Karen Keast cuddles in her lap, Eddie, her most expensive doll ever. Keast explains that the previous owner, Ed, was ill and needed to raise money for his healthcare. Paying $2,000 (for a doll valued at $6,000) and naming the doll after Ed, Keast says Eddie joined about 400 other dolls in her home. Friends claim she has a thousand dolls. Chris Chance says, “I gave her my grandmother’s doll. The number of dolls that I saw in her living room alone overwhelmed me. I must have been looking at 200 eyes that were also looking at me!”
Regardless of the count, antique dolls of every imaginable kind decorate every nook and cranny, every cabinet, every sofa and mantle. The doll hospital on the dining room table holds repair parts and broken dolls, who wait patiently for Keast’s tender loving care and talent. Chance’s grandmother’s doll awaits new matching legs because a dog chewed them off.
“The dolls are a constant maintenance responsibility. I’m just the caregiver until they will be passed on to someone else. It’s like an orphanage here,” Keast says. Keast has three adult children, one of whom is expressing some interest in some of the dolls.
Stroking Eddie’s hair, Keast reads aloud his provenance, a biography of the doll’s ownership. The history before Ed goes way back. Out from the folded history paper falls Ed’s yellowed newspaper obituary. Keast says she sewed Eddie new clothes, which she does fairly often for others desperately in need. Some of the dolls even wear family heirloom clothes that were worn by Keast when she was a child.
“When I was growing up, I had a friend who always got dolls. I was jealous. I also wanted dolls and got them. In 1965, when my daughter Kristie was young, I bought a $17 Madame Alexander doll… and I had to put it on layaway,” Keast reminisces. Keast carefully displays Kristie’s collection of Madame Alexander Dolls of the World. After Krisitie passed away at age 13 from illness, Keast says she continued to collect dolls. And what of that layaway doll?
“My granddaughter now plays with Victoria! My daughter Laurie and I just discussed passing down Victoria yesterday.” Keast says. Victoria stays in a doll crib in an upstairs bedroom, drenched in sunlight, decorated with doll art and home to many more dolls. Although Keast does not actively collect dollhouse miniatures, a very large dollhouse in this bedroom is off limits until the grandchildren are six and can play with its contents properly.
The whimsical appeal of Keast and her charming home belie her business savvy. “By word of mouth I learned of a doll collection filling a home in North Carolina. You couldn’t walk. Dolls everywhere. I ended up buying the whole collection and had to clean out the whole house. I’m partial to antique German and French porcelain dolls. I called an auction house for some of the other dolls and sold others on eBay,” Keast says. She estimates that she came close to breaking even — spending nearly nothing — for expanding her collection so dramatically. “I wheel and deal. Antiques. Real estate. Dolls. I worked in accounting in all my jobs. My math teachers would be surprised to know how gifted I became with numbers. I’ve been blessed.”
Keast says that because of Barbie dolls and American Girl Dolls, “girls aren’t learning to be mommies to doll babies anymore.” When she makes presentations to groups of school children, Keast says the reluctant boys are fascinated to discover that men made nearly all the antique German and French dolls. Despite what might appear to be a gender divide, Keast says quite a few men are involved with doll collections. She meets them at local doll clubs, at auctions and annual conventions of the United Federation of Doll Clubs of America. Keast shows a blue-ribbon winner from one of those conventions: a cloth Ghandi doll with realistic glasses. Keast estimates that her oldest doll is a 150-year-old penny wooden doll.
According to Keast, the best way for readers to determine potential value of dolls they have stashed away is to look on eBay for similar items that have sold. Many valuable dolls often have informative mold numbers and marks on the back of the head. Higher quality porcelain doll heads have a shiny or oily look as opposed to a matte finish. Keast adds, “And what’s really a sign of high value? A closed mouth instead of an open mouth!”
Eddie, of course, has a closed mouth.
TO THE POINT:
Karen Keast, Doll Collector