upholstery, a London shop.


Pierotti King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra c.1901, sold for £1700 at Special Auction Services.

Sold within estimate at £1700 was a Pierotti portrait pair of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in coronation robes, c.1901.

French highlights


Bru Breveté Bébé doll, £7000 at Special Auction Services.

Pick of the non-British dolls, going to the UK trade, was a rare small size - 13½in (34.5cm) high - Bru Breveté Bébé sold for £7000 (estimate £4000-6000).

The Bébés, French dolls of children, were very expensive when first made. Other highlights included a Schmitt et Fils Bébé sold for £4200 and a Gaultier boy Bébé that made £4000.


An 1850s Rohmer fashion doll, £5000 at Special Auction Services.

Fifty French fashion dolls (the 19th century predecessor of the Barbie doll) from the 1840s-70s were on offer. These bisque-headed dolls with women’s waisted bodies were designed to wear the up-to-date French fashion of the day and it is rare to see so many at auction, said SAS.

The saleroom added: “These would have been very expensive dolls in their day and their clothing is exquisite and their layers of underwear provides a real insight into what society women were wearing at this time. This group also includes a few dashing men, but these are just female dolls, dressed as men with bumps in all the wrong places.”

Estimates for this group ranged from £800-3000. A Pierre Victor Clement fashionable doll sold for £5500 and an 1850s Rohmer example at £5000.

A German KPM (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur) mid-19th century china boy doll realised £4000, five times the low estimate.

Grodnerthal marches on


A 19th century Grodnerthal British soldier doll, £3400 at Special Auction Services.

Another group featured early German wood dolls, known as Grodnerthal dolls as they were carved in the Grodner Thal (valley) in southern Germany/Italian mountains.

A rare large carved wooden doll with painted bodice trim, 1820s, sold for £3200 against a guide of £3000- 5000 but the biggest surprise was a rare 19th century Grodnerthal dolls’ house British soldier doll which was estimated at £300-400 but made £3400.